Local traditions and culture in Laos

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Most Viewed Local Customs in Laos

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    by picek Updated Mar 18, 2013

    Almost anyone by remote riversides as well as by Mekong and lakes have boats and they mainly use them to cover shorter distances or for fishing. You can see kids of age less than 10 who know to maneuver them with great expertise, and to them it seems a lot of fun to spend days at waters catching water fauna. Unfortunatelly if becomes more difficult to catch fishes nowsadays since overfishing, increased boat traffic with loud machines and using explosives have done great damage to entire water ecosystems.
    Sometimes you can ask local fishermen for a boat ride or fish picnic, but one of best things to do is to slowly float on a boat in some canyon, with the engine turned off. At least then you could hear sounds of forests birds and insects, or even sounds of monkeys.

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    riverweed ... tasty snack

    by picek Updated Mar 14, 2013

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    This black river weed (also known as Khong river weed) can be bought at Naong Khiaw or Luang Prabang markets and bus stations and it is known as speciality of that region, so it's not so often seen elsewhere in that form.
    One can buy them in package of paper size and larger, price begins at 10 000 KIP. It seems that this tasty snack has been overlooked by visitors to Laos. Pity, because it is really good.
    Waterweed comes with variety of condiments and best ones are those sprinkled with sesam seeds. It will take a lot of them to get full, buy hey, that's snack and it helps you keep busy at long bus travels.
    Variety of water weeds are commonly used in Lao diet and cooked in different ways, most often as a sauce which will be eaten with sticky rice. Best are those from deep forest, where they are hand picked and fresh. Their taste won't be too strong yet somehow unique.

    river weed
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    to bring back lost spirits

    by picek Updated Apr 21, 2011

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    Anything has a spirit or few of them; human body is home of many whom dwell in different parts of body. Belief into spirits didn't change despite Buddhism being adopted as 'the main' religion - and it stems from Animism which is still widely present in many places of SEA, especially rural, traditional areas within conservative societies. Therefore Buddhism and Animism cohabit and are both tolerated and used in rituals, often together.

    Lao as majority keep few Animist traditions as important and integral part of the society but these things may be less evident in cities - and since they happen in intimacy of homes, they are not very obvious to passer by.

    One of the most important Lao traditions is 'basi' ceremony; at ideal circumstances executed by monk, but if not by him, then there is a person, ajarn, whom know a lot about Buddhism related things and will lead through the ceremony reading pali text.

    The story is very complex and it differes from region to region. Basi is performed upon weddings, by retun home sometimes, upon leaving for a big trip, by starting business, by birth, by death, by times of accident, I saw it performed for elephants.
    It is 'to bring back spirits' whose left body and thuse you're being 'injured', you're suffereing some thing or another. You got scared for example, and spirit left. You did something wrong, yet spirit left. Also, if you seemingly didn't do anything wrong, your spirit may left for other reasons. If you went travelling, maybe spirit stayed in previous place. And so on. To have the ceremony done as it should be with proper guidance, you'll fetch them back, thus result will be better future. In a lifetime, you'll encounter basi ceremonies for you and for other people - it's always large feast after - many rice liquor will be drank, good food will be prepared.

    By the end of the ritual white cotton threads are attached around the wrists of a person (or persons if they were more) for whom basi was performed by attendants who watched. A words of good luck and best wishes are spoken during attaching and numbers of threads will grow, covering arm above wrist. During wedding, money is tied to the thread and attached altogether.

    There are things and procedures about the ritual I didn't include in this note, they'd make little sense to reader and it's difficult to explain. Best is of course you'll get invited, then you'll see: the etiquette, dress code, proper behavior... it's all very complex.

    Well, yes... nowsadays some travel agencies organize basi ceremonies for those interested to see it, but I cannot compare how it relates to traditional one. After all, these things happen by common village people quite often and by chance you could attend one if you're in rural area. Often people call visitors to join - they're curious about you and you're curious about them, so it's kind of mutual interest. If they invite you, join them.

    the ceremony evolves around the flower and string basi ceremony, attaching the cotton string
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    if you need good luck

    by picek Written Mar 23, 2011

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    You should make friends with geckos - it is believed they bring good luck, so they shouldn't be chased away. They become active by night when they feed on mosquitos and small insects, but also they may be as well eaten by some trained domestic cat. You'll notice their distinguishing voice - upon which they got their Lao name - sounds very similar (in a way, but you should record it rather than try to describe it with words) like - kop ke.

    You'd hear them and see them in many homes, restaurants, also hotels and guesthouses... but yes, most certainly at homes ... I yet have to see a house without single gecko, would they believe in its fortunate properties or not.

    Competely harmless they are, clean and very symphaetic animals... you'll spot them some time for sure, so let them not scare you if you don't know them yet.

