Laos has 49 officially recognized ethnic groups with plenty more small and diverse groups that have their personal traditions, cultures, customs and dialects. However, the vast majority of the people are ethnic Lao (also referred to as Lao Loum) which are the foremost group and the most likely people to be encountered on the Laos tours.
The predominant religion in the country is Theravada Buddhism with Laos having a culture that is immensely spiritual, which can have an impact on many things related to daily life, as well as architecture and art.
The religious influence is seen with ceremonies such as the Sou Khoun that intends to enrich the spirit, while there is also a standard practice of giving alms to the local monks at the start of the day.
While the past history of the country gives every reason for the local Lao people to distrust outsiders, they are still genuinely friendly and have no problem with interacting with visitors to their country. Also, with Laos being a Buddhist country, it is important to be respectful and behave in the correct way.
Most of the villages in Laos are believed to have a temple in the local region. The temples are there for a variety of functions, such as places for the monks to pray and live, as well as to create a central place for recreational and social activities like religious festivals and ceremonies, and village meetings.
Plus, the temples in the urban parts of the country can even double up as a place of shelter for the disadvantaged or homeless people. Also, the temple can be used as a short-term hold for a body while religious ceremonies take place, and it is cremated.
The houses in Laos, especially those built on the lowlands are constructed with the help of stilts which creates a large space underneath. The houses mainly consist of two types which include those with a single or a double roof. Also, the number of steps up to the house can vary with an uneven number preferred. The height of the stairs will of course relate to the height of the house.
The style of traditional dress relates to the age and gender. Also, because the women are seen as the mothers of the nation, they are expected to dress appropriately. A typical outfit of the Lao women is a cotton or silk skirt, scarves, and blouses which are worn to festivals or other important events. Also, while attending these events a coiled hair style is used. For the men in Laos, the preferred costume is referred to as a salong which is a type of large pants.
For the tourists to the country on the Laos travel packages, it is advisable to dress conservatively, especially if visiting the religious buildings. The type of clothing worn should avoid showing the bear thighs and shoulders. Also, the lowland Lao are likely to disapprove of body-piercing, tattoos and dreadlocks – although the hill-tribe people aren’t so strict in their views.
It is traditional to remove footwear before entering most of the Buddhist monastery buildings, as well as private homes. This long-standing rule is followed to keep the home interior clean and can cause an offense if ignored.
The major occupations of the people of Laos that live in the rural regions are the creation of handicrafts, raising silkworms, animal husbandry and rice cultivation. Also, other activities include the workers in the plants, fishery and trading.
Many of the social taboos in Laos are connected in some way to the local Buddhist beliefs. One issue relates to the feet, which are seen as unclean and low – so when on the Laos private tour it is essential to avoid stepping over another person that may be lying or sitting on the group because this is seen as rude. Make sure to immediately apologize in the event of accidentally brushing someone with your feet. Also, a person’s head is seen as sacred, so it is important to not touch or pat someone in this area.
Also, there are other rules that must be obeyed when visiting the monasteries or other religious buildings. For instance, it is required to remove footwear before entering a monastery or seeing the monks’ living quarters. It isn’t proper for the woman to touch a Buddhist novice or monk, or even to hand an object directly to them. The more appropriate practice is to place the item on a table or give it to a layman to pass onto the monk.
The Buddha images are seen as objects of worship, so it is vital to avoid touching these items in a disrespectful manner. Also, if sitting in a religious building like a monastery or temple, it is also important to avoid pointing the feet in the direction of one of the Buddha images. For the tourists on the Laos family tour it may benefit to observe the local Lao people and copy the position they sit.
The traditional greeting of the lowland Lao is referred to as the nop which is basically to make a prayer-like gesture with the hands brought together at the chin. The nop can vary with a person’s statue and is usually reserved for greeting the local Lao people. For the western travellers visiting the country, the typical greeting is likely to be the handshake – although the westerner might receive a nop at the more high-end restaurants and hotels.
The local Lao people are naturally quite hospitable and will make every effort to help visitors in their country. This is mostly noticed in the rural regions where it is even possible to get invited to join a family meal or celebrate a marriage or birth. This is regarded as a privilege and is always polite to accept this type of invitation and a drink if offered. A real benefit of exploring to rural parts of the country is to get the more authentic feel of the place and really experience the local lifestyle and traditions.