ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS IN LAOS

CUSTOMS IN LAOS

As in many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred point of the body; the bottom of the feet are the least scared. One should not touch a person's head nor should one point his or her foot at a person or a scared object., put their feet on tables or chairs and touch anyone with their feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey.

When giving an object to someone you should use two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand (associated with toilet duties). This is especially true when an younger person give something to an older person. Books are written material are treated with great reverence and should never be placed on the floor or slide across a table.

In Laos your head is "high", your feet "low". Using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sport is generally considered rude. The feet form the inferior part of the body (as much spiritually as physically). You must never indicate or touch another person or object with your foot.

1) A formal greeting for most Lao people is the “Nop” (joining one’s hands together in a praying gesture at chin level). Handshakes are also commonly used among male friends and with foreign visitors. 2) The Lao word for “hello” is “sabai dee”, say it with smile and you’ll be well received. 3) Feet are low. Placing them on furniture or pointing at things or people with your feet is not acceptable.

4) Personal cleanliness is valued highly in Laos. Anyone who has strong body odour tends to get disgusting looks. 5) Before entering a Lao person’s home, take your shoes off and leave them outside the house or on stairs. 6) In Lao homes, if the host (especially an elderly person) sits on the floor you should sit there as well, don’t sit anywhere higher if you want to be seen as a respectful person. 7) It is polite to gently crouch down when walking past someone who is seated, especially older people.

8) Stepping over someone on your path is very impolite, similarly stepping over food is disgusting and some Lao won’t eat the food that has been stepped over. 9) Lao people usually serve water to guests arriving at their home, it is polite to accept it even if you don’t want to drink (you don’t have to drink it). 8) In offices, never place your feet on a desk while sitting on a chair, that’s very impolite. Some foreign specialists/advisors have been thrown out doing this, so be especially careful if you come to work here.

Greetings in Laos

Lao people traditionally greet each other by pressing their palms together to "Nop", although it is acceptable for men to shake hands. The Lao address each other by the first name, prefaced by the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs., or if well acquainted, Mr. Uncle or Mrs. Aunt, or a courtesy title.

The Nop , the most common form of greeting in Laos, involves placing ones hands together in a prayer position at the chest level, but not touching the body. The higher the hands, the greater the sign of respect, although they should never be held of the level of the nose. This is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect for persons of higher status or age. The nop is not only an expression of greeting, but also an expression of thanks, of regret or of saying good-bye. It is appropriate for Laotians to shake hands with Westerners. These days many do.

For Men greeting Men – The standard Lao greeting is, "Sabaideebor" which means "how are you?" or "are you well?" This is usually done with both hands pressed together in a prayer in front of your body and accompanied with a slight bow or nod. The response for "sabaideebor" is usually "sabaidee”. Some men will also use a standard handshake. These tend to be on light side. Always smile during greetings. [Source: Culture Crossing]

For Women greeting Women - The standard Lao greeting is, "Sabaideebor" which means "how are you?" or "are you well?" This is usually done with both hands pressed together in a prayer position just below the chin and accompanied with a slight bow. The response for "sabaideebor" is usually "sabaidee”. Always smile during greetings.

Greetings between Men and Women – The standard Lao greeting is, "Sabaideebor" which means "how are you?" or "are you well?" This is usually done with both hands pressed together in a prayer position just below the chin and accompanied with a slight bow. The response for "sabaideebor" is usually "sabaidee”. Always smile during greetings.

The person who is socially inferior or younger should be the first to bow, but it is considered polite for the older/socially superior person to respond quickly. The higher the hands are held and the lower the bow, the greater the degree of respect. When addressing a social equal, the hands are usually held at the level of the mouth; when addressing a person of higher social standing (this includes monks, regardless of age), the hands are usually held in front of the nose; and when addressing a younger/socially inferior person, they are usually held at the chin. "Sa Bai Dee", the Lao word for hello, is usually said with a smile. Touching or showing affection in public will embarrass your hosts.

The Nop

A short bow known as a nop in Laos and a wai in Thailand is the most common form of greeting and way of saying good-bye. It involves placing ones hands together in a prayer position between the chest level and nose level but not touching the body and bowing slightly. The higher the hands the greater the sign of respect. The bow is slight and usually accompanied by a slight bend of the knees and a smile. The hands should never be held above the level of the nose.

