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 emphasizes the cooling of the 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 outsiders 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 people who ‘think too much”. Education in general isn’t highly valued, although this attitude is changing with modernization and greater access to opportunities beyond Laos’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 múan (fun), it will probably lead to stress.
The contrast between the Lao and the Vietnamese is an example of how the Annamite Chain has served as a cultural fault line dividing Indic and Sinitic zones of influence. The French summed it up as: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” And while this saying wasn’t meant as a compliment, a good number of French colonialists found the Lao way too seductive to resist, and stayed on.
The Lao have always been quite receptive to outside assistance and foreign investment, since it promotes a certain degree of economic development without demanding a corresponding increase in productivity. The Lao government wants all the trappings of modern technology – the skyscrapers seen on socialist propaganda billboards – without having to give up Lao traditions, including the múan philosophy. The challenge for Laos is to find a balance between cultural preservation and the development of new attitudes that will lead the country towards a measure of self-sufficiency.