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Laos – Society and Culture

The Lao people as a whole are generally friendly people and anyone will have no problems interacting with them. However, those visiting the country should also note that Laos is a Buddhist country, and as guests, it is important to behave and dress respectfully.

Laos is home to a huge number of diverse ethnic groups, so it can be quite hard to generalise all in one article about society and culture. However, we can take into account the attitudes and behaviour of the dominant group — the “Lao Loum” or lowland Lao, who make up the majority of the locals living in the valleys of Mekong and its tributaries. Being mostly Theravada Buddhists, they have a strong set of culture, behaviour, and customs. So here are a few things you should know regarding Lao culture and customs.

Dress and general appearance

  • The Lao people give much importance to general appearance and pretty much dislike foreigners who they deem to dress inappropriately in their country.
  • Men should not appear shirtless in public, while women should not bare their shoulders or thighs in public.
  • Lao people in the lowlands also do not favour dreadlocks, tattoos, and body piercings. Although hill-tribe people can be more forgiving.
  • If you have dealings with Lao authorities such as Visa extensions or immigration matters, you should also be careful to not dress too casually or too outrageously.
  • In urban areas or when visiting Buddhist monasteries or holy sites, you should not wear outfits that are better suited in the beach. Hence, women should not wear clothing that expose too much skin or anything that can be considered as too provocative, which includes shorts and sleeveless shirts.
  • Sandals or flip flops are acceptable almost anytime, anywhere, except for formal occasions. In fact, sandals and flip flops are recommended as they can be easily removed, which is a must especially when entering certain Buddhist monastery buildings, private homes, or any living space.
  • Also note that you should always leave your footwear outside as the threshold. Aside from keeping the interiors clean, this practice is a long-standing tradition that might cause offence if not observed.

Manners or social taboos 

  • Feet are considered low and unclean — so be wary and do not step over any part of people who might be sitting or lying on the floor, as doing so is considered rude. If you have accidentally done so, apologise immediately and smile while doing so.
  • On the other hand, people’s heads are sacred and should not be touched.
  • When visiting Buddhist monasteries, always remove your footwear when invited into the monks’ living quarters or when entering buildings such as the sim or wihan. Women should refrain from touching Buddhist monks or novices and their clothes, nor directly hand objects to them. If you need to give something to the monk, place the object on a nearby table or pass it to a layman who will then pass it to the monk.
  • Respect all Buddha images as they are all objects of veneration. This means that you should never touch Buddha images in an inappropriate manner and never point your feet in the direction of a Buddha image when sitting on the floor. In such instances, you should imitate how the locals sit: a modified kneeling position with the legs pointed away from the image.
  • The Lao people are very hospitable, so it’s quite normal for locals to invite guests such as you to join them for meals or for celebrations such as birthdays or weddings, especially in rural areas. This can be considered a privilege and will allow you to experience a bit of local life. So politely accept the invitation, and even if you don’t intend to stay long, do accept even one drink offered.

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