This style of bow is used throughout the Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia. It is not only a greeting but is also an expression of thanks or respect. The bow is particularly important as a way of showing respect towards people of higher status or age. If two people of unequal status meet, the bow should be initiated by the person of lower status (i.e. the one who is younger, of lower income, of lower position, or a women meeting a man). Bows should not be used with children. Simply say “Hi” to them. Many Southeast Asians are comfortable shaking hands with Westerners.

The nop has been described as a physical demonstration of the “height rule”—in which people of low status are expected to respect people of high status. The hands are often raised during the nop as you bow your head, however there are rules regarding where the hands should be raised to. Generally the higher the hands are raised the more respect that is being shown. It is also important to note that the hands are not jerked upwards, but rather are raised in a fluid and graceful movement. In addition, the lower the head is bowed towards the hand the more respect shown. When equals or strangers unaware the status of the people they are meeting meet the hands are kept at neck level, but not above the chin. When an inferior meets a superior head is lowered so the nose is just above the fingertips. When an a superior meets an inferior head is straight or slightly bent. [Source: the bool Culture Shock! Thailand ]

A nop can be used as a sign of respect for objects as well as people. This often done when passing a temple or something else of religious significance. When encountering a statue of The Buddha or a monk one is supposed to drop to one’s knees and nop from that position (with men sitting on their heels and women with their legs to one side), accompanied by a deep bow so that one’s head almost touches the floor. When the head almost touches the floor one should place the palms of one’s hands on the floor (right hand first) and then straighten the body into a the sitting nop position. [Ibid]

The nop first appeared in Thai culture during the Sukhotai Period (13th century AD). As was the case with the origin of handshaking, the nop is thought to have begun as a way of showing a person you are meeting that you have no weapons in your hands. The low status-high status aspect of it is close to the heart of Asia where relations between juniors and seniors and inferiors and superiors is important to how people interact with one another. At the top of the heap is the king who is not expected to nop anyone except monks. When children nop their elders, elders may nod but otherwise are no expected to nop back. The same is true when a junior employee meets a high-ranking boss.

When And How To Nop Properly

According to Steve in his website Thailand Musings: In addition to a greeting and way of saying goodbye the nop is also used for giving thanks, apologizing, praying to the Buddha and begging and is part of the unique Thai honorific system and is used to convey a variety of emotions and modes of deference including politeness, respect, honor, gratitude, apology and friendship. In order to nop correctly it is important that the person noping do so with their whole heart. You should feel your nop and be sincere in paying your respects physically, mentally and spiritually. [Source: Thailand Musings Thailand Musings /\]

“There are a number of rules surrounding the use of the nop. These include when to nop and the type of nop to use for various people. What many foreigners don’t seem to realize is that it is not necessary to nop to everyone. That’s right, there’s no need to nop the 7-11 clerk after paying for your bottle of water. Typically there’s no need to nop any service type individual and this includes waiters/waitresses, shop clerks and anyone else you pay to perform a service. If you feel that you MUST nop these people only do so if they nop you first and then make your nop very generic i.e. palms to the chest and no bowing of your head. /\

“While Thai’s can recognize and use a vast number of types of nop’s depending on social status, power, age, and prestige there are 3 major groups of higher prestige people in Thai society. Initiating a nop to each of these groups is different. 1) Royal Family/Monks. When noping someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers or thumbs touch the forehead. 2) Parents/Teachers/Older Family Members. When noping someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the nose. 3) Older acquaintances/Superiors at work. When noping someone in this group you bow your head and raise your hands until the index fingers touch the mouth. /\

“In all three cases you want to keep the elbows tight against your body. When returning a nop you can typically use the stranger’s nop which is a slight lowering of your head until your fingertips touch the point of your chin. This is the nop used when you don’t know the social status or age of the person you are noping and is generally accepted as a happy compromise. This is also the most useful nop for us farang as typically we won’t know the social status of the Thai person. /\

