Even if you never totally make meaning of the curvaceous squiggles that are the Lao alphabet, learning these go-to phrases will win you favor with the locals. With no official transliteration system to the Latin alphabet, you might see the same Lao word spelled several different ways. With few grammar rules and no requirement to use punctuation or even put spaces between words, Lao is a challenging tonal language for native English speakers to pick up. But here are a few that it’s good to know.
The standard greeting, “suh-bye-dee,” offered with a smile and wave or a bow with hands pressed together at the chest in a “nop”, will nearly always be enthusiastically reciprocated by Lao people. Want to ask “How are you?” Say: “Jao saibaidee baw?” The answer: “Saibaidee.” Want to say good morning? “Saibaidee ton sao.” Good evening is “Saibaidee nyam leng.” You get the picture.
Khop Jai ຂອບໃຈ
“Khop Jai” or “Khop Chai” means “thank you.” Want to get fancy? Both “Khop jai lai lai” and “Khop jai deu” mean thank you very much. Use this phrase when you get change, or when leaving a restaurant and you’re sure to be met with the standard response: “Baw Pen Nyang.”
Baw Pen Nyang ບໍ່ເປັນຫຍັງ
What “Hakuna Matata” is to Swahili, “Baw Pen Nyang” is to Lao. This phrase literally means “it’s nothing.” Lao speakers use it to say “you’re welcome,” or as a response when someone makes a mistake or encounters an awkward situation. Lao people want to “save face” at all costs and greatly down play disagreement and errors. You’ll almost never hear a Lao person raise his or her voice in anger. Instead they bush it off. “Baw pen nyang.”
Lai Ngun Deh ໄລ່ເງິນແດ່
“Lai Ngun Deh” literally translates to “calculate money please.” No one will be in a hurry to push you out of a restaurant or coffee shop, so you’re going to need to ask for the check. Add “deh” for politeness. It is often expected that the higher status person or person who invited the group together will pay. It’s nearly always expected that a man will pay for his female companion, whether or not it’s a date.
Jao vao passa Angkit dai baw? ເຈົ້າປາກພາສາອັງກິດໄດ້ບໍ່
“Jao vao passa Angkit dai baw” translates to “Can you speak English?” Many Lao people, especially younger ones, will have studied English in school but may be shy to speak with foreigners. Asking about their English abilities in Lao will break the ice. If they can’t or won’t they might say, “baw dai” for “cannot.” If they know a little you might hear “dai noy nung.” Substitute “passa Ankit” for a language of your choice: “passa Falang” for French, “passa Lao” for Lao, or “passa Chin” for Chinese.”
Baw Pet ບໍ່ເຜັດ or Pet Noy Nung ເຜັດຫນ້ອຍຫນຶ່ງ
“Baw pet” means “not spicy” and will be helpful for travelers who don’t want to burn their tongue off eating a meal with 10 to 20 chili peppers. “Mak pet” means pepper and Lao cooking uses green and red chilis with reckless abandon. If you want your food a little spicy ask for “pet noy nung.” Be aware that “a little” is in the eyes of the beholder, and you might still end up with a fiery meal.
“Falang” means “French” but the term now applies to all white westerners. Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 until 1946 and the name stuck. There is some cognitive dissonance with westerners of Asian or African descent, who may be met with questions like “Where are you really from?” Falang isn’t an insult, but rather a category. Young children may point and stare calling out the word.
Hong nam yu sai? ຫ້ອງ້ນໍາຢູ່ໃສ
“Hong nam yu sai” is an important question for any traveler as it translates to “Where is the bathroom?” But if you just say “Hong nam?” and look desperate, someone will point you in the right direction. Laos has an abundance of western-style toilets, but squat toilets are still common in the provinces and in public parks. Many toilets of both styles require the user to pour a bucket of water into the bowl to flush. Many washrooms have hoses to spray yourself down, but carrying around a pack of tissues just in case is always a good idea.
Gin Khao Leo Baw? ກິນເຂົ້າແລ້ວບໍ່
“Gin khao leo baw” means “Have you eaten yet?” It’s a standard greeting and people aren’t just being polite. Sharing a meal and food with passersby is standard procedure. Lao style meals are served with a bowl of sticky rice, spicy sauces, vegetables and meats, and eaten with the hands. If you want to join say “Baw gin”, and if you want to continue on, say “Gin leo.”
Sok Dee! ໂຊກດີ
“Sok Dee” means “good luck!” It’s often used in place of goodbye, or “La Gon.” Luck and superstition play a big role in Lao culture. Countless lottery tickets are sold at street side tables and spirit houses can be seen outside many homes and businesses. These small decorative houses are a way to honor and give offerings to the spirits who live on the property so they don’t cause mischief for the inhabitants.
Tham Keo! ຕຳແກ້ວ
“Tham Keo,” means “hit glass” and is said while drinking as a toast, akin to “cheers.” You might also hear “tham jak” if you’re drinking out of small cups. Drinking culture in Laos is serious business. Large bottles of beer are bought in rounds of three to be shared and poured into smaller cups with ice. Toasting is done often and all drinkers at the table are involved. Hold onto the elbow with your free hand during a toast for extra politeness.
La Gon ລາກ່ອນ
“La Gon” means “stay well.” Say it to anyone leaving as the most common form of “Goodbye.” If you are at a party hosted by a Lao person, make sure to seek out the host to say goodbye and thank you before you depart. You can wave goodbye or give a bow with your hands together in a “nop.” The higher you hold your hands in a nop, the more respect you show.