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Social Customs & Etiquettes in Laos

The Lao are by nature a very warm and accommodating people. And although none will ever openly criticise a foreign guest, there are a few Western habits that are truly offensive in local circles. When visiting a wat (temple) or royal museum, never wear shorts, miniskirts, sleeveless shirts or other revealing clothing. It is perhaps the most common offense visitors make and is perceived as the epitome of disrespect by the Lao. Inside temple grounds, keep silent, give way to those in prayer and remove shoes before entering any building. If monks are present, it is always best to ask permission to photograph Buddha images. When photographing people, always ask their permission beforehand.

Many Buddhist cultures revere the head as sacred and abhor the feet as foul. Never touch anyone on the head or above the shoulders – even a friendly pat on the back can be misunderstood, and avoid even patting a child's head. Also note that females will not stand or sit in a position that puts their heads higher than those of males. The feet should never be placed on tables or pointed toward a sacred object or person – especially monks, Buddha images or high-ranking officials. Never step over a person seated on the ground, always walk around.

The modest Lao are embarrassed by public displays of affection – even hand-holding – especially in sacred places such as temples. Men should avoid physical contact with Lao women; try to avoid even accidental contact, like bumping into them. Women should avoid physical contact with monks and refrain from handing anything directly to them.

The Lao are also unable to tolerate confrontation of any kind, which means they will go to just about any measure to avoid losing face. If you encounter a frustrating situation or become angry, a hot temper will be met with panic and fear by people who are ill-equipped to handle negative emotions. A cool head and an open mind go a long way in Laos.

The traditional manner of eating was 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.

Traditionally, spoons were used only for soups and white rice, and chopsticks were used only for noodles. 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.

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.

The custom is to close the rice basket when one is finished eating.





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