“Etiquette and social status determines who initiates the nop. Younger people will nop older people first and those who are lower in social status nop those of higher status first. Because you are a farang and outside the Thai social hierarchy it makes it difficult for many Thai’s to know where to place you. In fact, it is only recently that a Thai person would even consider noping a farang. This wasn’t meant as an insult, but rather a way to avoid embarrassment since there was usually no way for either Thai or farang to know the social status of the other and insult could be given if the wrong nop were offered. /\

“In some cases (especially business situations) a Thai will offer a handshake to you instead of a nop. Simply returning the handshake is completely acceptable. If they do offer a nop the polite thing to do is to respond in kind. And don’t worry too much about getting the nop right. You’re not Thai and no one expects you to be able to nop properly. The fact that you attempted to nop back is enough to make the person who initiated the nop happy. /\

“In many western cultures a nod of the head is often acceptable as a response to a greeting and it is important to note here that in Thai society a nop can be acknowledged by a nod of the head or an upraised right hand, BUT this is only done by monks or royalty. It is called Rap Nop or acknowledging a nop. If you respond to a nop in this way it may be perceived as if you are impersonating a monk or royalty and there is a slight chance that you will cause offense. At the least it can certainly be seen as amusing to the person you Rap Nop. In fact, outside Bangkok and the other tourist areas of Thailand you will likely generate loads of goodwill along with some amusement and possibly even amazement if you are able to nop. I guarantee that you will get many genuine smiles of appreciation at this small act of politeness. /\

Public Customs in Laos

Showing anger or disappointment in public is inappropriate. It causes everyone to lose face. It is considered very bad taste to publicly criticize a person since it results in a loss of face with the community. necessary criticisms and suggestion should be made within context to avoid placing blame or shame upon any individual. Men and women rarely show affection in public.

It is rude to point directly at a person, to touch somebody (other than a small child) on the head or hair, to point the soles of your feet at someone (especially a monk or a representation of the Buddha), to throw things, and in general to behave overtly aggressively or violently. Showing the soles of your bare feet is considered a rude gesture and most Laotians sit in a way that hides the feet from view.

When entering a temple, men should where long pants and a shirt. Women should avoid shirts, miniskirts, halter-tops, and strapless tops (anything exposing their shoulders). Lao people appreciate clean and neatly dressed visitors. Women should dress modestly. Swimming or bathing nude in public is frowned upon. Touching someone's head is very, very impolite.

Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women rarely show affection in public. Even holding hands is frowned upon. However, men often hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. This is an expression of close friendship not a gay relationship.

When giving an object to someone you should use two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand (sometimes associated with toilet duties). This is especially true when a younger person give something to an older person. When offering a book or paper to someone older than you or of higher rank, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. An alternative is to present it with the right, with the left hand holding the right elbow. Some a bow accompanies the offering of an object. The receiver should accept it gently with the righ hand. Books and written material are treated with great reverence and should never be placed on the floor or slid across a table.

Talking in a loud voice is sometimes viewed as threatening. Talking gently and discreetly is more socially acceptable. In the old days a loud voice conveyed a powerful, chaotic force capable of destroying those that it was directed towards.

1) Lao people are not big on waiting in line. They often push and shove to get to the head of the line. 2) Lao people speak softly and avoid confrontation. Please do not shout or raise your voice. 3) Before you take a photo of someone ask if it is okay. 4) Kissing and hugging in public is impolite. Please be discrete. 5) Please do not distribute gifts to children as it encourages begging, but give to an established organization or village elders instead. 6) Try eating delicious Lao food whenever you can it helps local business and Lao farmers.

Heads, Hands and Feet

In many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred party of the body; the bottom of the feet are the least sacred and dirtiest part of the body. One should not touch a person's head, point his or her foot at a person or sacred object, place a hand on the back of chair in which someone is sitting, put feet on tables or chairs or touch anyone with his or her feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely. In the old days and even sometimes today Thais manifested “height” respect towards the monarchy crawling in front of the King so that the head of crawlers was below the feet of the king.

In Southeast Asia many people believe that the head — the most sacred part of the body — is inhabited by the kwan, the spiritual force of life. Never pat a Thai on the head even in the friendliest of circumstances. Standing over someone older, wiser, or more enlightened than yourself — is also considered rude behavior since it implies social superiority. As a sign of courtesy, lower your head as you pass a group of people. When in doubt, watch the Thais. Because hats are associated with the head they are also treated with respect. They are hung carefully and should not be tossed casually on a chair or, especially, the floor.

