Laos is well-known for its easy and accepting culture. The locals and the country welcome travelers from all around the world with their warmest hearts with “live and let live” attitude toward most behavior. However, there are hidden rules due to the cultural differences which you should pay strong attention not to violate for your own safety, the preservation of the country and for showing respects to the local people in your Lao trip.
Don’t touch a monk
Touching a monk or novice is considered rude, and is totally taboo if you are a woman. Women should also be careful not to accidentally brush up against a monk’s robes on the street, in a temple or sharing a tuk-tuk. Women should not hand anything directly to a monk but instead should pass the item to a male intermediary. The only exception to this rule is giving morning alms to monks by placing the offering of food or money into the monk’s alms bowl.
Don’t trek without a guide
Laos is considered one of the safest countries in the world in terms of violent crime and theft, but it still contains some risks due to the complicated history. So for your own safety, trekking tours and off-the-beaten-track adventures should be done under the instructions of private tour guides. You always should stay on the path and go with locals who know the land and the language to make sure that everyone in your group is kept safe.
Don’t touch anyone with your feet
In Lao culture, the head is high and the feet are the lowest part of the body, so be careful to not step over someone who is seated, since it is the height of rudeness. Accidentally kicking or brushing another person with your feet at a table or in a car is the same mistake too. Therefore, you should always keep your feet on the floor, not tucked under you or on a chair or (heaven forbid) propped up on a table.
Don’t wear your shoes inside a home or temple
Not just Laos, but a number of Southeast Asian countries have the rule of keeping the shoes outside of the house, and they wear house shoes or bare feet inside the home. In Laos, this rule is applied to certain stores and restaurants as well. The best way is following what others do. Even if your host tells you that you may keep your shoes on, if his or hers are off, you should remove yours as well. The Lao want to save face and may tell you one thing when they would actually like you to do something else.
Don’t shout, argue or rush
Saving face is very important in Laos, and the following result is that they often don’t raise their voice under unnecessary circumstances. They will not shout, yell or argue roughly with each other. So in your Laos tour, you should keep your positive attitude in most of the case. Don’t bargain so harshly, as the salesperson might end up selling the item to you at a loss rather than losing face. Service is slow in shops and restaurant and the quality of service varies greatly. Practice patience, and don’t expect anyone to rush because you’re in a hurry. Take it easy, bite your tongue, and enjoy the unhurried, unstressed Lao lifestyle. You come to this wonderful land to enjoy the totally, perfectly laid-back lifestyle.
Don’t make public displays of affection
The Lao aren’t publicly affectionate among friends or romantic partners, and public hugging or kissing is frowned upon. It is against the law for foreigners to engage in sexual activity with a Lao person outside of marriage. This goes for heterosexual relationships as well as those with Ladyboys and Toms, so tread lightly.
Don’t buy antiques or wildlife products
Weak laws and lax enforcement of those that do exist have led to illegal poaching of the wild animals that were once prevalent in Laos. It’s illegal to take ivory, or animal pelts or products out of Laos. They will be confiscated and you will be fined. It’s also illegal to take antique Buddha sculptures out of the county, as many have been stolen from temples, which deplete cultural heritage. Luckily the woodcarving tradition is alive and well in Laos, and skilled craftspeople carve beautiful new pieces that can be purchased as souvenirs.
Drugs are illegal
Lao alcohol products taste really good with an excellent price level, especially Lao beer. Local wine and beer are something you definitely should try in your adventure. However, you don’t want to go further with illegal drugs, like marijuana and opium. If a tuk-tuk driver offers you prostitutes or drugs unprovoked, your safest bet is to turn him down.
Don’t bathe nude or walk around in a bikini
You’ll see Lao people swimming fully clothed, wrapped in a sarong or sometimes in jeans. Ladies, you should bring a sarong. You can always take it off once you’re in the water, but you’ll avoid uncomfortable stares and blend in better. In the same vein, walking around town in swimwear is not culturally acceptable for men or women, so when you go swimming or tubing bring a shirt or sarong to cover up when you get out of the water.
Think before riding a motorbike
Motorbikes are a popular mode of transportation in Laos but ride at your own risk. There is no trauma center in the country and should you get into an accident, you’ll have to get across the border to Thailand for treatment. If you do take to the road on two wheels, drive defensively, know the risks and check out the bike thoroughly before you drive. It will be much safer to use private cars on your tour or sitting behind a local guide in a motorbike.
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