“It’s hard to think of any other country with a population as laid-back as Laos. Bor ben nying (‘no problem’) could be the national motto. On the surface at least, nothing seems to faze the Lao. Of course, it’s not as simple as ‘people just smiling all the time because they’re happy’, as we heard one traveller describe it. The Lao national character is a complex combination of culture, environment and religion.
To a large degree ‘Lao-ness’ is defined by Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism, which emphasises the cooling of human passions [!!!] Thus, strong emotions are a taboo in Lao society. Kamma (karma), more than devotion, prayer or hard work, is believed to determine one’s lot in life, so the Lao tend not to get too worked up over the future. It’s a trait often perceived by outsides as a lack of ambition.
Lao commonly express the notion that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’ and they often say they feel sorry for the people who ‘think too much’. Education in general isn’t highly valued, although this attitude is changing with modernisation and greater access to opportunities beyond the country’s borders. Avoiding any undue psychological stress, however, remains a cultural norm. From the typical Lao perspective, unless an activity – whether work or play – contains an element of mooan (fun), it will probably lead to stress.” p.277
Before I arrived in the Solomon Islands as a volunteer (1994) I also studied up on the Lonely Planet Guide to find out what I could expect. I still have the book, and the comment I copied on the inside cover: “Honiara is certainly a dirty, dusty, depressing place, with a miserable hinterland and no real grasp of its own problems” (1993 ed. Arthur King – Travel writer). I remember thinking that no, I wasn’t interested in war relics (WWII) and doubted I’d be able to go diving, so there was really nothing of interest for me there – why was I going? (Well, that’s another story that has permeated the subsequent 22 years of my life). And it ignores the biggest drawcard for me, people and their cultures, encapsulated by this statement in the introduction: “Everywhere people smile and are friendly in the country its people call the Happy Isles”. Ah what a tourist drawcard – living and working there of course is quite a different matter!