Because the feet are the dirtiest part of the body a great effort is made to avoid steeping over someone, food, utensils and sacred books. It is much more polite to ask someone to move than to step over them. Also don’t touch anyone with your feet. If you do, You can touch your hand to their feet or make a gesture that implies that to apologize. It is also considered rude to cross your legs when sitting because when you do so there is a good chance you are point the bottoms of your feet at someone.

Pointing your foot at someone is like saying you are the lowest, dirtiest creature on earth. Don't pat a child on the head. Patting the head is disrespectful. Many Southeast Asian carry good luck charms in their shirt pockets instead of their pants pockets, because the higher up you go on the body the more sacred it is. If it necessary to touch someone the most polite way to do it—say to get someone’s attention is to gently touch them on the elbow. Among friends, and even cowokers, touching is acceptable and common. Good friends of the same sex sometimes hold hands. This does not mean they are gay.

Pointing with a finger and waving are also considered rude, with the latter being less so. If you need to single somebody out do it with a glance and a gentle nod towards the person. In some massage parlors the girls where numbers to avid being pointed at. If you must beckon somone with you hand the best to do it is with the palm down, moving you fingers towards you but considered rude as it is used by parents to call their children and people on the streets to hail a taxi or flag down a bus.

On top of all this, the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used to eat, receive gifts, shake hands or pass something. This is true even if you are left handed, which many people are in Thailand. Aggressive stances such as crossed arms or waving your arms expressively are consider boorish and threatening. Throwing objects are putting your hands in your pockets are also considered rude.

Buddhist Customs in Laos

People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple and leave umbrellas outside. They are also expected to be neatly dressed. Hats should be removed. Short sleeve shirts, sleeveless shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants for women are generally regarded as inappropriate attire but are often grudgingly tolerated from foreigners. Some cultures require visitors to take off their shoes (and sometimes their socks) when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a temple building, shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple. In Laos it is okay to wear shoes if you just walk around a temple compound, but don’t forget to remove them before entering the chapel. At some temples, women in pants or short skirts are required to put on a Lao skirt as another layer before entering the place. Lao skirts are usually provided or available for hire on spot (if this is required).

Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right (this is more important in Tibet and Himalaya areas than it is in Southeast Asia) Don't walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay.

Buddha images are sacred object and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists. There are many sacred items and sites in Laos. Please don't touch or enter these places without permission.

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to their foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Other bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Other still, kowtow before shrines, bend down and stretch three times. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.

Monks should be greeted with three Southeast Asian bows. When talking to a monk try if you can to have your head lower than his. This can be achieved by bowing slightly or sitting down. If a monk is sitting down you to should also be sitting down. Women should not touch a monk or a mon’s robes or give objects directly to him (instead place the object on a table or some other surface near the monk). On buses and trains, people customarily give up their seat to monks.

Hill Tribe Customs in Laos

1) Many hill tribes fear photography. Don’t photograph anyone or anything without permission first. 2) Show respect towards religious objects and structures. Don’t touch anything or enter or walk through any religious structure unless you are sure it is okay. If in doubt ask. 3) Don’t interfere in rituals in any way. 4) Don’t enter a village house without permission or an invitation. Sometimes you need to exercise caution entering a village by, for example, not walking through a gate reserved for forest spirits. 5) Error on the side of restraint when giving gifts. Gifts of medicine may undermine confidence in traditional medicines. Gift of clothes may encourage them to abandon their traditional clothes.

Some also argue you should not give money to beggars and buy stuff from children because it only encourages them. If you give something away to one person often you surrounded by a mob demanding their share. Beggars often target areas frequented by tourists. Giving money to them encourages the beggars to hassle tourist for money rather than seeking more gainly ways to make money.

Money given to children encourages parents to put them out on the streets to make money rather than send them to school. In some places begging children are forced to work by criminal gangs especially of there is good money involved. If you have a strong desire to help out the children some people recommend giving them a meal or giving money to their parents.

Social Customs in Laos

Southeast Asians often ask strangers questions about marriage and age almost immediately after meeting them They sometimes even ask how much money you earn. This is not necessarily meant to be nosy. Rather, it is important to know this information about someone to know the correct way to address them and bow to them.

