Friday, June 8, 2012

It’s all about apparel

Volunteers fitting in well with the local students
Lao are generally smart dressers – a neat appearance is usually of high importance and modesty is expected, especially of women.  As guest teachers in this community so do GVI staff and volunteers! 

In fact, GVI Volunteers get to wear a uniform of sorts!  It’s a pretty cool one, and will help earn you the respect and admiration of the local community we seek to serve when volunteering with GVI Laos. 

Although Laos, and specifically Luang Prabang, continues to receive foreign tourists and many westerners included, it’s a relatively new addition to the landscape of these traditional, conservative people.  Lao are generally very religious, and are profoundly influenced by Buddhist cultural practices which weave throughout their everyday lives.  So, rather than being fashion advice, this post aims to help you pack to project and maintain a good impression with locals in respect of the warm welcome we receive to live amongst them. 

Volunteers heading to school looking the part of teacher!
At school, women will wear a sinh (a traditional, tubular Lao skirt) made of cotton or silk, or intricately and expertly woven by rural women – a highly regarded skill.  GVI Laos have ones for loan throughout your time on the project, although they may be purchased for a modest sum at any number of locations around town, or made to order. 

Men will simply wear smart trousers – not jeans or cargo pants, but long, dress pants. 

Shirts must have a collar and sleeves for both men and women (short or long are fine).  The colour doesn’t matter but the shirt should not be see-through.  Women need to pay particular attention to modesty regarding cleavage, and both sexes ought to be mindful of exposing midriffs in the case of raising your arms to write on the board.  We do have some shirts for loan, but it is highly recommended to bring them with you as purchasing shirts in your size can be a very difficult task in a nation of tiny Asians.    

Shoes may be closed or sandal style, but flip flops (thongs, jandals, beach slippers – whatever you call them) are inappropriate for the classroom.

Easy enough right?  Well, the ‘what to wear when you’re not teaching’ part may be a little trickier.  With our incredible privilege to work so closely within the community comes the benefit of being known in the community as a teacher and/or volunteer.  Therefore, it is incongruous if whilst teaching GVI volunteers support a professional, respectful image, and in their ‘off time’ lower their standards to those of regular tourists who perhaps are not aware of cultural and societal norms and expected mode of dress.    

As a rule Lao do not wear:
  • Short shorts (ie: ones that show thigh!)
  • Singlets, tanktops, boob tubes or anything sleeveless
  • Clothes which reveal undergarments (either above the waistband of shorts or any part of a bra)
  • Swimwear (really!  They swim fully clothed generally)
  • Tight-fitting clothes (including lycra)
Bare shoulders, short shorts and see through tops all top things to avoid...even at the nightclub

Some good and bad examples of appropriate swimwear
It is a hot country, but there’s no ‘beach’ culture here.  In the height of summer people cover up so as to protect themselves from the sun.  Stripping down is a no-go. 

Uh uh!  Short-shorts a No-no

So what does this mean for GVI volunteers?  It means, for the 2 – 24 weeks you’re with us in Laos, the locals would be highly appreciative of your respect for their culture by following an old motto...’When in Rome.....’. 

Some notes for packing:
  • Light-weight, quick dry fabrics
  • Long sleeves/pants help protect against sun exposure and biting insects
  • Sightseeing at temples requires all clothing below the knee and covering shoulders (men and women)
  • It’s a dirty place at times so don’t bring your Sunday best!
  • Regular clothing is hard to find here in western sizes so bring what you think you’ll need
  • One piece swimmers beats bikini, but boardshorts and a rashie win hands down    

Temple attire is extremely important for men and women
If you have other questions, contact GVI directly.  Happy to help to ensure we continue to show our respect to the cultural differences of Laos and its modest people.        

Volunteers and staff in 'uniform'

Volunteer Christina dressed for a basi

Great examples of free time attire

The kind of clothing to leave at home

A very well dressed male volunteer