Expats find the people of Laos to be easygoing, open, warm and welcoming. Though Laos is the country with the lowest population density in Southeast Asia, there are more than 60 ethnic groups in the country, each with their own language or dialect. Most Lao share similar values and perspectives and a collectivistic approach to overcoming the country's hardships, both past and present.
Lao culture is informed by the importance its people put on harmony and respect, as well as their shared spirituality – though it is no longer Laos's state religion, two-thirds of Laotians are Buddhists, and most young Lao men become monks for a period of time. Most Lao people live in underdeveloped rural areas, and nearly 80 percent of the country's working population are agricultural workers.
Language barrier in Laos
Most Lao people speak a dialect of the Lao language, and many Lao understand some Southern Chinese (Zhuang) as well as Vietnamese and Thai, especially near the borders, and expats who already know one of these will learn Lao quickly. Given the 60 years of French colonial rule, Laos has the second-largest French-speaking population in Southeast Asia, and English is commonly spoken in main tourist areas.
Religion in Laos
Laos has no state religion, and most Lao people are either Buddhist, follow folk religion or practice a combination of the two. Buddhism is a central institution in Lao Loum life, and visits to the village Buddhist temple complex, or wat, are central to rural festivities and rituals. In some parts of the country, Buddhist practices are blended with folk religion, and models of Buddhist temples called sarn pha phoum (spirit houses) are erected as a place for spirits to live and be offered food and gifts.
Buddhist monks and nuns can be found throughout Laos and are treated with the highest respect and reverence. Almsgiving is a common practice, and spiritual leaders may be given preferential seating on transport or at a meal. Expats should be careful not to touch a monk or nun as a sign of respect for the integral role they play in Lao society. Similarly, it is wise to avoid disrespecting Buddhist statues or iconography.
Though the people of Laos are charitable and tolerant, expats should be aware that expats are prohibited to proselytise in the country. All religious organisations in Laos are required to register with the Lao Front for National Construction, though expats who practice a religion other than Buddhism often choose to do so quietly.
Politics in Laos
As with other countries in Southeast Asia, it is best for expats to avoid bringing up the Vietnam War (known in the region as the Second Indochina War) and the civil war in Laos, especially among older Laotians. If a colleague or friend chooses to talk about it, expats should listen quietly and respectfully. As a result of the US's role in the war, some older Laotians show distrust to American expats, though this is not prevalent among younger Laotians.
Etiquette and customs in Laos
A large part of social life in Laos is about maintaining 'face', the shared respect and harmony between people. Integral to this is avoiding conflict and understanding one's place in terms of seniority and hierarchy. Western cultures are generally less contextual, so direct communication is highly valued, but the same is not necessarily true in Laos.
Physical contact is not usual between people of the same gender, and men and women rarely show affection in public. When visiting a Lao house or temple, it's a good idea to avoid revealing clothing, covering one's shoulders and knees.
Expat women should be aware that it's forbidden for them to touch a Buddhist monk. They should also be aware of the stigma around women smoking in Laos, namely the idea that women who smoke are immoral or ill-mannered.