The “height” rule also manifests itself horizontally in that when in a room people of high rank and status sit at the front of a room while those of low rank and status sit at the back and when a people are walking one in front of the other and those of higher rank are at the front. The expression “Walk behind an elder, the dog doesn’t bite you” refers to children walking respectfully behind those old than them, although it isn’t always adhered to.

In a Lao gathering, keep a low profile and you’ll maximise your chances of social success in Laos. Lao people typically socialise as families, and most live in extended families with three or sometimes more generations sharing one house or compound. The family cooks and eats together sitting on the floor with sticky rice and dishes shared by all. Sometimes when someone pays a visit unexpectedly at meal time we automatically invite them to join us without any hesitation. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

With the Lao people’s simple life, it is perfectly normal for relatives or friends to drop by without calling in advance. So, if you live or work in Laos, don’t be surprised if your Lao friends suddenly appear at your front door. If they do that, it’s not because they are tactless, it’s because it seems perfectly usual behaviour for them, and also perhaps because they don’t know or understand your cultural habits. Time is also a fairly flexible commodity in Laos culture. Planning ahead and making firm times for occasions can sometimes be frustrating for foreigners who find the idea of something happening at “maybe two o’clock” difficult to cope with. Also invitations to parties and weddings are often only issued the day before the event and the host is sometimes surprised that others need more notice that this in their social lives. ==

On the issue of personal space and touching, Culture Crossing reports: In most settings, an arm’s length of personal space is the norm. Touching during conversations is limited to non-existent. This is especially the case with members of the opposite sex. Avoid touching anybody’s head as it is considered very disrespectful. Note that it is usually acceptable for adults to touch children’s heads. Public displays of affection are usually culturally inappropriate and offensive. Handholding may be the exception in certain areas. [Source: Culture Crossing <<<]

Direct eye contact tends to be the norm in most situations. When interacting with older or socially superior people, it’s best to follow their lead. For example, many people would not make direct eye contact with a boss or official unless they first established that contact. When a man speaks to a woman, especially a younger woman, she may avoid making direct eye contact and keep her eyes focused on the ground. <<<

See Baasil Ceremony

Gestures and Taboos

According to Culture Crossing: To beckon someone, hold your hand palm downwards with the fingers pointing towards the ground and waggle them loosely. Beckoning with the palm upwards (Western style) may be considered rude. Avoid pointing as it is considered rude. It is normally courteous and expected to remove one’s shoes before entering somebody’s home. It is required when entering a Buddhist temple. Showing the soles of your bare feet is considered a rude gesture and most Laotians sit in a way that hides the feet from view. [Source: Culture Crossing <<<]

It is rude to point directly at a person, to touch somebody (other than a small child) on the head or hair, to point the soles of your feet at someone (especially a monk or a representation of the Buddha), to throw things, and in general to behave overtly aggressively or violently. When entering a temple, men should where long pants and a shirt. Women should avoid shirts, miniskirts, halter-tops, and strapless tops (anything exposing their shoulders). Showing the soles of your bare feet is considered a rude gesture and most Laotians sit in a way that hides the feet from view. <<<

Home Customs in Laos

When you enter a Wat or a private home please remove your shoes. In traditional homes, people sit on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men usually sit with their legs crossed or folded to one side, women prefer solely the latter. Upon entering, guests may be served fruit or tea. These gestures of hospitality should not be refused.

It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a private home. In Lao homes raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are left at the stairs. Sometimes shoes are even left outside shops and guesthouses. If you see a pile of shoes at the entrance you should take off your shoes too.

In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sit with legs crossed or folded to one side. Women sit with legs off to one side. Remember, your head is 'high', your feet 'low'. It is polite to gently crouch down when passing someone who is seated. Never, ever step over someone in your path.

Laotians are somewhat reluctant to invite foreigners to stay at their house for the night because the government and police frown on such practices. However, Laotians are naturally very hospitable people who may you invite you for a drink, a meal or a partying session. Even visitors who are invited in for a short time are offered a snack and a drink.

Many people take an afternoon siesta.

