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5 Things You Should Know About Lao Culture

Lao culture is a bit conservative, easygoing, and family and friend centered. While some parts of the culture might seem counter-intuitive to the western mind, these tips will help you navigate the sabai, sabai Lao life.

1. You’re fat

While talking about sex or dropping the F bomb or wearing a bikini is not appropriate in Lao culture, talking about someone’s physical appearance is fair game. Expect to hear a lot of comments about your looks, especially if you’re taller, blonder, fatter, skinnier, or have more facial hair than the average Lao person. It’s totally normal for a Lao person to talk about how fat or skinny they are compared to you. You might even get your love handles pinched.

2. Freedom of expression

Criticism of the Lao government is not tolerated by citizens and you’ll be hard pressed to find Lao people who are open about their opinions of communism, the party, or the seemingly infinite layers of bureaucracy. Instead, expect idioms and euphemism to stand in for any direct criticism. If you criticize your own government, you might be met with wide eyes. You’re better off to not talk about the Lao government at all.

3. The Lao calendar

Being primarily Buddhist, Laos has two calendars: the Gregorian calendar used for business and the lunar calendar used for holidays and festivals. Pi Mai, or Lao New Year in the fourth lunar month of 2018 marked the beginning of 2561 in the Buddhist calendar. The Boun Bung Fai rocket festival is in the fifth lunar month. Boun Khao Phansa, at the start of the three-month long Buddhist Lent is in the seventh lunar month. Bout That Luang is in the 12th lunar month.

4. Muan baw? (Are you happy?)

Lao culture is centered on the pleasures of life: eating, drinking, sleeping and chatting with friends. Work obligations rarely take priority over socialization. It’s common to be asked if meals, weekend activities, weddings and whatever you’re doing right now is “muan,” or enjoyable. When asked, always answer in the affirmative, regardless of what you really think. The Lao avoid stress, do enough to get by and prioritize laughter with friends and hanging out with family over achieving success or riches.

5. Stop, look and listen

Lao drivers are erratic, accidents are all too common, drunk driving is rampant and motorbike drivers can often be seen driving the wrong way on a one-way street, on the sidewalk, right up into a building or through the market. Be vigilant about your surroundings and don’t assume that drivers see you or that they will yield or slow down if they do. Same goes for crosswalks: look both ways and don’t assume that just because you have the light in your favor, someone else won’t run a red light.


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