Lao Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette

  • It is generally forbidden for Buddhist monks to come into physical contact with women. Thus, if a woman needs to pass something to a monk, it is best to give it to a male to then pass forward. Alternatively, she can place it on a surface to allow a monk to grab the object.
  • In Laos, time is viewed as flexible. This is reflected in the Lao expression, “koi koi pai” (‘slowly, slowly’). In turn, the pace of life in Laos is much slower. For example, people may arrive late to events, and invitations to weddings and parties are often given a day before the event.
  • The right hand is used to pass or receive items. Sometimes, both hands are used, but it is taboo to use only one’s left hand.
  • The soles of one’s feet should never be pointed at another person. One should sit in a way that avoids this. Feet should also not be rested on tables or pillows that people sleep on.
  • The top of the head is considered to be the most important part of the human body. To touch someone on the top of their head is taboo and insensitive.


Visiting

  • Lao are generally hospitable and enjoy hosting visitors.
  • Typically, Lao will make arrangements in advance to visit someone.
  • In rural areas, a family may send their children ahead to announce the visit.
  • The most appropriate times to visit someone are after a meal or on the weekends.
  • It is common practice to remove one’s sandals or shoes when entering someone’s home or a Buddhist temple.
  • If the home one is visiting is raised off the ground, people typically leave their shoes at the bottom of the stairs.
  • In traditional Lao homes, people sit on cushions on the floor or low seats.
  • Males may sit with their legs crossed while females will sit with either their legs crossed or their legs tucked to the side.
  • The host will often serve drinks such as water, tea or juice and sometimes food. The offer is accepted as a way to honour the host, even if the guest takes only one sip or bite.


Eating

  • There are no specific set meal times, though people typically eat in a group or as a family rather than alone. The exception is urban families who may have busy schedules.
  • Most Lao food is eaten with one’s hands. Spoons and forks are usually used for rice that has been boiled or steamed, along with some other foods. Chopsticks are often used for noodles.
  • When both a spoon and fork is used, Lao typically eat with the fork in their left hand and the spoon in their right. 
  • Food tends to be served on a communal dish or the banana leaf in which it was cooked.
  • As a sign of respect to the guest, the host and their family will avoid raising their heads above the level of the guest’s. As such, they may bring the food in a squat position so as not to offend their guests.
  • Meat and vegetables are usually cut into bite-size pieces.
  • In traditional Lao homes, the meal is served while people sit in a circle on a mat-covered floor.


Gift Giving

  • Gifts are usually passed with the right hand. A polite way to offer a gift is to pass it with the right hand while the left hand supports the right elbow.
  • It is not customary to offer a gift when visiting a Lao home. However, gifts from first-time visitors or on special occasions such as birthdays and weddings are acceptable and demonstrate extra thoughtfulness.
  • Gifts are usually not opened in front of the giver. 
  • Thanking the giver profusely for their gift tends to be uncomfortable for both the giver and the receiver in Laos.
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