Lao Eating Customs

The Lao eat with a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Sticky rice, however, is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, which are cleaned with a napkin. The rice of often formed into a ball and dipped into the dishes and used for mopping up like bread. Laotians generally don’t eat with chopsticks. Chopstick are generally only used for eating noodles and noodle soups. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand. Because food is often eaten with the hands, Laotians always wash their hands before eating. They say that you tell if you have washed your hands well enough when sticky rice sticks to your hand.

In a traditional home, the meal is served while diners sit on a mat on the floor. As a sign of respect to a guest, the host and his family will not raise their heads above the level of that of the guest's. Therefore, they may bring the food in a squat position so as not to offend anyone.

Laotians like to eat in groups and sample many different dishes. When a group eats together a variety of different dishes are ordered and everyone samples the different offerings. Sticky rice is usually served in a lidded basket. The custom is to close the rice basket when one is finished eating. At the end of meals it is considered bad luck not to place the lid back on the basket. Guests may be served tea or fruit, which should not be refused. One should at least take a taste. It is not customary to bring a gift when visiting.

The traditional manner of eating is communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke. Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke. In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke. Once food is placed on the "ka toke" it becomes a "pha kao." In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap). The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled. Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal. When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.

Traditional Eating Etiquette

Sanath Weerasuriya wrote in the Sunday Times: “While the Lao use their fingers to eat sticky rice (the consistency of the rice leaves no other option), they would never use their fingers, as the Siamese and Indians traditionally do, to eat white rice. Neither, do they use chopsticks like their Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours. Chopsticks are reserved for noodles. For white rice, the Lao use spoons. [Source: Sanath Weerasuriya, Sunday Times, August 12, 2007]

Alan and Jennifer Davidson wrote: “Eating at home, the Lao give the impression of being completely relaxed; hospitable, informal, and free of any feelings of hurry, anxiety or ostentation. Such, at least, is the impression which an occidental visitor will receive. In fact, however, the relaxed atmosphere invests procedures which are surprisingly formal. These have been described to me by Dr. Amphay Dore, formerly of Luang Prabang, with the proviso that the concepts and traditions to which he refers are those of the older generations and would not necessarily be familiar to younger Lao (although still implicit in certain features of their table manners). [Source: Alan and Jennifer Davidson <>]

“Briefly, one has to understand that two of the important concepts in Lao life are piep, which may be roughly translated as prestige, and lieng, which means feeding, giving nourishment. The concept of lieng gives rise to what might be called contractual obligations. Both concepts apply to Lao meals. <>

“This means, in practice, that at a family meal the father and mother, being the persons of highest rank in the family unit, take the first mouthfuls, followed by the other family members in descending order of age. Once this 'first tasting' has been accomplished, the meal appears to be free for all, but in fact is still subject to rules, for example that no-one should help himself at the same time as anyone else or go in front of a person of higher rank, which would cause that person to lose piep. <>

“A guest must observe the same rules, and also additional ones. If he begins to eat without first being invited to do so by his host or hostess, he will be deemed to have no piep at all. (The logic here is that it is only someone who has nothing who is entitled to appropriate what belongs to others.) He may not continue eating after the others have finished. If he is still hungry, it will be necessary for at least one member of the household to continue eating with him. However, even so, he cannot go on indefinitely, for custom requires that he should leave something on his plate. If he were not to do so, the host's piep would suffer, since it would seem that he had not provided enough.” <>

Drinking Customs in Laos

When partying, Laotians often sit on the floor of the home and drink lao lao and eat food. Drinking is a communal affair presided over by the host or an older man who plays the role of bartender and begins the festivities by pulling out a bottle and pouring the first shot on the floor to honor the house spirit and then downs a shot himself.

The host then pours lao lao into a shot glass and hands it to a person on his left to drink. The drinker raises his glass, make eye contact with the other guests, downs the shot in one gulp. The glass is passed back to the bartender who prepares a shot for the next person, who repeats the same ritual. Guests are expected to have at least nine drinks. It is very impolite to refuse. Subsequent drinks may be refused but refusing the first is almost a taboo.