    Many species are known and can be distinguished by experts - but for those beliveing in fate, those gecko with two tails (one tail split in two as kind of mutation) are especially precious and have legendary status among them. Unfortunatelly, they are very rare!

    gecko worth a fortune
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    Lao hospitality

    by picek Written Feb 16, 2011

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    When a family member whom has been long time away makes a trip, a visit, to his or hers village where she was born, there's a great reason for feast - and special food will be prepared, usually that persons favourite. IF there are more people comming, the feast will be bigger and other villagers may join, pig of cow will be slaughtered, fish will be fried and great souces and desserts will be prepared specially for that occasion; they haven's seen her for long and are genuinly curious, people always come to the home and want to see him; note that it doesn't happen often for those living in cities (or in other areas) to go home - it's time consuming and expensvie thing to do, so it's not uncommon to pay a visit to relatives once a year, sometimes twice - usually for holidays.

    Sometimes, by tradition - a 'basi' ceremony will be held for the member - without doubt, the single most important ceremony for Lao. The basi ceremony is not only limited to a family member, but can be extended to his wife, a closer relative of his or in-laws, or just for the couple. It is done by various occasions - before travelling, for marriage, after being seriously sick, for business... and has recently become part of the 'special', cultural tourism offer. Basi differs from region to region, from village to village.

    In general, whenever you're guest you can expect a lot of attention. If you're foreigner visiting Lao in the villages, so much greater attention. Let it not be hard to bear with it, this is the 'price' you've decided to take as you stepped off the 'prescribed' common tourist paths. You're likely to be met with whole range of feelings, like bewilderment, mistrust or genuine friendliness... rarely hostility, though... negative emotions are not displayed to public, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. Negative emotions, criticsm and frustrations are not expceted to be shown from your side, either - if there is such thing allowed, it is among those whom know each other very well. It is not well to speak about 'bad' things as accidents, death, disease that can happen because it is widely believed it can bring bad spirits upon the family or yourself which result in misfortune.

    As you wander villages or towns a call from houses may invite you to sit down with them in their modest homes - it's okay to accept and have a glass of water, sometimes that's most they can offer. A call to join a table upon holidays (phi mai) can happen, too and rice liquor will be poured to your glass. You can decline to drink alcohol, but saying no to glass of water is more likely to be interpreted as a bit rude of you. You can as well decline a food if you don't want to eat from any reason, they are not very pushy with it. As beer is luxury, grab a bottle of two from a street shop before you go to the host if you have chance - it will be shared commonly.

    There are ways how to drink alcohol from a shared glass, but this is yet another story.

    delicious food and beer on basi ceremony
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    'greeting' boards

    by picek Updated Dec 22, 2010

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    It's common sight to see when visiting Laos: in towns and cities the boards with 'well-meaning' or welcoming messages, at times cliched, are installed by roads, so everyone can read. Well, mostly they are for Lao population, but here and there you'll see English translated ones, too.

    Some are quite an artwork of local artist, hand painted and unique. Some beaten by time, other like painted yesterday.

    Artwork 1: the ideal, 'balanced' socitey: soldier in Lao uniform, construction worker, teacher, folk musician with 'khene', and a woman in Lao traditional attire, moving as in Lao dance. The script in red could read soemting as: 'United to protect eternal state, to build prosperous economy, to develop the society under Lao Revolutionary Party (Pak Pasason Pativat Lao)'.

    Artwork 2: three male soldiers, two minority women in thier traditional attire - in middle Lao woman. The cript in red reads: 'to make ethnic groups united, stronger' and below the signature from sponsor of this board (of some company).

    Artwork 3: people of different segment of the society visiting at doctor. The script says:
    ' thank you for taking children to hospital to vaccine them'.

    as seen in Luang Nam Tha ideal society to call for health
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    You won't find this in Starbucks

    by stamporama Updated Nov 5, 2010

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    If you're a coffee addict like me, you never allow a day to pass without drinking at least a cup of your favorite brew. And since you also happen to be a traveler then part of the travel experience is to try out new tastes, not just with food (that's a given) but also with coffee.

    So while in Laos, try out their home-grown Laocoffee for breakfast. Nothing really special about it except that it is served warm (not steaming hot) and in a small glass as pictured.

    Bottom's up!
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    great fruits

    by picek Updated Apr 6, 2010

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    This country has excellent natural conditions to grow variety of fruits throughout the year and it is the best to buy fresh from the market or farmer directly. Most common fruit you will see are banana, mango (both green and yellow, the best I've eaten ever), jackfruit, orange, lime (except for lime juice it is often by the plate to eat it with soups and snacks), tamarind (excellent both sour and brown), sugar cane (very refreshing) and pineapple.
    Then mangosteen (my favourite and sweetest), starfruit (most interesting), dragon fruit, longan, lychee, soursup (amazing fruits all of them but especially latter) and lamut (it's brown skinned fruit that taste like pear and cocholate and grows in floodplains near Vientiane, the taste is real interesting and lovely when ready).

