Courtship has its rules and customs in all countries and it helps to be aware of unforeseen cultural expectations. Here are some ground rules to keep in mind in Laos.
The Lao, generally speaking, are a flirtatious lot. Sexual innuendo and proposition-fuelled banter form a central aspect of social interaction. In a country where white skin and straight noses are often seen as desirable traits, if you fall into that category you’ll find yourself often flattered. The Lao are also rather blunt and will openly joke about people’s appearances. Weight is not a sensitive issue here; if people start joking about yours, don’t take offence. Unfortunately, many people in Laos are less forgiving of skin-tone than weight. Dark skin is traditionally seen as an indicator of poverty and considered by some as undesirable; most all cosmetics contain whitening cream and Lao people avoid the sun as much as possible. If someone makes a derogatory remark about your skin colour, it can sting; try not to take it personally and bear in mind that you’re in a very homogenous culture with very specific ideals of beauty.
Lao people have a more conservative attitude towards public displays of affection. While friends are often seen cuddling or stroking each other’s legs, this is less frequently seen among romantic couples. Holding hands in public is socially acceptable, hugging is fine, but even a kiss on the cheek makes some people slightly uncomfortable, and making out in public is just plain rude.
Lao is a very traditional society in which the marriageable age of a girl is 14 and the husband’s family pays a dowry to the wife’s family, the value of which is increased by the girl’s chastity. Matrimony acts as a strong familial and economic tie. For Western men travelling in poor rural areas, it’s possible that fathers may offer their daughters’ hands to them rather freely, and relationships with a country girl may promptly lead to talks of marriage. In more affluent urban areas, like Vientiane, meeting Lao women doesn’t always have so many strings attached, although there are potential complications.
Technically speaking, physical relations between a Lao national and a non-Lao national, who are unmarried, is illegal. For a Lao woman and a non-Lao man, relations are not permitted unless a dowry has been paid to the woman’s family and the union has been registered with the local authorities. For non-Lao women interested in Lao men, or for same-sex couples, some paperwork and fees need to be completed for it to be legit. Failing to comply with these laws can result in fines running $500 USD and upwards, but they are imposed erratically. Romances still flourish in spite of the bureaucracy, some more openly than others, but overall, be aware of this law and potential troubles that could arise.
The line between dating and sex work in Laos is fine and at times, blurry. Bars like Bor Pen Yang and Sam Lo have a range of people. Even if a woman is just out for a good time, she may still ask you for some extra money for her tuk tuk the next morning. If you’ve been too busy drinking to notice what the object of your desire is about, be prepared to pay 150,000 kip upwards the next morning. The best way to be sure is to just be honest about what you’re looking for.
Laos has a good number of ladyboys, or gateuys, many of whom are exceptionally beautiful and not easy to distinguish from the other girls. If this isn’t your thing, do not react aggressively. Lao society is very accepting of homosexuality and overt displays of homophobia aren’t acceptable. That said, drunk Western men wandering home alone late at night have reported harassment from ladyboys, but again, stay out of trouble and refrain from physical violence. Vientiane has a few gay bars, notably GQ bar on Chao Anou Road. The scene is more populated by gay men, while lesbians, toms, are not seen out and about as often.
It is said that white elephants were prized by the ancient Southeast Asian kingdoms both for their rarity and their beauty. A white elephant is a term sometimes used by Lao men for European women and if you’re a white woman travelling in Laos, be prepared for a lot of compliments and propositioning. Fortunately, Lao men tend to express their admiration more playfully than aggressively, and instances of sexual violence towards Western women are virtually unheard of in Laos. For female travellers in Laos cultivating a local fling, there won’t be many strings attached, except that the man may very well be married and not tell you about it. While marriage is highly cherished in Laos, fidelity is a theoretical concept.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 9th February, 2013.