The cultural differences between Europeans and Asians from the Mekong region are so great that an entire book could be devoted to the subject. Below are a few hand-picked points, which will help you as you travel around the country:
Head and feet:
Touching someones' head is highly unbecoming in Laos. This is because the head is considered the residence of the soul and is the "highest" body part, which must be respected. Long ago even executioners had to apologize to their victims for 'touching' their heads. Obviously this is not taboo for hairdressers, masseurs and surgeons. Someone hints in Laos with their palm down and a flick of the fingers towards you. Never point a finger at one person. That is a sign of disrespect for the person and degrades him / her as an 'inferior' person. The feet are the least sacred as they are in contact with the ground and considered unclean. Never move or point to anything of significance using them.
Visits to all the sanctuaries in Laos should be done bareheaded and barefoot. If you go to a pagoda to run, do it in a clockwise direction. Remove your shoes before entering a temple. Do not show your soles or point your shoes/feet towards the Buddha statues, this is considered an insult. It is not appreciated for tourist to take photos of Buddhas' image.
Instructions for dealing with monks:
A monk should not be touched, especially by women. If a woman touches a monk, the latter must submit to complicated ceremonies of purification (abatt). If you, as a woman, wish to hand something to a monk, you must do so through a man or by deposit. As a woman travelling in public transport you should not sit right next to a monk, but make sure there is a man between. It is considered extremely discourteous to the monks to walk away or to remain seated next to them. No one may, out of respect, protrude above a monk and therefore you should also sit down or at least pretend you're small. Monks may not accept money, or food or drink.
Lao like to dress formally for certain events. Lao are lovers of beauty and pride themselves on looking well presented. Neat clothing suggests carefree prosperity. Wearing short pants in the family circle is not a problem. But in public wearing shorts is seen as not nice. When visiting temples women in particular should cover their arms and legs.
Disagreements between people in Asian countries like Laos are rarely expressed openly. Confrontations are preferably shied away from, in order not to embarrass others. Criticism is directly experienced as a personal insult. The expression of positive emotions like affection, is more subtle than we are accustomed. Public displays of affection (like kissing) between different sexes is not appreciated. By contrast, boys with boys and girls with girls often go hand in hand, without any connotation. When official or religious ceremonies take place women and men sit separately.
We come from an extremely fast-paced culture where time is money and punctual appointments should be respected, otherwise the schedule of the rest of the day falls to pieces. People from the Mekong region did not have such a problem. Not that they necessarily come too late, it may be that they had nothing to do and so arrive an hour too early. Lao live more in the here and now and are less concerned about the future and have more patience.
Asking all kinds of personal questions about age, salary, religion and other private affairs is the most natural thing in the world. Especially in areas where few foreigners come, you have the chance to draw a crowd if you will. People want to know everything about you, and maybe even feel your hair to see if it is real! Others will come to you for a chat, just to practice their English.
Negotiation is a common phenomenon in Laos. You are expected to negotiate on the market and in tourist shops, in taxis without meters, tuk-tuks (motorized three-wheeled rickshaws), samlors / cyclo's (bicycle rickshaws). Those needing a cyclo for the day, best make a daily appointment. In songthaews (small pick-ups) and local buses that run regular routes you do not have to negotiate. Negotiation is also a social activity and not a matter of life or death! Stay in a good mood.
Do not be tempted to try. On tour in Laos you will probably be offered a pipe of opium and that seems innocent. Still refuse! You're in violation. You risk being caught and you wont be able to talk your way out with a good story. The penalties for possession of drugs are very high.
Sculpture, painting and architecture in Laos are most strongly influenced by religion. The sculpture has almost exclusively focused on images of the Buddha. They were not primarily created as art objects, but for the spectator to remember the faith. Sculpture is further seen as a temple decoration in the form of demonic and mythological creatures, human, animal, or a great combination of both. The architecture is beautiful in pagodas and temple buildings. The temples are commonly built on many floors with protruding eaves and a wealth of decorative detail, both inside and out.
The government of Laos:
In 1975 a socialist government replaced the King. The official name of the country is either the Lao Peoples' Sathalanalat Pasathipatai Pasason or the Democratic Republic of Laos. The country has since been led by a communist government, but the ethnic proportions of the country to this day are far more important than socialism. Opposition to the government is almost nonexistent. In part this is because most of life is unaffected by government decisions, and in part because anyone who disagrees with life in Laos, can cross the Mekong River and live in Thailand. The language and culture are related, so it is barely noticeable if a Lao builds a life in Thailand.
Remember always that you are a guest in a country where one simply has other manners. They are not different, it is you that is acting differently!