Volunteering in Laos
Discover volunteering opportunities in Laos, a nation of cultural diversity and lush landscapes at the heart of Southeast Asia.
Culturally rich and diverse, Laos has a population of 6.8 million people who share 49 distinct ethnicities.
Laos lives at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China. While landlocked, the mighty Mekong River flows along much of Laos' western border, serving as the country’s primary conduit for goods and people for thousands of years.
Laos has three broad groups based on ethnicity and location. Approximately half of the population is Lao Loum (Lowland Lao or Lao Tai); around 10% are Lao Theung (upland Lao, who are predominantly people of Mon or Khmer ancestry) and another third are Lao Soung (mountain Lao, commonly referred to as “hill tribes” and include the Hmong, Yao (Mien), Akha, and Lahu). The country is also home to sizeable Vietnamese and Chinese communities.
Tourism is a key economic driver, as Laos boasts three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the town of Luang Prabang, Vat Phou (Champasak) and the Plain of Jars (Xiangkhouang).
Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world, per capita. Throughout the Indochina war (1964 to 1973), over two million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on the country, with up to 30% failing to explode as designed.
Today all 17 provinces, and approximately 25% of villages suffer from various degrees of unexploded ordinance contamination. Accidents still injure and maim approximately 300 people every year.
Laos gained its independence in 1975 and has opened up considerably to the world in recent years. It can be both an exciting and complex place to live and work.
Living standards in Laos have improved over recent years but significant development challenges remain.
Australian volunteers in Laos
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of partner organisations in Laos to achieve their development goals since 1986.
Volunteering opportunities in Laos support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Human resource development
- Natural resource management
- Wildlife conservation
Wherever you go in Laos you will find people eating Tum Mak Hoong. Our local team in Laos guarantee that every in-country volunteer has shared this dish at least once with colleagues.
Download the recipe for Tum Mak Hoong
Life as a volunteer in Laos
Culture, family and religion
Family is very important to the people of Laos and may well be prioritised over other things, including work. You may notice colleagues taking leave from work to tend to their sick parents or for family visits.
Elders are treated with great respect and children are responsible for their parents’ wellbeing as they enter old age, including the provision of financial support. Many children will live with their parents until they marry, and large extended families can live under one roof.
Laos is approximately 60% Theravada Buddhist. The remainder is largely animist, following their unique ethnic traditions and practices. Other religions, including Islam and Christianity, represent a combined total of less than two percent of the population.
Buddhist monks will be easily recognised by their saffron and orange clothing. Monks seek alms every day in the morning and will often be seen walking in file with their food bowls. It is important to show respect for these individuals as they carry out their religious obligations. Donations made by the community are almost entirely in the form of food, usually rice.
Four important rules to observe in Laos’ Buddhist society are:
- Females should not touch monks.
- Money should not be given to monks.
- Feet should never be placed on chairs or tables and should never be directly pointed at an image of Buddha, a monk, or at anyone else.
- The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and people should not be touched on the head.
Gender equality has not been fully achieved in Laos and gender wage gaps continue to exist. In government women rarely hold positions higher than mid-management, and hold only 25% of seats in the National Assembly.
Relationships and socialising
It is not culturally appropriate to be openly flirtatious with a member of the opposite sex, and living together out of wedlock is frowned upon. Being seen in public with a member of the opposite sex will attract attention from the community. Relationships and sex are not commonly discussed, however, this is gradually changing in bigger cities.
When a man and a woman meet they greet each other by saying “sa bai dee” with a gesture of two palms put together in front of their chest with their head slightly lowered.
Shaking hands is not commonly practiced between Lao men and Lao women, but it is accepted for a Lao to greet foreigner with a handshake.
By law, homosexual acts are illegal in Laos and open displays of homosexuality are uncommon.
Elderly people, monks, and government officials are held in high regard. There is a well-established cultural hierarchy that is apparent in the workplace as well as in private and social life. This entails giving respect and obeying the wishes and directions of elders and those in authority. It may not be immediately obvious to newcomers but affects the way in which people relate.
Modest clothing is appropriate, and is required in religious places such as pagodas, temples, and monasteries. Footwear is almost always removed when entering any building and must be removed before entering all consecrated buildings.
Typically, women wear a sinh, a below-knee hand-woven cotton/silk patterned skirt. In government buildings, women need to wear a sinh and cover their shoulders, and men need to wear a collared shirt and pants.
Lao is officially recognised and spoken nationwide. English and French are common in work and business. Volunteers will have the opportunity to learn Lao.
Laos has two distinct seasons: a wet and a dry season. Many buildings have air conditioning to combat the hot, humid weather. Evenings in many parts of northern and eastern Laos can range from cool to very cold at certain times of the year.
If applying to take up volunteering opportunities in Laos, it is a requirement that you research your assignment location. Successful applicants may be required to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
Wheelchair user Chris Kerr says volunteering in Laos was life-changing; and she wants more people with disabilities to embark on a volunteer journey.
Find out why