Learning Lao in Luang Prabang

I have been finding it interesting comparing Thailand and Laos. In many ways their cultures are similar. They share the same religion and also many of the same festivals. However, Laos is more untouched by the outside world and so their way of life is more genuine and hasn’t been diluted so much by Western influences. Before I left home, I did make an effort to learn some Lao. I think it is always important to at least use the every day polite words in any country that you are traveling. For Laos, some of the keywords and phrases you should learn at least are “sabaidee” which is used as both a greeting and farewell. Then for thanking someone, you should say, “khob jai“.

I was in a book shop this morning and the owner greeted me with “sabaidee“. I replied with the same phrase. And then he turned to speaking in English to me. His English was good but he had trouble at one point. I then rephrased it in Thai without thinking and he immediately replied back in Thai. We then ended up having a long conversation in Thai which he found much easier. He says a lot of the town people can speak and understand Thai because they watch Thai television and listen to Thai music. However he said he couldn’t write Thai and could only read a little. Which is a bit surprising because there is a lot of Thai products here with all the words written in Thai.

I think I found shopping the most difficult when it comes to the language. Partly because the numbers are so large. A meal in Thailand could be about 25 baht. But in Laos you could pay at least 10,000 kip or more. It doesn’t help that words in Lao and Thai are also nearly the same when it comes to numbers. So, I keep getting a shock when they say to me “neung saen” (100,000) for something in the night market. There are a couple of other differences. For example, twenty is “sao” and twenty five is “sao haa“. In Thai, they don’t say “ten thousand”. They say “one unit of ten thousand”. In Laos, they sometimes do like this, though often I hear them say “sib pun“. A final difference is that there are no “r” sounds in Lao any longer, so one hundred is “hoi” instead of “roi” which is said in Thailand.

Both the Thai and Lao scripts are related to the same family. However, Lao has been simplified post-Communist takeover and so there are fewer characters. Some letters look very similar to Thai while other letters look like the wrong one! For example, the letter that looks like a “ror” sound is in fact a “hor” sound. Despite this, I think it would be fairly easy for me to learn to read Lao. There are a number of road signs I could work out already as well as menus in restaurants. Talking of restaurants, in Thailand, if you want to order two glasses of beer you would say “bia song gaew“. But here that translates as “two bottles of beer”! I am sure there other linguistic traps like that to be careful about.

One of the best things about the night market here, and even the tuk tuk drivers, is that they are not only very polite, but not persistent too. In Thailand, you can easily get bombarded by people wanting to sell you things. They often don’t leave you alone and follow you around until you give in. But, in Luang Prabang, walking through the market I only got greetings of “sabaidee“. If I didn’t make eye contact, then they wouldn’t try and sell me something. If I did looked interested, they would only ask once. If I said “no”, then that would be it. They would allow me to move on. I think it would be really nice to bring some of the Thai vendors here for a training course. The Thai tuk tuk drivers could learn something too. When I walk by their Lao brothers they usually only say “sabaidee“. When they do ask if I want a tuk tuk, I only need to say “no” once.

I have often wondered whether I should move to Laos for a more true cultural experience. People have often told me that Laos is Thailand twenty years ago. Which is great in theory, though I do like some of my modern luxuries. Though as long as I have my laptop and a good Internet connection then I will be happy. They have many Internet cafes here around Luang Prabang and both price and the speed are not too bad. I think at the end of the day, I would like to come here on holidays, but I wouldn’t want to live here permanently. The weather is one draw back at least. I tell you it is freezing cold here in the mornings. There is low cloud and the sun doesn’t managed to break through until at least mid morning. I am so glad I brought my thick jacket. I much prefer it to being too hot than too cold.

If you are interested in learning Lao, then visit our new website at LearningLao.com and also our discussion forum where you can download some free mp3 recordings. In addition you will find links for buying books and CD courses by clicking here.

4 responses to “Learning Lao in Luang Prabang

  1. I commend you on your efforts in adding another language to your repertoire! I told you that one would not be as difficult as you expected because of your Thai knowledge.

    Bouncing between the two you will often find yourself mixing them. I at exactly the wrong times I will say dai bor, then another time I will say dai mai. Always mixing at the wrong time. But the speakers of whichever language I am talking to always no plenty of the other language to completely understand. Not using krap in lao is a tough one to get used to after focusing on Thai for so long too.

  2. Yes, old habits die hard and with just a short trip I found it difficult. Little ones like “mai ben rai” or “dai mai” and “krab” kept coming out. And as soon as they realized I spoke Thai then they just started speaking Thai to me. It certainly needs more concentration. But good fun. They certainly appreciate foreigners speaking their language.

  3. 20 is “sao” in the markets of Chiang Mai as well 🙂
    I prefer the Lao script to the Thai, fewer letters 🙂 and also the writing is softer, more feminine, really artistic. I bought one of these Lao alphabet charts at the market (with pictures, intended for kids).
    at one point I was considering moving to Luang Prabang as well. but I suspect it might get a little boring after a few months. it’s nice to keep going back for a visit though. 🙂

  4. While you are there Richard, get yourself one of those books for children with pics and names of all the letters.
    Thai people think it’s quite hilarious, but the names of the Lao letters are different to Thai.
    For example Mor Ma in Thai is ‘Mor Maew’in Lao (Cat).
    Nor Noo in Thai is ‘Nor Nok’ in Lao (Bird). The there is ‘Yor Yoong’ (Mosquito) and and ‘Wor Wua’ (Cow) etc…etc… Ask a local Laotian for all the names.
    Bring back a few copies for your schoolkids in Thailand too, they will enjoythem.