A fellow Australian volunteer to Laos was visiting in Sydney recently. He wanted to visit some Lao temples to speak to them about support for a water purification project he is working on. I managed to get some contact details with the help of a relative. The problem for him was the temples in Sydney are quite far west from the city centre, and thus very difficult to reach by public transport.

My friend used a very clever tactic to get himself to a Lao temple. He caught a train to Cabramatta, Sydney’s ethnic hub for Asian communities, and found a Lao restaurant to order Fer/Pho. He spoke a few words of Lao there and when the staff heard him they got really excited and started talking to him. My friend is a six foot something “falang” who hasn’t had a haircut in 17 months so he definitely doesn’t look like the type of person who can speak Lao. Somehow he managed to get someone at the restaurant to drive him to the temple. The car trip was very reminiscent of Laos for him because of the Thai pop blasting in the stereo.

It was great to catch up with my friend and share our stories from Lao. He recounted a joke the women at his office told him in his first week that involved a Lao boyfriend, Vietnamese girlfriend, and the fact the Vietnamese word for “Stop” means the Lao word for “Harder”. 

A very common start to my conversations in Lao were “you speak Lao very well” – despite the fact I knew that I spoke Lao terribly. That over the top praise is very encouraging and means you’re not afraid to try and speak the language because people respond so warmly to it. It’s a very interesting contrast to the reputed attitude of the French, who are famous for showing disdain to foreigners butchering their language. I’d have to say Australians are generally not very accommodating to speaking with people struggling with English.