On doing business in Laos, one website reported: “In the Lao drinking tradition, one person, usually the host, moves around the room offering a shot glass of whiskey to each guest. The server is obliged to drink first and must be witnessed by all those present. As a guest of honour, you can also take over this important position. The host will be delighted. But be careful. While making the rounds you will be asked by each guest to drink from the glass first. You may decline and avert their attention by a joke. The best approach is to say, "I'm not as strong as you. I'm counting on you to hold up the village tradition." [Source: seasite.niu.edu |=| ]

“You may have to drink enormous amounts of alcohol when in the provinces particularly when visiting villages. Women may retire from drink after initial rounds but this is not acceptable for men. Remember that for the villagers this may be the event of the century and it is important to join in the festivity. There are a number of ways of dealing with this situation assuming you are not alcoholic in which case you are in heaven. You can raise your glass at each toast but not consume when you put the glass to your lips. You can ditch the liquid in the nearest bush at an unobserved moment. Or if cornered into actually consuming the alcohol you can take it in your mouth and look for an immediate opportunity to spit it out when unobserved. As a final avoidance strategy, you can remove yourself from the line as your host approaches and you will escape the current round.” |=|

Toilets and Bathing in Southeast Asia

Most toilets are Asian-style squat toilets or a hole in the ground. Upscale hotels and restaurants usually have Western-style toilets; sometimes the don't have seats. Bring along toilet paper or tissues. Many restrooms don't have toilet paper. Asian style toilets often have a small cement tank next to it with some water and a plastic scoop inside. The water is there to clean your butt and flush the toilet. Many Asian sewer systems can not handle toilet paper. You are expected to put used toilet paper and tissue in a wastebasket rather than in the toilet. Otherwise the paper might clog the pipes.

Instead of showers, guesthouses often have a cement trough filled with water and a plastic scoop used for bathing. Even places that have showers often don’t have hot water. Water is often in short supply. In some places hot water or water only comes at certain times of the day: usually the morning and the evening. Sometimes water will cut off when you are using it. People often keep buckets and tanks with water near the sinks in case this happens. Wealthy families have water tanks on their roofs that store water when the water is one for use when it isn’t.

Men and women often bath and shower outside while wearing clothing. In homes toilets and showers are often in separate rooms. Sometime there is no hot water, because it is considered too hot take a hot shower.

Squatting, Sitting, Washing, Wiping and Toilet Culture in Asia

In December 2005, the Asahi Shimbun reported: Junichi Hirata, vice president of the Japan Toilet Association, is fascinated by the notion of adapting cultural anthropology to toilet studies. He came up with his own term, "toilet demarcation," and a world map marked with cultural boundaries based on toilet styles. He says the area covering Asia, the Middle East and Africa can be labeled as belonging to the "squatters." The "sitters," for their part, are distributed in Western Europe, the entire American land mass and Australia--all areas hosting immigrants from Western Europe. However, Hirata warns, "There are many enclaves. So we can never be clear about these boundaries."

Hirata estimates that the area in which squatting-style toilets are used roughly matches up with the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) at the height of its power, covering the Middle East, parts of North Africa and much of southeastern Europe. The demarcation line runs south down the Aegean Sea and travels west through the Mediterranean, drawing a line incidentally congruous with that dividing the Islamic and Christian cultures that continue to vie for dominance.

The origins of the two styles are unclear. One hypothesis is that humans were all originally "squatters." Then some branched out to become "sitters," perhaps to become less vulnerable to a sneak attack. The hypothesis, however, remains just that.

And when it comes to cleaning, there are, again, two main schools: washing and wiping. Washing, naturally, relies on water. But when it comes to wiping, people have come up with a variety of ingenious materials. Only about 30 percent of the world's population uses toilet paper, according to Hideo Nishioka, professor emeritus at Keio University. Nishioka specializes in geography, but is well-versed in all sorts of matters related to the toilet. Other materials of choice include leaves, bark, wood chips, seaweed, sand, gravel and more. In other words, people have been making use of whatever natural resources have been handy in their local environment.

The world map as re-envisioned through toilet culture can thus be demarcated according to four basic elements: squat, sit, wipe and wash. As for how the four elements are combined, things take on a decidedly anthropological bent, swayed by local climes and customs. Even now, as the world moves toward globalization, tradition usually has the last say in what takes place in the bathroom--or its equivalent.

Business Customs in Laos

see Economics, Business Customs

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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