Lao Culture

Population: Lao PDR has a population of about 6.5 million (as estimated in 2012). The population density of Laos amounts to around 20 people per square kilometer, a much lower number than its neighbors: around 250 people per square kilometer in Vietnam, around 120 in Thailand, around 140 in China.

Peoples: Despite its small population, Lao PDR has many different tribal groups (68, by one count) including Hmong, Yao, Akha, Lue, Khamu, and others. Many of these groups have maintained their own languages and dialects, religions, customs, dress, and other traditions.

About half of the population of the country is Lao Loum, “lowland Lao”, who live mostly in the river plains within the Mekong region. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups.

The Lao Theung (20-30 percent), or “highland Lao”, live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900 m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum.

The term Lao Sung (10-30 percent) covers the Hmong and Mien tribes who live higher up in the mountains and which began moving into what is now Lao PDR from China about 200 years ago in search of new arable land and to avoid political persecution. Due to the lack of land and the warmer climate, the Lao Sung (generally called the Hmong) have been living in harsh mountain areas since then. They are also well established in neighboring countries as well–Vietnam and Thailand have significant Hmong populations.

About two to five percent of the population are Chinese and Vietnamese; they are concentrated in the larger cities. Both these populations are increasing as business opportunities expand, especially those regarding natural resources like timber and water.

Religion: Laos is officially Buddhist; its national symbol, prominent on the state seal, is the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang in Vientiane. Still, most Buddhist practice in the country has a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also bassi ) ceremony. A baci is conducted in order to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participants’ bodies before a long journey, after serious illness or the birth of a baby, or to commemorate other significant events.

Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long, patterned skirt. Non-Lao loum ethnic groups often have their own clothing, especially distinctive headgear. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men often dress in western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays, women wear both the phass sin and western-style clothing, though the phaa sin is still mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for any Lao woman who might visit).

Food: Most Lao people eat sticky rice every day. Sticky rice is carried in baskets called “tikao” or “kongkao”. Much of traditional Lao food takes the form of dips, pastes, purees, or chopped salads that are meant to be eaten with sticky rice. The sticky rice is picked up by hand, made into a ball, and then used to dip or scoop.  Laap, koy, and ping are common accompaniments–laap and koy are both types of spicy chopped meat salads; ping refers to grilled food, especially meat. Soup and noodle soup are also staples.

Housing: Lao Loum houses are built on stilts and have free space underneath keep wood or other household goods and provide shade for people and animals. or use to sit in shade. Roofs are peaked and often have a triangle at the top for wind to pass through. Traditionally, an odd number of stairs leads up to the house. Hmong houses are distinctive, being built on the ground with a hole in the roof for smoke from the indoor fire to escape.

Clothes: Clothing choices depend on gender, age, and ethnicity. For the Lao, it’s more important for women to be dressed properly, since they are seen as the mothers of the nation. Lao women wear silk phaa sins, blouses, and scarves to attend important ceremonies. Phaa sin skirts can fall anywhere between just below the knee down to the ankle and are traditionally high-waisted. They’re often worn with a silver belt. The design of the skirt, which folds like a sarong, keeps them from being restrictive.

At significant events, Lao women wear scarves and put their hair up. Lao men wear a sarong, large pants that fold like a sarong, or what are known as peasant pants to attend the important ceremonies.

Work: Traditionally, most of a Lao person’s day was taken up with rice cultivation, animal husbandry, raising silkworms, weaving, fishing, and wood- or metal-working to make tools or handicrafts. Today, in addition to those activities, many Lao work in government offices, in the hospitality industry, and in plants or mines.

Culture and Society: Lao culture values harmony and group identity. Smiles are very common; aggression is not. It’s not uncommon in less-visited areas to be invited to eat with strangers. Lao people in general have a great deal of love and respect for their country, and not a lot of criticism of it is heard. Family and village are crucial parts of a Lao person’s identity and almost always command their deepest loyalty.