Getting by with English is not particularly easy in Laos, but it is possible. English is only spoken very sparsely and generally you will only find a local who can speak English in towns and places that attract a lot of tourists so challenges will await more adventurous travelers who like to get off the beaten track and go on to explore less popular, but equally astounding corners of this beautiful country. Good thing is that Laotians are genuinely nice people so finding a way to communicate, even if none of you can speak the language of another is easy.
Vietnam and China remain the most challenging countries of Asia where virtually nobody speaks English, and I’m talking nothing, nada, zero English – not even two or three basic words, like “Hello” or “Yes”. In countries like that, unless you are able to pick up the local language to help you along, you’ll be having fun times trying to get basic necessities, as even ordering food in restaurants will be a challenge. You won’t find any menus in English, only in native language so you’ll be shooting blanks when pointing at an item in the menu, hoping it’s not chicken stomachs spiced up with legs of cockroaches.
After Vietnam and China which are without doubt the most challenging countries for an English speaking traveler to visit, Laos lingers as close third. Thailand used to be a challenge where upon my first visit I would talk to two dozen taxi drivers in Bangkok none of which spoke a word of English. And that was Bangkok – imagine what it was like in rural areas. But strangely enough, another visit a year later and all of a sudden those people in countless 7/11s tell me the total price in English or ask me in English whether I’d like a bag with my purchase. I was there a year ago and nobody would ever have a clue what I was talking about when I asked for a bag. Thailand is now much easier a country for an English speaker to get by than it used to be just a year ago but Laos still has a long way to go to reach similar levels.
Either way, friendly nature of Laotians along with their genuine smiles and undying willingness to help will make any visitor’s stay enjoyable and fulfilling. From my own perspective, even though there was constant language barrier, I’ve never actually felt lost. Instead, wherever I went, the embrace and appreciation of my presence was evident with many hands and mouth ready to interrupt whatever they are doing to offer their help should you look confused or somehow feel uneasy. Best of all, in Laos, the people will help you with genuine intentions to help, not to scam you or rip you off like it happens in Cambodia where I was prior to coming to Laos.
All in all, even though few people speak English in Laos, you’ll find that genuine will to help goes a long way even if language barrier prevents verbal communication.