Overall the Lao culture is super easy going and accepting. However there are some things that you should not do in Laos, for your own safety and stresslevel, the conservation of the country and ofcourse, to show respect to the local people and culture.
1. Argue with police
Police officers in Laos might stop you for minor offences or maybe for no offence at all. The police is often underpaid and they are simply looking to gain some money from tourists. My biggest tip: pay whatever is necessary and be on your way. If they ask for your passport or driver license just say you don’t have one so they can’t take it from you. The fine you will have to pay will be around 50.000/100.000 kip (DON’T PAY MORE!), which is about 5/10 euros and 6/11 dollars. Don’t ever shout at the police or let them loose face, the best thing for everyone is to save face and move on.
2. Touch people’s heads or show your feet
In Buddhism, the head is considered sacred, so avoid touching the heads of people you aren’t familiar with, as it could end up causing offence. While the head is considered sacred in Buddhist culture, the feet are considered the lowest point. Therefore, you should not point your bare feet to people, as doing so is considered extremely rude.
3. Leave without cash
Cash is king in Laos and you should always have some with you because in most of the shops you can’t use your card.
Tip: In most atm’s located in laos you can only withdraw money with your credit card, so make sure you have one!
4. Wear a (small) bikini
The people in Laos want to have their skin as white as possible and therefore they avoid the sun. So swimming and sunbathing is not really a thing in Laos. If they go swimming it will be late at afternoon when there is no sun, sometimes wrapped in a sarong and sometimes just fully clothed. So if you go swimming avoid bringing your smallest bikini, I would suggest to bring a sarong, this will avoid some uncomfortable situations. Walking around town with swimwear is really not acceptable, always bring something to cover yourself up.
5. Show to much emotions- get upset/ scream
Native people of Laos want to save face at all costs, they never argue or shout loudly. If you would raise your voice or show anger in public Lao people will calmly walk away. The service is slow in shops/restaurants/bars and the service quality is of big difference. Practice patience, this is really important. Don’t expect anyone to rush just because you are in a hurry.
6. Touch a monk
Touching a monk is considered rude and especially for woman. Woman are simply not allowed to touch a monk, it’s against the rules. So be really careful not to accidentally touch a monk’s robes on the street or sharing a tuk-tuk.
7. Always buy plastic bottles and accept plastic bags.
In Laos most of the local people don’t know about the big current plastic problem in the world. This is why they provide you with a plastic bag for everything, everything? YES everything! If you buy 1 apple they will put it in a plastic bag. Everywhere alongside the big roads you can find plastic. Try to be a responsible traveler and bring your own reusable bottle and handbag.
Want to know more on how to be a responsible traveler? Read this blog
8. Elephant riding, buying antiques or wildlife products
It’s illegal to take ivory, or animal pelts or products out of Laos. They will be taken away from you and you will be fined. It’s also illegal to take antique Buddha sculptures out of the county, as many have been stolen from temples, which deplete cultural heritage.
I can not urge you enough to NOT ride an elephant. Wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of them. So in order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”.
Tip: If you want to have an elephant experience in Laos, I can not recommend the Elephant Sanctuary in Vang Vieng and Mandalao elephant conservation in Luang Prabang more. They treat the elephants with love and kindness. No hooks, no riding, no chains.
9. Public displays of affection
It just makes the locals very uncomfortable. If you can’t get enough off your lover, do it in private. It is just a matter of respect.
10. Ride a motorbike without experience and without a helmet
To ride a bike in Laos (especially the big cities: Vientiane, Pakse and Luang Prabang) you will need some experience. The roads are crazy and there are almost no rules to follow so accidents happen very fast.
11. Leave your shoes on in someone’s home
In a big part of Southeast Asia, shoes belong outside the homes of people and bare feet are worn in the home. In Laos this is no else, if you are not sure what to do, follow what others do. Some people may tell you that you may keep your shoes on, but if hers or his are off, you should do the same. They are just trying to be polite.
12. Drink tap water
This may be an obvious one but still very important. Drinking water straight from the tap is a recipe for illness. Luckily for us, bottled water is cheap enough to buy.
13. Don’t trek without a guide
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. Thousands of ‘unexploded ordinances’ are still hidden in the countryside, killing or injuring over 100 people every year.
If you go trekking, I would recommend to stay on the roads, and if possible to go with a guide. He will know the land and can keep you safe.