With their laid-back attitude and a deep aversion to confrontation, Laotians are not too picky about foreigners who do not respect their social etiquette. However, here are some tips to show proper courtesy to their people and culture.
Proper Greetings in Laos
The ‘nop’ is the most common form of greeting in Laos - similar to the ‘sompiah’ in Cambodia or the ‘wai’ in Thailand. The ‘nop’ consists of placing your hands together in a prayer position at chest level. Although, with the exception of touching the body. The higher the hands are, the greater the sign of respect, even if they should never be held at nose level. This is accompanied by a slight bow and the expression "Sabaidee Bor", which means "How are you?" or "Are you all right?". The ‘nop’ is not only an expression of greeting, but also an utterance of thanks or regret. In additon, Laotians address each other by the first name, prefaced by the equivalent of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs’. If they know the person well, they are referred to as ‘Mr. Uncle’, ‘Mrs. Aunt’, or any specific esteemed title. Nowadays, it is also acceptable for men to shake hands.
Customs at Dinner in Laos
As in many Southeast Asian countries, Laotians eat with a fork on the left hand and a spoon on the right. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon. However, sticky rice is eaten with the fingers of the right hand. Chopsticks in Laos are generally only used to eat noodles and noodle soups. Food is often eaten with the hands, Laotians always wash their hands before eating.
Laotian meals usually consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, sauces, green vegetables and a stew. The dishes are not eaten in sequence as the soup is often sipped throughout the entire meal. For a host, not having enough food for the guests would be humiliating, which is why food is often prepared in sufficient quantity for twice the number of guests expected. Uniquely, drinks, including water, are not usually part of the meal.
Head, Hands and Feet
Like other Buddhist Southeast Asian countries, Laotians believe that the head is the most sacred part of the body, while the feet is regarded as the most unclean. Therefore, touching the top of a person's head is viewed as a human violation, since it is deemed the crown of the spiritual body. Likewise, placing one's feet on furniture or using them to point at something is considered a rude gesture. When you give an object to someone, you have to either use both hands or just the right. In fact, never use the left hand due to its association with grooming tasks.
The Laotian concept of personal space is much more lax than the West. For instance, being intimately stuck against a stranger in public spaces is of little concern. Similarly, taking the liberty of pinching a child's cheek, or distractedly touching someone's arm while talking to them is common among locals - whether they are old friends or first-time acquaintances. It is even perfectly acceptable to pat someone’s round belly as a way of joking about their weight. However, commenting on someone's dark skin will be considered an insult.
Places of Worship
Similar to Cambodia, religion is just as important in Laos. As a result, make sure to always exhibit good manners in sacred places such as: dressing properly, taking off your shoes before entering a building, avoid taking pictures during prayers, and not speaking too loud.
Ultimately, good manners are generally reflected less through gestures, but more through the attitude with which you approach others.