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  7. The people, tribes and ethnic groups of Laos

With nearly 5 million inhabitants on an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in S.E. Asia (17 inhabitants per km2).

Laos counts about 80 ethnical groups which can be grouped into 4 families. Each group speaking its own dialect and having its own customs, traditions, religion, etc.

  • The Laos Thais (or Laos Loum of The Low Lands) : represent 75% of the population of Laos, and encompass 23 ethnical groups
  • The Laos Theung (Middle Altitude Lands) : also called proto-Chinese, include 58 different ethnical groups
  • The Laos Soung (live in the Mountains above 1000 meters) : especially the Hmongs (or Meos, a highly pejorative term), and the Yaos
  • Other Asians

This distribution can also be found in the political institutions of the country, and is shown in the ethnical distribution of the 99 deputies as follows (parliament in 2004) : 64 "Lao Loum" (Laotians of the plains) 26 "Lao Theung (Laotians of the plateaux) 9 "Lao Soung" (Laotians of the summits)

The Laos Thais or Laos Loum

The term "Thai", given to the people of Siam, the Shans Birmans and Laos, marks an alleged superiority of this ethnical group which dominated the region of Siam since the beginning of the 2° millennium. They are mainly Buddhists of a Theravada tendency (small vehicle) with shades of animism, a religion completely shared by all the inhabitants up until the XVth century.

Lao Loum costumes during a parade in Luang Prabang

Numerous ethnical subdivisions exist; they all have the particularity of being sedentary:

  • The Thais Dam (literally the "Black Thais") in the North
  • The Thais Khao (the "White Thais") also in the North, on the Tonkin border
  • The Thais Phong, around Sam Neua
  • The Thais Lu in the region of Muong Sin, on the Chinese border to the North West
  • The Yon in the Upper Mekong
  • The Laos Chau (also called Nu’a) in the South of Laos
  • The Ngai, who came from the Menan Valley
  • The Nio, who came from the Shans states, and are to the north of Ban Houessai
  • etc.

The costumes of each ethnical group varies. In the past, Laotians were tattooed from the knee to the navel, the stomach, or even the chest or arms according to their ethnical group.

Most of the villages (bans) on the plain live autonomously. Each inhabitant chooses a chief according to his competences and problems are normally solved by the villagers themselves.

The Laos Theung

They are the oldest inhabitants of Laos. They are normally despised by the other "races", sometimes called kha or moï (savage) by the Thais or the Annamites.

Kamu ethnic group during a parade in Luang Prabang

Like the Laos Thais, there are numerous Laos Theung ethnic groups; nearly sixty. Amongst them there are :

  • The Kamous, the most important group and who can be found in all the provinces of Upper-Laos.
  • The Bits, in the province of the Upper Mekong and to the south of Phon Saly (North-Laos)
  • The Lamets and the Kuenes (black and white) in the province of the Upper Mekong
  • The Mes living in the Upper Mekong
  • The Phai Hoks (or Ksing Mul) living to the west of the province of Sayaboury
  • The Phongs in the Muong Hua-Muong and the Muong Lan
  • The Sengs above Sam Neua and in the province of Louang Prabang
  • The Maabris, the most ancient of all the tribes of Laos
  • etc.

The Laos Theung are semi-sedentary, that means that they only move the situation of the village every 8 to 15 years once they’ve drained the earth due to their custom of cultivating on stubble burnt ground. They live on products from the forest, fishing and small local craftsmanship, cultivating rice, fruit and vegetables.

Their language is of the Môn-Khmer type and don’t know how to write. They are animists and practice the cult of their ancestors and believe in spirits, the Phis. These spirits are the basis of all their rites and traditions, and still dominate the every day life of the Laos Theung who believe in witchcraft, after-life, and hell, contrary to Buddhists.

The Laos Soung

These are the “Upper” Laos, in other words, those that live in the mountains (above 1200 meters). The majority of this ethnical group arrived in Laos during the last 200 years; there are Hmongs, Akha, and Yao. Their language is similar to Chinese, to Tibetan-Burmese. They are still nomads or semi-nomads, even if the government wants to make them settle by forcing them to come down from the mountains under the pretexts of education and health.

Hmong ethnic group in Laos, around Luang Prabang

The majority of this ethnic group is located in North Laos, especially in the area of Xieng Khouang. They are said to be good workers, tough fighters (the communists found this out, often at great cost), proud of their human values, attached to their tradition, and keeping their way of life based on freedom and honesty. They still well known to be excellent opium cultivators.

The Laos Soung are Animists, rarely Buddhists, and sometimes Christians (since the passage of French missionaries over a century ago). They have witches, shamans, and also have their own tradition, language, culture, architecture, law, etc.

Spirit and ancestor worship
Hmong people are traditionally animist, worshipping the spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. Shamans (Ouanung) are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in moments of ill health and village adversity. It tends to be that a spirit is upset and offerings such as livestock are made at the spirit’s request. Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits. Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them. During Hmong new year white paper is put on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in their honour.

The Hmong only have one festival at New Year called Nor Phe Chao. The festival falls on the first black moon in a 12 moon cycle. In a western calendar, it falls intermittently in either December or January. The festival lasts up to 7 days, bringing people together from many villages. It is during this time that couples are paired off. A game is played where girls and boys stand in rows throwing a ball to one another, much frivolity takes place and by the end of the week many future couplings have been decided.

Traditionally, men could have more than one wife, but today monogamy is the norm. The path to marriage starts after New Year, when the boy takes the girl to stay with his family for 3 days. If all goes well the boy’s family will go and talk to the girl’s family, dressed in their traditional clothing to negotiate the dowry which the boy’s family needs to pay. Once both sides agree a date is chosen and a party is planned.

House construction and village orientation
Hmong villages are traditionally found at high altitude, usually 1000-1500m above the sea level. The houses tend to face westward with a side door to the south. The one story house has a grass roof almost sloping to the floor. It is usual for more than one family to live in a house. The location for the house is chosen in one of two ways, either an egg is thrown to see if it breaks meaning the site is unsuitable or by a wrapped parcel containing 3 grains of rice being buried in the desired location. The next day the parcel is dug up and inspected, a perfect location is one where the 3 grains remain intact. It takes around 3 months to build a house. There are some house rules that a visitor must respect : in entering the house the owner must forewarn the house spirit saying dtua la jay. If there has been a birth in the house, a visitor must take off their hat, a leaf is put in the doorway so you know. And never touch the paper of the house spirit, found as the altar and the supporting columns.

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