Speak Thai already? Here's a three-step program for instant Lao fluency (or pretense thereof).
The letter "r" must be eliminated.
At the beginning of a word, "r" turns into "l": roi → loi "hundred"
Within a word, "r" turns into "l": karunaa → kalunaa "please"
In a cluster, "r" disappears completely: prathet → pathet "country"
All "ch" turn into "x" (pronounced "s"). chang → xang "elephant"
Say baw instead of mai when you want to say "no" or ask a question.
Lao is a tonal language with six tones in the Vientiane dialect: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. Meanings can change critically based on the tone, so try not to inflect your sentences: in particular, any questions should be pronounced as flat statements, without the rising intonation ("...yes?") typical to English questions.
The script used to write Lao has the same Brahmic base as Thai and Khmer, and Thai readers will be able to puzzle out most of it. The Lao written language is essentially alphabetic and, thanks to extensive post-revolutionary meddling, now considerably more phonetic than Thai or Khmer. Still, there are 30 consonants, 15 vowel symbols plus 4 tone marks to learn, and the Lao also share the Thai aversion to white space between words, so it remains a bit of challenge to pick up, eventhough it is usually conisdered easier to learn than Thai.
Lao romanization is bedeviled by the incompatibility between French and English pronunciation: most older transliterations are French-based, while newer ones are English-based. The French-style "Vientiane", for example, would be spelled "Wiang Chan" in English. Wikitravel uses a modern English-based orthography modeled on the Thai system, but the French transliterations have been noted below when appropriate.
Lao has a complicated set of vowels that distinguishes between vowel length (short and long) and vowel position (front and back). Vowel signs are always written around consonants.
French transliterations use "ou" for "u" (eg. "Louang Prabang") and often tag a seemingly superfluous "e" at the end of words to stop the consonant from being swallowed (eg. "Kaysone Phomvihane").
Lao distinguishes between aspirated ("with a puff of air") and unaspirated ("without a puff of air") consonants. Unaspirated consonants exist in English too, but never alone: compare the sound of 'p' in "pot" (aspirated) and "spot" (unaspirated). Many English speakers find it helpful to pronounce an imperceptible little "m" in front to 'stop' the puff.
In romanized Lao, the distinction is usually represented by writing aspirated consonants with "h" and unaspirated ones without it. In particular, "ph" represents a hard aspirated 'p' and not a soft 'f', and Phongsali is thus pronounced "Pongsalee". Likewise, "th" is a hard aspirated 't' and hence That Luang is pronounced "Tat Luang".
like 'b' in "bed"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent 's'
like 'd' in "dog"
like 'f' in "fan"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent unaspirated 'k'
like 'h' in "help"
like 'dg' in "edge"
like 'k' in "skate" (unaspirated)
like 'c' in "cat" (aspirated)
like 'l' in "love"
like 'm' in "mother"
like 'n' in "nice"
like 'ni' in "onion", can also be used at the beginning of words
like 'ng' in "sing", can also be used at the beginning of words
like 'p' in "spit" (unaspirated)
like 'p' in "pig" (aspirated)
not used the modern orthography, should be pronounced as 'l', 'h' or ignored
like 'ss' in "hiss",
like 't' in "stab"
like 't' in "top"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent 'w'
like 'w' in "weight"
like 'y' in "yes"
like 'ss' in "hiss", completely identical to 's'
How are you?
Fine, thank you.
What is your name?
(Chao sy nyang?)
My name is ______ .
(Khoy suu _____.)
(Baw pen nyang.)
Excuse me/I'm Sorry. (begging pardon)
Goodbye and Take Care (sohk dee')
I can't speak English [well].
(khoy wao pha-saa ung-git dee baw dai)
Do you speak English?
(jao paak pha-saa ung-git dai baw?)
Go to sleep
I don't understand.
I don't understand. (Khoy baw khao jai)
Where is the toilet?
(hong naam yuu sai?)
I am Korean
(Khoy man Gao'Le)
Leave me alone.
Leave me alone. ('Boh tong koun khoy')
Don't touch me!
('Boh tong jup khoy)
I'll call the police.
('Khoy si toh dtum louat.)
Police! (Dtum louat!)
Stop! Thief! (...)
I need your help.
I need your help. ('Soy khoy dai boh')
It's an emergency.
It's an emergency. (souk sunn)
(Khoy lhong taang)
I lost my wallet.
(Khoy seeuh gkapow)
I lost my bag.
(Khoy seeuh tong)
(Khoy pben kai.)
I've been injured.
I need a doctor.
I need a doctor. ('Khoy tong kan Mau')
Can I use your phone?
('Khoy sai torrosup dai boh?)
May I talk to _______? (Khoy ko lum num _______?)
Lao numbers are effectively identical to Thai, the two quirks worth nothing being that 20 is sao (not yii-sip) and 100 is an R-less loi. Speakers of Cantonese will find many quite familiar.
Lao has its own set of numerals, but these are used quite rarely.
(meun, sip phan)
(saen, hawy phan)
(teu, phan laan)
number (train, bus, etc.)
now (diow nee)
morning (dthawn sao)
_____ minute(s) (na-thii)
_____ hour(s) (suua mohng)
_____ day(s) (meuh)
_____ week(s) (aathit)
_____ month(s) (duean)
_____ year(s) (bpii)
(meuh wan nii)
(sii nam taan)
Bus and train
How much is a ticket to _____?
How much is a ticket to _____? (...)
One ticket to _____, please.
One ticket to _____, please. (...)
Where does this train/bus go?
Where does this train/bus go? (...)
Where is the train/bus to _____?
Where is the train/bus to _____? (...)
Does this train/bus stop in _____?
Does this train/bus stop in _____? (...)
When does the train/bus for _____ leave?
When does the train/bus for _____ leave? (...)
When will this train/bus arrive in _____?
When will this bus arrive in _____? (...)
How do I get to _____ ?
How do I get to _____ ? (khoy bpay _____ baep dai?)