    Apples, pears and peaches are considered exotic here, and are mostly imported from other countries (China) and so are grapes.
    Here and there you will pass durian (imported).

    Fruit is the best gift when paying a visit to local. It is most common that those who come from city bring a bag of fruit, whether banana (which are many kinds in Laos and are eaten in different ways), orange or apple, or those more difficult (and expensive) to get (such as mangosteen and soursup).
    Also, luckily, most fruit is grown without pesticides and fertilizers (too expensive for farmer) so I believe you will eat them plentifull every day as you won't have chance to eat that good (and most fresh) back at home :)

    BTW, tomato in Laos is considered as fruit.

    when you're guest fruit waits for you
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    more on food - meats

    by picek Written Apr 1, 2010

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    When walking the streets and bus stations or food markets (such as night or day markets) meat will be often sold grilled on stick and as well just certain parts, usually selected and on display from the plate like that on the picture. Normally covered by net to prevent flies landing on it or in glass box where everyone can see it. Not every shop has fridge to store food, and when they do they often keep cold drinks in it or just fresh uncooked food ready to be prepared.

    Most popular meat is chicken and pork, usually fresh kill and grilled (or cooked) before sell from their own supply. Every part of the animal body is used (except feather and unprocessed food from the gut); head, beak of chicken are usually cooked. Guts are cleaned and filled with vegetable to become tiny chicken sausage.
    Pork is preffered to be eaten grilled over cooked, and most precious are young piglets.

    Then there is buffalo meat and beef. Popular snack are buffalo skin stripes - when cut in stripe they would dry it and throw it in the fire to burn the hair off the skin and to get more flavour. Cow and buffalo are eaten on weddings and ceremonies if the farmer can afford to kill one, or has to do it if he made some 'mistake' which offended spirits. When meat of large animal is killed in village they usually sell it to neighbor first, if something is left, it will go to the market to sell fresh or parts of it will be grilled and sold as such.

    Goat is common in some parts of Laos, while its meat isn't that widely eaten. Goat barbecue is popular in Vientiane.

    Sheep or mutton is even less available than goat, very rare in fact.

    Then there are wild animals that are cherished: forest animals more precisely. Among them forest rat or field rat (not city rat in general, but wild ones who eat clean food), squirrel, forest cock, number of birds, forest dog, cat and especially deer. Some species are very difficult to get nowsadays because of overhunting and other are illegal, but you see them sold by the road sides sometimes. Best not to buy it because it contributes to extinction but there seems nothing can prevent that because many local and asian workers buy it, nevertheless.

    Frogs are another popular food, rather snack than real lunch.

    Fish and local crab is best from streams if possible, but they are raised varieties as well, especially fish usually come from ponds, or large rivers. Cooked, grilled or fermented fish are most often eaten.

    Some species of insect are common and eaten fried with oils, don't know their names in English and they won't sell them often in the markets. Bee eggs and ant eggs are delicacy in Laos, as well as in other Asian countries. Ant egg has anti-malarial properties, it is believed.

    Cat and horse are not eaten by Buddhist Lao, other may.

    collection of meat outside at the bus stations
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    good coffee is always welcome

    by picek Written Mar 24, 2010

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    Once when you're in Laos you should try Lao coffee. It is addicitve. Normally coffee is drink with fair amount of condensed milk and it is therefore very sweet and thick, and also the pure coffee has much more distinctive taste than any brew which was introduced here from foriegn companies (Nescafe, just to name one) which taste like water comparing to local varieties.
    It is best to drink coffee from vendors by the roadside or small shops, restaurants ... you will see when they have coffee, it will look like here on this picture. May I add that it is best to have it with ice (from ice factory, but if you're supicious where they supply if from don't drink it if you worry over your health) and you get it in big glass, not small cups like in european cafeterias.
    Even when you drink without milk, the coffee is served hot and in smaller glass (app. 1 dcl), or if you don't want ice but milk only, then the glass is the same size small. Normally that kind of coffee is drink in the morning when large glass is drank during the day.

    Just a few details here: coffee has been introduced by French first to Vietnamese and laters via Vietnamese to Lao.
    Southern Laos is coffee growing region in the state.
    There are organic verieties available in markets and some shops (Paksong coffee).

    coffe is great thing in Laos
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    Laao Khao or rice whiskey or laao lao

    by picek Written Mar 22, 2010

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    This is the local alcohol drink that will be most often drink alone (not mixed with anything, but not to be drank by yourself only, hehe). Made of rice which is brewed upon fire after it was fermented in large jar couple of months - see the picture. It will taste similar to 'schnaps' or plum whiskey (drank in Europe), and doesn't really taste any rice in it.

