Laos is hemmed in on all sides by countries with very strong cultural identities of their own, such as Thailand, Myanmar and China. Furthermore, a large segment of the population has roots in Thailand or Vietnam; it isn’t really surprising, therefore, that Laos’ culture has been heavily influenced by the cultures of neighbouring countries- particularly Thailand and Vietnam. Most Laotian dances, like those of Thailand, are based on Indian Hindu epics; traditional handicrafts too are similar to those of Thailand and Vietnam. Religion, language and literature, lifestyles, traditions, even food- all are very similar to those of the surrounding lands, and much of this culture takes its essence from Buddhism and Hinduism. Festivals, architecture, arts, handicrafts, even performing arts all have some connection or the other to these religions.
Most Laotians are friendly and accommodating people, but they do have some unwritten rules of conduct you would do well to observe, if only to avoid offending people. First of all, dress and act discreetly- wearing scanty clothing, showing affection in public, and shouting is considered extremely rude. Secondly, remember that a Laotian’s head is considered very `private’, so to say- never touch anyone on the head. Similarly, feet are considered `low’- never `point’ with your feet, or raise them above ground level.
It’s considered a sign of good breeding to show respect to everybody, especially to old people. And, of course, you must show respect to the religious shrines, idols and scriptures of the Buddhists. Shoes must be removed before entering a place of worship, and you must be well covered (no shorts or tank tops!). Never turn your back on an image of the Buddha (no matter how small) or do anything that might be equated with showing disrespect.
Laos is known for its excellent folk arts- the country’s hill tribes, especially, are renowned for the beauty of their handicrafts - the quilts and embroideries of the Hmong are famous worldwide. Textiles are among the specialties of the Laotians- exquisite weaves in silk and cotton, as well as embroideries, are produced all over the country, and are available both as bolts of cloth and as readymade garments, bags, quilts and wall hangings. The other specialty is metalwork and jewellery- Laos’ goldsmiths and silversmiths craft some of the most beautiful jewellery in South Asia. Other beautiful arts and crafts of the country include woodcarving, basketry and carved ivory.