Etiquette & social customs in Laos

Customs & etiquette in Laos

Social conventions and customs vary throughout the countries and regions of Indochina, but in general they are fairly similar, so what is good manners in Vietnam or Cambodia will likely be good manners in Laos - and vice versa.

The following are a few notable customs and conventions in Laos, but if in doubt - just use your common sense and all will be fine!

Appropriate clothing
When travelling in Southeast Asia, we recommend wearing comfortable, lightweight clothing made from natural fabrics. As in most tropical countries, the style of dress in Laos is generally fairly relaxed, but it is advisable to ensure that your arms and legs are covered in the evening to guard against insects.

When visiting temples, it is also respectful (and often required) to cover your knees and shoulders when visiting temples. Shoes and socks should also be removed before entering. We find wearing shoes which can easily be removed is always the best policy!

In Southeast Asia it's acknowledged that tourists will wear bikinis or swimming trunks on the beach, but it's also worth knowing that it's not good etiquette to meander the encompassing streets in them! People will probably not comment, but it's polite and a good practice to follow. 

Haggling
Though not as established as in Vietnam, haggling is fairly common in Laos. Trying to secure a deal on goods can be fun and is a great way to interact with locals - but don't get too carried away, as bargaining habits in Laos are generally not as aggressive as in some parts of Asia.

The most important rule in bargaining is to be friendly and smile, as keeping "face" is an important part of Lao culture (just as it is across Asia). Be respectful and friendly and not only will you enjoy the experience more, but you'll be much more likely to get a good deal!

It's worth noting that if something is marked with a price, it's usually a fixed amount, and the vendor is unlikely to want to negotiate.

Here are some of our top haggling tips:

1. Smile and be friendly - you'll get a better price and a more enjoyable experience.

2. Try to work out the going rate for the item you wish to buy by asking your guide, hotel, or other vendors. This will help you know where to pitch your opening gambit.

3. Decide on the highest price you're willing to pay before you begin and stick to it. It's easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment!

4. Answer the opening price given by offering 50% less. This is not unreasonable, you will not offend and it's expected. The vendor will always aim high, so the opening offers tests your boundaries in terms of price.

5. Negotiate in the local currency rather than USD, or you'll automatically pay a premium rate.

6. If the vendor isn't lowering their price, try walking away - you'll soon find out how low they're willing to go! Or, if they let you go, you'll know you've gone too far. Don't be afraid to walk back and take their best offer - they'll always welcome you back!

7. Buy multiple items together and ask for a deal - this often helps negotiate a better rate.

8.  Always remember you could be negotiating over a very small amount of money in terms of your home currency, so never push too hard if you like what your haggling for.

10. Have fun!

Tipping in Laos
Tipping in Laos is not commonplace, but it has become more normal in certain situations thanks to the rise of tourism. If you'd like to leave a tip while travelling in Laos, the general guidelines are as follows.

With guides and drivers, it's customary to tip at the end of the time you've spent with them; normally when you have reached the airport or station.

Etiquette at Luang Prabang's morning alms ceremony
Tak Bat is the morning alms ceremony in Luang Prabang, during which Buddhist monks leave their wat and file down the streets in silence, collecting food and offerings from the local people. In recent years, Tak Bat's simple beauty has made it a popular tourist attraction, but in fact it is a living religious tradition and must be treated with respect.

We highly recommend attending Tak Bat, as long as you follow a few simple rules:

1. Observe the ritual in silence
2. Only donate to the monks if your contribution is meaningful
3. Do not buy sticky rice from the vendors along the monks' route. The local market is the appropriate place to buy food.
4. If you are not making an offering, keep a generous distance from the procession
5. Do not use flash when taking photographs, and certainly don't stand too close to the monks in order to get a good shot. This is very disrespectful and disturbs the peace of the ceremony.
6. Never make physical contact with the monks

Following these rules, and informing others who may be unaware of them, will help to preserve the dignity and integrity of the almsgiving ceremony.

More useful advice
Laos is a conservative country, so please be aware that public displays of affection (such as kissing or hugging) are frowned upon.

It's worth noting that since Buddhism is the dominant religion in Indochina, many social customs in Laos have Buddhist roots. In Buddhism, for instance, the head is holy and the feet profane - so it's very rude to put your feet up, point at something with your feet, or touch anybody else on the head or shoulders.

For further information about Lao customs and culture, or that of Indochina in general, please feel free to get in touch and ask!

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