Here’s the problem: Lao is hard. I mean seriously hard.
It’s tonal, it’s duplicitous, it’s backwards. Every word has infinite meanings. A little extra gasp on the ‘h’ sound, and you ordered your soup with no dad, not no spice.
A slight inhale on the ‘b,’ and you told a group of preschoolers that you live in a sandal.
And context is of no help. A Lao person will stare at you like you’ve just offered them a plate of your own feces if you order a bowl of phu rather than phuu. The confusion will be endless, and you’ll walk out with a coke, the one universally recognized word.
And to add to all of this, there’s no help; you’re going it alone. You pick up what you can by listening, you ask for translations, but at the end of the day that’s all you got, and trust me, it isn’t much. There’s no book, no computer translation program, no magic CD’s that promise fluency in 30 days.
So, to combat this? Flashcards. Always the best answer. An endless amount of flashcards. Potato, hangover, electricity, month. Piles for numbers, action verbs, time placers, foods, pronouns.
So you practice. Practice alone, with some friends who do their best not to laugh, some people who politely pretend to understand. You practice until you can go to the woman at the noodle shop down the street and order a bowl of pho, no pork please, and not spicy. ‘Kway thong kong kin pho, bo sia siin moo, bo phet.’
And then you sit there in this little outdoor restaurant, eating your bowl of noodles with the groups of Lao people on lunch break.
And afterwards? Well, you’ve earned it, of course. A stop at the waffle stand on the way home for a fluffy, sweet, heart-shaped treat. Just one please, no spice.