Sabaidee! Khop jai lai lai! The Lao words that every tourist knows are not that hard to learn. But what if you need to make something clear to a local person? And what if it actually is important that your message comes across?
Communication would appear to be the first and biggest challenge when I started at Bamboo Lounge restaurant. Four Lao girls were awaiting me in the early morning with a huge smile. Two of them only spoke a little English; the other two had been working there for only a month or so and didn’t speak any English at all.
Luckily the girls were trained very well and knew exactly what to do in the shop. So they started arranging the sofas, cleaning the floors, preparing food in the kitchen…
Soon the first travelers arrived, craving for western breakfast and real coffee. I told the girls what our customers had ordered and asked them to prepare the food. I smiled. The girls smiled back at me.
But soon I found out that their smile was not to be confused with a sign of approval. The Lao girls not only smile when they are happy, they smile at you whenever you’re talking to them, whether they understand you or not.
So, instead of preparing food for hungry travelers, the girls were smiling some more. I smiled back at them. I even nodded. Finally I understood that they didn’t understand. Fortunately, there is such a thing as universal sign language. With pointing, signing and showing ingredients, I managed to get the girls preparing the right dishes.
And as breakfasts turned out fine, the girls served it to the patient customers. With a smile, obviously.