Even if you never totally decipher meaning of the curvy squiggles that are the Lao alphabet, learning these go-to phrases will win you favor with the locals. With no official transliteration system to the Latin alphabet, you might see the same Lao word spelled several different ways. With few grammar rules and no requirement to use punctuation or even put spaces between words, Lao is a challenging tonal language for native English speakers to pick up. But here are a few key phrases that are good to know.
The standard greeting, “suh-bye-dee,” offered with a smile and wave or a bow with hands pressed together at the chest in a “nop,” will nearly always be enthusiastically reciprocated by Lao people. Want to ask “How are you?” Say: “Jao saibaidee baw?” The answer: “Saibaidee.” Want to say good morning? “Saibaidee ton sao.” Good evening is “Saibaidee nyam leng.” You get the picture.
“Khop Jai” or “Khop Chai” means “thank you.” Want to get fancy? Both “Khop jai lai lai” and “Khop jai deu” mean thank you very much. Use the phrase and you’re sure to be met with the standard response: “Baw Pen Nyang.”
It’s not uncommon to hear a chorus of “Doi, doi, doi,” as a form of agreement in conversation. “Men” is also used in the affirmative. “Baw” means no and when paired with me as in “baw mee” it means “don’t have” and baw dai” means “cannot.”
While “sorry” isn’t a common phrase spoken by Lao people, “khaw toot” is a polite attention-grabber in a store or restaurant. You can also say it when squeezing by people in Lao’s impossibly tiny corridors or on crowded busses and tuk-tuks.
Be forwarned, if you start dropping Lao phrases, locals may assume you know more than you do and talk your ear off. Repeat this phrase when you’re totally lost.
“La Gon” means “stay well.” Say it to anyone leaving as the most common form of “Goodbye.” If you are at a party hosted by a Lao person, make sure to seek out the host to say goodbye and thank you before you depart. You can wave goodbye or give a bow with your hands together in a “nop.” The higher you hold your hands in a nop, the more respect you show.
“Hong nam yu sai” is an important question for any traveler as it translates to “Where is the bathroom?” But if you just say “Hong nam?” and look desperate, someone will point you in the right direction. Laos has an abundance of Western-style toilets, but squat toilets are still common in the provinces and in public parks. Many toilets of both styles require the user to pour a bucket of water into the bowl to flush. Many washrooms have hoses to spray yourself down, but carrying around a pack of tissues just in case, it’s always a good idea.
Lao people are not the best with maps, and most people navigate by landmarks. If you’re hiring a taxi or tuk-tuk to a place more obscure than a major hotel or airport, you would do well to navigate yourself and instruct the driver where to turn. Addresses are not always prevalent in Laos, neither are street signs.
These are helpful phrases for communicating with drivers, especially local bus and Songtaew drivers who are dropping off a lot of people at unmarked stops.
Literally this phrase means “I’m hungry for rice,” indicating the staple’s prominence in the Lao diet. Eating communally is a big deal in Laos and being able to express hunger will win you favor with Lao people who are often talking about food.
Lao food and especially delicious shakes, juices and coffee can have an overabundance of both sugar and MSG. Tell your barista or waitstaff ahead of time if you want your order made without either.
“Baw pet” means “not spicy” and will be helpful for travelers who don’t want to burn their tongue off eating a meal with 10 to 20 chili peppers. “Mak pet” means pepper and Lao cooking uses green and red chilis with reckless abandon. If you want your food a little spicy, ask for “pet noy nung.” Be aware that “a little” is in the eyes of the beholder, and you might still end up with a fiery meal.
While tap water is not safe to drink in Laos, the locals don’t drink it either, so you don’t have to be worried about drinking from pitcher in restaurants or from the big blue jugs. The same goes for ice.
If you’ve had something tasty, let your host know by telling them it was “sep” or “sep lai” for very delicious.
“Lai Ngun Deh” literally translates to “calculate money please.” No one will be in a hurry to push you out of a restaurant or coffee shop, so you’re going to need to ask for the check. Add “deh” for politeness. It is often expected that the higher status person or person who invited the group together will pay. It’s nearly always expected that a man will pay for his female companion, whether or not it’s a date.
Lao merchants aren’t trying to rip you off, and while you can ask them to lower the price, don’t expect more than a 10-15% discount. Intense haggling is not the norm, and you may cause a merchant to lose face or sell the item to you at a loss.
Soon / 0
Nung / 1
Song / 2
Sam / 3
See / 4
Ha / 5
Hok / 6
Jet / 7
Paed / 8
Gao / 9
Sip / 10
Phan / 1000
“Gin khao leo baw” means “Have you eaten yet?” It’s a standard greeting and people aren’t just being polite. Sharing a meal and food with passersby is standard procedure. Lao style meals are served with a bowl of sticky rice, spicy sauces, vegetables and meats, and eaten with the hands. If you want to join, say “Baw gin,” and if you want to continue on, say “Gin leo.”
“Tham Keo,” means “hit glass” and is said while drinking as a toast, akin to “cheers.” You might also hear “tham jak” if you’re drinking out of small cups. Drinking culture in Laos is serious business. Large bottles of beer are bought in rounds of three to be shared and poured into smaller cups with ice. Toasting is done often, and all drinkers at the table are involved. Hold onto the elbow with your free hand during a toast for extra politeness.
“Jao vao passa Angkit dai baw” translates to “Can you speak English?” Many Lao people, especially younger ones, will have studied English in school but may be shy to speak with foreigners. Asking about their English abilities in Lao will break the ice. If they can’t or won’t they might say, “baw dai” for “cannot.” If they know a little you might hear “dai noy nung.” Substitute “passa Ankit” for a language of your choice: “passa Falang” for French, “passa Lao” for Lao, or “passa Chin” for Chinese.”
What “Hakuna Matata” is to Swahili, “Baw Pen Nyang” is to Lao. This phrase literally means “it’s nothing.” Lao speakers use it to say “you’re welcome,” or as a response when someone makes a mistake or encounters an awkward situation. Lao people want to “save face” at all costs and greatly down play disagreement and errors. You’ll almost never hear a Lao person raise his or her voice in anger. Instead they brush off such thoughts: “Baw pen nyang.”
“Falang” means “French,” but the term now applies to all white Westerners. Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 until 1946, and the name stuck. There is some cognitive dissonance with Westerners of Asian or African descent, who may be met with questions like “Where are you really from?” Falang isn’t an insult but rather a category. Young children may point and stare calling out the word.
“Sok Dee” means “good luck!” It’s often used in place of goodbye or “La Gon.” Luck and superstition play a big role in Lao culture. Countless lottery tickets are sold at street-side tables, and spirit houses can be seen outside many homes and businesses. These small decorative houses are a way to honor and give offerings to the spirits who live on the property so they don’t cause mischief for the inhabitants.