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People smile in Laos. Even the shyest young child will be peaking out from behind his mother’s sinh with a grin on his face. Lao people greet each other, be it friends or strangers, with a warm “Sabaidee!” and a wave or nop (sight bow with the hands pressed together at the chest.) The friendliness is extended to foreigners and travelers will feel very welcome in the Lao PDR.
There’s a joke that say Lao PDR sands for “Lao People Don’t Rush.” The trait of slowly meandering through life in an unhurried and unworried way can at times be baffling and frustrating to Western sensibilities. Don’t let it get to you. The “bo pen nyang” lifestyle is something to love about Lao culture. Take a load off, relax, it’s nothing.
You won’t find many, if any, Lao workaholics. The culture is focused on family time and prioritizing people over profits. The country falls into the “least developed” category and it’s true, there’s a lack of infrastructure, education and efficient governance, but the Lao family unit remains resilient. The matriarch holds the purse strings and typically a husband will move in with his wife’s family. Often several generations live together in the same compound, sharing the work and living communally.
There are over 150 distinct ethnic groups that make up the citizens of Laos. They are divided into several classifications including Mon Khmer, Palaungic, Khmuic, Tibeto-Burman, Hmong-Mien, and Tai/Rau. All of these cultures exist peacefully in Lao and show their cultural identity through their dress, language, customs and holidays. Groups create different handicrafts and weaving patterns depending on geographic location and tribal affiliation.
The Lao culture is very complimentary. Paying compliments is a way to show respect and build bonds. Lao people are also very blunt and people will talk about your appearance, food preference and actions. Wearing a Lao sinh or shirt will certainly get complimented. So will having a high-bridged nose. However. Lao people have no problem pointing out chubbiness or ugliness, so take the good with the bad. Bo pen nyang.
In June, as the hot season is becoming unbearable and everyone is looking forward to the rainy season, Boun Bang Fai celebrations occur in villages throughout Laos. Locals gather to drink and party and watch the homemade rockets launch into the air to ask the gods to bring the rains.
“Have you eaten yet?” is a standard greeting in the Lao language and food is just about as central as anything to Lao culture. Meals are eaten family style, usually with the hands. Several dishes will be served together on a silver or rattan tray and the family sits on bamboo mats to partake. No meal is complete without a basket of steamed sticky rice. Take a ball in your hand and dip it into the laap, bamboo soup, or spicy dips and enjoy.
Lao people know how to throw a party. There are many public and Buddhist holidays that the Lao take full advantage of. Food by the plateful, crate upon yellow crate of bottles of Beer Lao and a grill for barbecuing turns any gathering into a party. The music gets turned on and the volume can be deafening with Thai pop, Lao country or American rock and roll blaring through the speakers.
Lao people have a lightness about them. They are not worriers and instead love a good practical joke. They are quick to laugh and light-hearted. While you won’t typically hear Lao people raising their voice in anger, it’s common to hear a group of men or women chatting and laughing and ragging on each other.
People in Laos are generous and inclusive. If you walk by a group of people eating, chances are they’ll invite you to join. Wedding season begins after Buddhist lent ends in October and the festivities are not limited to close friends and family. Stay in Laos long enough and you might yourself invited to your friend’s boss’ niece’s wedding where even if you know no one, you’ll feel plenty welcome just the same.
The majority of people in Laos practice Theravada Buddhism. Most of the temples in Laos are living, breathing religious centers where monks and novices study sacred texts. Lay Buddhists throughout Laos participate in tak bat, or morning alms giving where they give food and money to the monks. People in Laos who aren’t Buddhist are usually animist or a combination of both and spirit houses can be seen at many businesses and residences.
Jai Yen means cool heart and it’s the state of mind Lao people strive for. You won’t see Lao people arguing loudly or getting visibly upset. The Keep Calm attitude means queuing for public transit or navigating big crowds is slightly less harrowing than in other parts of the world. Road rage is basically nonexistent, instead people just take their time and keep their cool.