Lao Language of the Heart

Expressions from the ‘heart’ (jai) of Lao culture and traditions

Most people are aware of the existence of major differences between Asian and Western culture and logic. Despite this awareness, Westerners often become frustrated and stress from experiencing the now-clichéd ‘culture shock’ from those differences. Culture shock is no joke, and people from other countries intending to live or spend an extended period of time in this fascinating country should definitely educate themselves in this respect. The more one becomes aware of Laos culture and traditions, the more one will appreciate the Lao people, and cope with the challenge of living, working or retiring in this unique part of the world –  the Lao PDR. See also our Culture Change page for further insight.

Despite global modernisation and technology, daily life in Lao and a great deal of Lao culture are still profoundly influenced by Buddhist thinking, attitudes and behaviour. It is not easy to understand the Lao without a basic understanding of Buddhism, and more specifically the Hinayana (small vehicle) traditions introduced to Cambodia around the 13th Century. Lao behaviour finds its origins in the five Buddhist precepts:

 Buddhist Precept  Purpose of the Precept
 1. Do not kill humans or animals:  fosters kindness of heart
 2. Do not steal or commit corrupt acts:  fosters love of work and effort
 3. Do not commit adultery:  deepens love of one’s spouse
 4. Do not tell lies:  fosters honest words and deeds
 5. Do not take alcohol or drugs:  avoids carelessness

One might think that all Buddhists should be vegetarian, as eating meat usually involves the death or killing of animals. According to scripture, Buddhist monks must not eat meat from an animal that they know has been killed specifically for their consumption. Some devout Buddhists are vegetarians by choice, but there are convenient ways of getting around certain precepts. If you are not aware that an animal has been killed for you, then you are within the ‘bounds’. Other precepts can be worked around for convenience as well, it seems. Christians have similar problems trying to live by the Ten Commandments. Today these ‘rules’ are seen more as guidelines than laws. We are all human!

Acceptance is the key in the Lao ‘view’ of the universe. Things are as they are and should be. You cannot change this inevitability, so why would you wish to try? I am responsible for myself and you are for yourself.  There is nothing to be gained by discussion or confrontation. Much of this perspective comes from the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation. Events, for better or for worse, are often related to one’s previous incarnation and are therefore accepted without challenge or emotion. One must behave in accordance with proper Buddhist conduct with a view to one’s ‘next life’.

In spite of this general posture of acceptance, the Lao believe their world is in a state of continuous change, with one incarnation flowing into the next. This is why there is so much patience. If things are not right at this time, maybe they will be better later, or even in the next incarnation. This attitude explains why many things are seen differently by the East and oriental philosophies. See also Culture Differences.

Frequently used expressions help define both concepts and cultural ‘essence’ of the people. In Lao commonly used expressions include: boh penh nyang or bor pen yang (in Thailand it is mai pen rai); another is thammadha (the same in Thai).  These take on different meanings depending on context. But they are all derived from the Buddhist concept of acceptance of the prevailing situation. Boh penh nyang is sometimes used in its literal meaning, “No problem” but it can also mean “never mind” or “are you all right?” or even “I forgive and forget your action.” This expression sometimes frustrates Westerners whose general attitude is that problems are there to be solved, not to be accepted.

The response thammadha is also steeped in Buddhist philosophy. Fundamentally, it means acceptance of one’s fate –  that one is born, grows old and will die. But it is also used in more daily life situations to mean ‘average, basic, regular, the norm or proceeding as usual’. For example, if someone loses his job he may not be sad or angry with his former employer; he is probably thammada, meaning he accepts his fate and does not harbour resentment.

The Lao are truly ‘people of the heart’. They believe the heart is the source of intelligence as well as emotion, and that ideas are the sounds or voices of the heart. There are so many common Lao expressions which include the word jai – ‘heart’ in this sense. The West uses only some of these expressions of emotion.

A culture with so many feelings in the heart is going to be a deeply sensitive one. This should be borne in mind before making a strong or critical comment or taking direct action with a Lao person. Some translations of these Lao expressions are just approximations as there are no direct equivalents in Western ideology; this often leads to misinterpretation and lack of understanding of Lao thinking and Lao culture.

Lao expressions to show feelings and emotion. Thai uses mostly the same; ‘not‘ in Lao is boh (in Thai it is mai.)

to understand is to enter the heart – khao jai
to not understand – boh khao jai  (Thai: mai khao jai)
to be glad is to feel good with a happy heart – dee jai
to be kind and honest is to have a good heart – jai dee
to be angry is to feel bad in the heart – jai hai
to be sorry is to have lost the heart – sia jai
to have empathy is to see the heart– hen jai
to feel upset is to be unhappy at heart – ouk jai
to be sensitive (touchy, nervous) is to have a small heart – jai noy
to be mean or stingy is to have a narrow heart – jai khap khaep
to be startled or get a fright is to drop the heart – tok jai
to be absent-minded is to have a heart which floats – jai loy
to be hesitant is to have several or many hearts – lai jai
to be content is to have a serene heart – sabai jai
to be worried is to have a sick (not well) heart – boh sabai jai
to be without worries is to feel cool in the heart – jai yen
to be impatient or angry is to have a hot heart – jai hon (Thai: jai ron)
to be generous is to have a big heart – jai kuang
to be sad is to have a heavy heart – thouk jai
to be happy is to have a ‘sweet’ heart – souk jai
to be grateful is to have a full or thankful heart – kop jai (also means thank you)
to be easily persuaded is to have an easy heart – jai ngai
to be decisive – jai det
to be bitter to the point of revenge is to have a black heart – jai dum
to be charitable is to have a festive heart – jai boun
to be considerate, respecting the wishes of elders and superiors – greng jai
(or  kreng jai – probably the most difficult of all to explain in a Western concept)
to be generous is to be big hearted – jai nyai
to be patient is to have a persevering heart – jai ot thon
to be honest is to have a pure heart – jai bolisud
to be brave is to have a daring heart – jai ka
to be timid is to have a cautious (not daring) heart – jai boh ka
to control one’s emotions is to have a strong heart – jai kaeng
to die (or be dead) is to have one’s heart torn apart – jai khart

See also our Culture Change page.

Spoken Lao has many similarities to Thai, sharing common words and expressions with Isaan, the north-eastern region of Thailand adjacent to the Mekong River, once part of the Lao kingdoms. The scripts have similar characters, but Lao is not readable by Thai people. However, many Lao can read and understand Thai.

For foreigners, learning Thai might prove more useful (and easier) than learning Lao. It helps a lot in understanding the people and will be an asset in many aspects of living, socialising as well as doing business in the Lao PDR or Thailand.

Many books, courses and dictionaries are available for learning the Thai language but fewer are available for Lao unless you are already there; the Morning Market in Vientiane is one source of Lao language primers and dictionaries. If you don’t want to wait, you can buy a useful Lao-English/English-Lao dictionary from Amazon.com.

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