    The best laao khao (note - laao word doesn't mean the same like 'Lao', so you cannot really say Lao khao, because Lao is word for Lao or Laotian, when laao means 'alcohol' and khao means 'rice') is locally produced and believe me, you won't have problem to buy/find it anywhere. All you need to do is to ask the local or head straight to the market and point to the bottle with transparent liquid, yep, that's nothing else than it! Most people will sell it between 5000 KIP - 10000 KIP, which is less than a Euro for a bottle.

    Now, the biggest amounts of rice whiskey are consumed on Lao new years and weddings or local festivals. It is tradition that when you come to house where wedding is taking place you bring along bottle of your whiskey and basket of sticky rice. This bottles then travel around the house or area from glass to glass. Lao like to drink socially and there is special way of sharing the whiskey (or beer, but that's luxury to drink fro average Lao) which goes like that: someone in the group or among guests is asked to pour drink in the glass. First you drink yourself showing amount of drink in the glass, because later when you will pour to other persons in group you have to pour the same amount as you did it to yourself. And everyone drink from the same glass after you. So you go first, drink a little, the you proceed to next person, pour the same and so on and on, untill you finished the last person in your group. Then normally other person will be asked to repeat the thing, and this goes on and on and people get drrunk relatively fast. So best is to pour little in the glass, enough for 2 or 3 sips.

    You're of course allowed to decline a drink when it comes to you or when you just got tired. Or you may take one sip and the rest you discreetly pour on the floor if outside or the closest corner or hole in the house (most have wooden floors). If the floor is concrete, you may put the leftover from your glass in the ashtray.

    In this social drinking everyone follows the same rules, men and women. Only childern are exempt from drinking, naturally.

    Rice whiskey also vary from place to place, and in some regions they add herbs. The best pure one so far I had is from Sayabouly and Sam Neua. That one from shops made in factories cannot compare, that's why it's worth to ask around a little.

    a man with rice liquor Laao khao, or laao lao
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    by Avieira67 Updated Nov 7, 2009

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    The Baci is a ceremony to celebrate a special event, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. A mother is given a baci after she has recovered from a birth, the sick are given bacis to facilitate a cure, officials are honored by bacis, and novice monks are wished luck with a baci before entering the temple. The baci ceremony can take place any day of the week and all year long, preferably before noon or before sunset.
    This is a survived ritual in Laos, and I was invited to participate in this cerimony in Nong Khiaw.

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    Lao oranges

    by picek Updated Oct 8, 2009

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    The mountainous area between Vang Vieng and Kasi is famous for growing oranges: you can try them from one of many fruit stalls by the state road No. 13. They're cheap and sweet. Over ripe get dry inside fast and aren't that tasty (but it doesn't mean that one will throw it away here) and they have many seeds inside. Lao people like oranges and bring them along when visiting friends and families or go pickniking. They're great to eat on long rides.

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    pots, water and plants

    by picek Updated Oct 1, 2009

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    Here's how people with limited space yet with lot of immagination and care show thier little 'pot garden'. In a large jar filled with water they will grow all kinds of aquatic plants, most popular would be of course lotus as it means purity and water lilies of many kinds. They would also have some fish inside - some of them very small yet good to keep mosquito population in control while others will be seen easier. These pots are popular in towns and cities where not every one has access to green area and where concrete is prevalent type of the floor - and you will see those pots by the sidewalk usually, by the entry to the house or where they have sitting area. Also those luckier who have green gardens like to have one or two pots of water - along with other plants in or outside the pots.
    However, those kind of pots can be also seen in other SEA countries, just watch them while you're walking around the towns - they're noticeable with their vegetation and flowers.

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    sticky rice

    by picek Written Jul 10, 2009

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    Among most important crops in Laos is rice, of course. Good locations can harvest rice 2 times a year upon condition that irrigation is provided. But this is beyond reach to many ordinary farmers - the terrain is difficult in most of country, agriculture is mostly done by hands and only a few can afford advanced machinery. Also water is not abundant everywhere so it's not possible to build effective irrigation system which will cover the cost of construction.
    Between rice varieties most widely used on daily basis in Laos is sticky rice or glutinous rice. In Lao it's called 'khao niaw'. One has to use hands to form small balls with fingers before it's eaten - as such it's dip into variety of sauces and other foods.
    The picture here shows steaming the sticky rice in a bamboo basket upon boiling water in kitchen in a very simple way. No chimneys here so the walls become black.
    I find 'khao niaw' delicious and love the way of eating it with hands.

    khao niaw
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