The articles in the Vientiane Times often have interesting titles and text as the Lao journalists enjoy being "creative" in the use of the English language. Right now, as we speak, Laos is hosting the 25th Southeast Asia Games, similar in importance to our hosting the Olympics, and so they are running a series of articles to help foreign visitors learn more about their country and culture. Thailand likes to market itself as the "Land of Smiles" and I think the Lao could market Laos as the "Land of the nop (a prayer gesture formed by holding your hands with palms together in front of your chest)." Of course most people outside Laos wouldn't understand what the nop is and this article does a good job in explaining the cultural importance of the nop. I've included two photos here. The first photo I really like is taken of a nun, a "mae khao" (white mother) with her expressive hands in the nop position. The second photo below the mae khao is of women holding their hands in the nop position during the That Luang Festival. If you join us on a tour in Laos you will have plenty of opportunities to practice your own nopping!
Manners maketh the Lao
"Different cultures have many ways of greeting
each other. The French kiss each other on the cheek. The Maoris of New Zealand
touch noses in a traditional greeting. While an Australian might give you a
hearty handshake and a “G'day mate”.
Lao people have a particularly gracious and beautiful welcome that involves a gentle smile, a polite and courteous bow of the head, a raising of the hands and the greeting “sabaidee”.
When a Lao person welcomes you with “sabaidee”, it literally means “feel good”.
Sabaidee (hello) is used when Lao people meet each other or visitors. If some one asks “how are you?” you can reply with sabaidee, which means I am doing well. If you are upset or not feeling well your answer may be “bor sabai” or “bor sabaidee”.
Sabaidee is lovely word that shows politeness and friendliness to people you respect, have just met, or can even say to passing strangers and foreigners to be hospitable.
Sabaidee can be used formally and informally. For example when you greet someone on the street, you do not have to give a “nop” (a prayer gesture formed by holding your hands with palms together in front of your chest), which is a more formal greeting.
In the home or office, you are often greeted with a “sabaidee” from your hosts, accompanied by a nop.
This shows appreciation and gratitude to relatives and friends for joining them for the occasion. In this case, you should return the greeting with a similar nop. You should also smile and bow your head slightly when meeting people.
Do not lose your temper with people or embarrass them, even if communication seems very difficult. Lao people respect calmness and do not act in response to pressure or anger.
Lao people like to be friendly and smile when greeting you; even in these more modern times they want to maintain this traditional greeting.
Children and teenagers are taught by their parents and their teachers to speak politely and to nop when greeting people who are older.
Young people should give the greeting first when they meet older people to show respect. If you attend important parties or events you should greet your hosts first with a nop and a “sabaidee”. Also don't forget, if you enter a stranger's house, you should first say “sabaidee”, before anything else.
How do you greet special people?
If you want to greet monks who are visiting your house or you encounter in a temple the nop is slightly different. This time you should use two hands joined together at the fingers but slightly apart at the palms like a lotus flower bud. Then place your thumbs on the bridge of your nose between your eyes and bow your head a little, before saying “sabaidee”.
You should put your hands together, and place your thumb near the end of your nose and bow your head a little when you greet your parents.
Students should sabaidee their teacher by using two hands placed together, with the thumb under their lips and a bow of the head.
When you see any of the country's leaders or older people, you should raise your two hands joined together, with your thumb near your chin and bow your head a little.
If you want to greet your friends or a person who is slightly older than you, you should position your hands in front of your chest and bow your head a little.
In another traditional gesture, Lao people will often serve you a glass of water when you visit their home. This is to show their friendship and hospitality."
By Ounkham Pimmata
(Latest Update December 10 , 2009)