The Lao language resembles Thai, with familiar tones and sounds found in each. While some vocabulary words might cross over, the two tongues -- spoken and written -- are quite distinct. However, many Lao understand Thai (learned from school texts and TV), so if you've picked up some words and phrases in Thailand, they'll still be useful here; people will understand and correct you with the appropriate Lao phrase.
Thankfully, many people in Vientiane and Luang Prabang speak English, and older citizens will usually be able to speak French. Russian is not uncommon, and Chinese is growing in accord with the rising Chinese population (mostly in the north).
Like Thai, Lao has no officially recognized method of Roman alphabet transliteration. As a result, even town and street names have copious spelling irregularities, so for the vocabulary below, only phonetic pronunciations are listed. Most Lao will understand you, even without proper tones, and will appreciate your efforts to speak their language.
When trying to figure out the correct pronunciation of certain names, it's helpful to remember that the original transliteration of Lao was done by francophones, so consider the French pronunciation when faced with a new word. For example, in Vientiane (pronounced wee-en-chan), the wide central avenue spelled Lane Xang is pronounced Lahn Sahng. Also in Vientiane, Mixay sounds like Mee-sigh. Phonexay is Pawn-sigh. It takes a while, but it's easy to pick up.
Useful Lao Phrases
Hello Sa bai dee
Good-bye Laa gawn
Thank you Khawp jai
Thank you very much Khawp jai lai lai/khawp jai deuh
You're welcome/it's nothing Baw pen nyahng
No problem Baw mi banhaa
How are you? Sa bai dee baw?
I'm fine/I'm not fine Sabai dee/baw sabai
No Baw/baw men
Excuse me Khaw toht
I don't understand Baw kao jai
Do you speak English/French? Passah Angit/Falang dai baw?
How do you say that in Lao? Ani passah Lao ee-yahng?
Where is the toilet? Hawng nam yoo sai?
May I wear shoes here? Sai gup pen nyanhg baw?
Where are you going? Pai sai?
I'm going traveling/to the market/to eat Pai tiao/pai talat/pai gin kao
I want to go to . . . Koi yak pai . . .
Do you have . . . ? Mii . . . baw?
drinking water nam-deum
a room hawng
I would like . . . Kaaw . . .
coffee (black)/with cream café dahm/café sai nom
tea nam saa
How much kip/baht/dollar? Tao dai keep/baht/dollah?
Expensive/too expensive Paeng/paeng poht
Can you make it cheaper? Loht dai baw?
Help! Soi neh!
Call the police! Toh-ha tam louat!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.