|The Lao word for hello is sabai dee (Photo: myodysseytours.com)
Bao Tram: Welcome back, Phan, to VOV’s Cultural Rendezvous!
Boualaphan: Hello, VOV listeners, it’s me again, Phan, a Laos student from the Advanced Education Program at Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry. It’s my second time here but I’m still feeling quite nervous.
Bao Tram: Relax, relax, it’s just like our usual chat on Facebook, especially for today’s topic. It’s what we do every day...greet each other. How do Laotians greet each other traditionally?
Boualaphan: Traditionally, Lao people greet each other by saying “sa bai dee” and pressing their palms together in a sort of prayer gesture which is called a “nop”. Sometimes, we say “sa bai dee bor?” which means “how are you?” or even “kin khao leo bor?” which means “have you eaten?” when we meet each other.
Bao Tram: Is the “nop” a required gesture or an optional gesture when you say “sa bai dee”?
Boualaphan: Yes, of course, as I mentioned earlier, a “nop” is considered a must gesture that you have to do accompanied with saying “sa bai dee” when meeting each other. And don’t forget to present the charming smile and slight bend of the knee when you do a “nop”. This will be even more impressive for the people you meet.
Bao Tram: I want to know how to use the Lao greetings properly. Is there a different method of greeting men and women? How do Laotian men and women greet each other?
Boualaphan: I think all Laotians commonly come up with a “nop” when meeting each other regardless of gender. But for men, apart from a “nop” and saying “sa bai dee”, what we often do is shake one another’s hand or touch one another on the arm, just like other men around the world do when they greet each other. Women also say “sa bai dee” with a “nop” gesture of pressing their palms together just below their chin with a slight bow and a charming smile. But be careful. Touching or showing affection to the opposite gender is considered inappropriate in Laos. Therefore when men and women meet, they just say “sa bai dee” with a “nop” gesture. No handshake or touching each other’s arm.
Bao Tram: What basic etiquette rules should foreign visitors know?
Boualaphan: As a conservative country, we have many rules that visitors should know about before visiting Laos. First, the head is the most sacred point of the body, while the bottom of the feet is considered the least sacred, so never touch our head or point with or touch others with your feet. Second, just to echo what I mentioned last time, dress politely and conservatively, avoid wearing scanty clothing while walking in town, and always respect elders. Finally, don’t forget to present a “nop” with a slight bow and charming smile accompanied by saying “sa bai dee” when meeting Laotians. Do a “nop” gesture and say “khop jai”, which means “thank you”, when you receive something.
Bao Tram: I’ve read a number of Lao travel guides which all warn visitors to be careful when visiting a Lao family. What visiting rules should we know about?
Boualaphan: Absolutely yes! You need to be very careful when making a visit to a Lao family, because even a small simple, action could make them feel very uncomfortable. First, please remove your shoes before entering to a Lao person’s houses because shoes are dirty. Then say “sa bai dee” with a “nop” gesture to each family member and give them some gifts if you remembered to bring some. Second, for dining etiquette, it‘s more impressive if you help with the cooking rather than sit there and wait. When the food is ready, please wait for older people to start eating first. Then you can follow. That is one way to pay your respect. It’s important that you don’t shout or speak loudly to any family member. Speak gently and politely with a smile. When you pass by someone who is seated, you should be polite and gently bent down. Never just walk in front of others. Finally, don’t touch things or walk around the house without permission. This is considered very rude. And before you leave, make sure you say “khop jai” and perform a “nop” to say thank you and goodbye.
Bao Tram: Are there any rules about gift giving in Laos?
Boualaphan: We don’t really have a strict rule on that, to be honest. You can give any kind of gift when you visit a Lao family. It can be food, fruit, clothing, or for children, school supplies or candy. But be careful. Giving someone money is not a good idea, because they might think you’re looking down on them or showing off.
Bao Tram: Thank you, Phan, for sharing with us some interesting cultural information about Laos. Once more I want to say “khop jai, Phan!”
Boualaphan: Well, finally, I would like to invite all of VOV’s listeners to visit Laos once in your life, because you’ll gain a lot of unforgettable experiences for sure. And yes, I’ll end this interview by saying “khop jai” to all your listeners and to VOV for giving me a second chance to be here. I’m really thankful for this.