Drugs are illegal
Alcohol is free-flowing and you may be encouraged to drink more than you’d like (although it’s also fine to tell your host you’re done drinking). You also might find that illegal drugs, especially marijuana and opium, are prevalent. Exercise extreme caution. If a tuk-tuk driver offers you prostitutes or drugs unprovoked, your safest bet is to turn him down. Some dealers are in cahoots with the police and will turn in their clients.
Don’t touch a monk
Touching a monk or novice is considered rude, and is totally taboo if you are a woman. Women should also be careful not to accidentally brush up against a monk’s robes on the street, in a temple or sharing a tuk-tuk. Women should not hand anything directly to a monk but instead should pass the item to a male intermediary. The only exception to this rule is giving morning alms to monks by placing the offering of food or money into the monk’s alms bowl.
Don’t wear your shoes inside a home or temple
As in much of Southeast Asia, shoes belong outside and house shoes or bare feet are worn in the home. In Laos, this line of thinking extends to certain stores and restaurants as well. When in doubt, follow what others do. Even if your host tells you that you may keep your shoes on, if his or hers are off, you should remove yours as well. The Lao want to save face and may tell you one thing when they would actually like you to do something else.
Don’t buy antiques or wildlife products
Weak laws and lax enforcement of those that do exist has led to illegal poaching of the wild animals that were once prevalent in Laos. It’s illegal to take ivory, or animal pelts or products out of Laos. They will be confiscated and you will be fined. It’s also illegal to take antique Buddha sculptures out of the county, as many have been stolen from temples, which deplete cultural heritage. Luckily the woodcarving tradition is alive and well in Laos, and skilled craftspeople carve beautiful new pieces that can be purchased as souvenirs.
Think before riding a motorbike
Motorbikes are a popular mode of transportation in Laos but ride at your own risk. There is no trauma center in the country and should you get into an accident, you’ll have to get across the border to Thailand for treatment. There are rampant drinking and driving in Laos, which make the roads more dangerous at night. Many people, including children, driving without a license. If you do take to the road on two wheels, drive defensively, know the risks and check out the bike thoroughly before you drive.
Don’t make public displays of affection
Lao people aren’t publicly affectionate among friends or romantic partners, and public hugging or kissing is frowned upon. It is against the law for foreigners to engage in sexual activity with a Lao person outside of marriage. This goes for heterosexual relationships as well as LGBTQ ones, so tread lightly.