People in Laos | Tours laos, Laos travel

People in Laos


The last official census in 2005 showed a population of 5,609,997 people with a growth rate of approximately 2.39%. This translates to a population density of approximately 25 people per square kilometer, making Laos one of the sparsest and lowest populated countries in Asia. The population is dispersed unevenly, with the greatest concentration of people along the Mekong Valley. Eight five percent (85%) of the total population lives in rural areas.

Laos’ low population can be attributed to a number of factors. In the last century, the country experienced significant warfare, leading to high volumes of deaths. The resulting instability also led to a large scale emigration and mass exodus of refugees. Currently, females outnumber males at a ratio of 2:1.



The government of Laos officially recognizes 47 different ethnicities which further divide into 149 subgroups. These groups fall under 4 different linguistic groups: the Tai-Kadi, representing 66.2% of the population with 8 officially recognized ethnic subgroups, the Austro-Asiatic group at 23% of the population with 32 ethnic groups, the Hmong Yu Mien, 7.4% with 2 ethnic groups, and the Sino-Tibetan at 2.7%, with 7 ethnic groups.

The most populer division, more than by ethnic or linguistic background however, is by natural habitat, which more or less does follow the ethno-linguistic divide.

The Lao Loum, or the lowland (valley) Lao, represents the largest group at 68% of the population. These are the inhabitants along the Mekong river valley; the most rich and fertile regions of the country. The Lao Loum comprises primarily agricultural farmers, of which rice cultivation is the primary agricultural resource. They also represent most of the city dwelling population.

The importance of rice farming and the adaptations to low-land living is evident in the typical housing construction. Homes are built on wooden stilts above ground as a contingency for flooding. Rice granaries created specifically to store rice are also common household features. Sticky rice is the principal rice product.

Households are nuclear in nature and usually comprise the husband and wife and all of their unmarried children. Some older married couples may live with one married child. Upon marriage, the husband and wife customarily establish their home in the bride’s village. The typical Lao Loum household ranges between six to eight people in villages of thirty to fifty houses, though large villages are possible. Family relations are important, and kinship is recognized even with distant blood relatives.

Traditionally, Lao villages are organized around a village chief (pho ban) to mediate disputes between villages and amongst villagers. Since the foundation of the LPDR, the villages are governed by a village president (pathan ban), who are elected by popular vote, although the role lacks actual authority because actual decisions are made in town meetings amongst the villagers.

Religion is a large part of the Lao culture, and the Lao Loum are primarily Theravada Buddhists. Most villages house at least one monk, and every village with have a wat, a Buddhist temple.

The Lao Loum predominately speaks Tai Kadai, specifically Laotian Tai, which more closely resembles Thai from Thailand than Tai speaking tribes within. Local subgroups include the Tai dam (Black Tai) and the Tai Deng (Red Tai). The term Lao Lum is sometimes used interchangeably with the ethnic Lao, the country’s dominant ethnic group.

The Lao Theung, or the midland Lao or the Mon Khmers, are found on the lower to mid mountain slopes between the altitude of 300 metres and 1200 metres in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Considered the original inhabitants of what is considered modern day Laos, the Lao Theung are the most distinct of the three groups, with greater cultural and linguistic differences than between the Lao Loum and the Lao Sung. The Lao Theung represents 22% of the population.

The Lao Theung live a semi-nomadic life, incorporating elements of a hunter-gather lifestyle by shooting or trapping small game, harvesting wild crops and tubers, with basic swidden (slash and burn) agricultural techniques for rice cultivation. Due to the low crop yields from this type of agriculture style, and the difficulty in keeping the fields weed-free, the Lao Theung are considered the poorest of the three ethnic groups. Also as a result of this lifestyle, midland and central Lao groups have been known to relocate villages every decade or two as swidden pastures become exhausted. Some villages do become more permanent — especially if they are located near major transportation routes and are at lower elevations near rivers. The government has also introduced a number of programs to relocate some of the Lao Theung.

Lao Theung villages are smaller than Lao Loum villages, with an average of twenty to thirty households. Geographically, they are distributed in the far south around Attapu and Champasak, in the north in Bokeo, Oudomaxi, and Luang Namtha, and around the Boloven plateau.

Like the Lao Loum, the houses are often built above ground, and can be larger than five by seven metres in size. The houses are often constructed using woven bamboo or awn lumber. The average household side will range for six to fourteen people and a new couple will reside with the husband’s parents until they are established on their own. An ideal household consists of the husband and wife, their children, wives of married sons and grandchildren.

While some midland Lao practice Theravada Buddhism, animism and spirit worship is also popular. A small group also practices Christianity. Animism involves the belief of guardians or protective spirits associated with place, or a family or clan.

Linguistically, the Lao Theung have distinct oral languages, considered to be of Austro-Asiatic in origin. They do not have a written language. Lao Theung subgroups include the Alak, the Kammu, Loven and the Lamet. There are vast cultural differences between the subgroups, including some that will not use metal at all, preferring to construct all tools out of wood or bamboo, others, such as the Lamet group, can not make or repair tools inside a family house.

The Lao Sung, or the upland Lao, are the most recent arrivals to Laos, having arrived in the beginning of the early nineteenth century. They represent about 9% of the population. The Hmong, Mien and Akha are all subgroups of the Lao Sung. All of the Lao Sung populations are located in the northern provinces of Laos, typically on mountain tops, ridges or hillsides over 1000 meters in elevation. As with the Lao Theung, the Lao Sung are semi-nomadic and villages may move to new locations once swidden farming exhausts the resources of a particular region. Others have been established for more than 100 years. The Lao Sung primarily produce rice, although corn and other crops are also grown. Pigs and chickens are also raised, but are rarely eaten for meat. Cattle and buffalo are left to graze in surrounding fields.

The Hmong make up the largest subgroup within the Lao Sung, representing two thirds of the population. They originated from China, and migrated gradually through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Typical Hmong villages range from twenty to thirty households, though more permanent villages can grow to over eighty households.

Hmong houses, unlike the Lao Theung or Lao Loum, are built directly on the ground. Almost every house has an alter for ceremonies with ancestral spirits. The households are traditionally based on extended families, and parents, children, wives of the married sons, and the grandchildren will all live in the same household. In recent times, it is more likely for a husband and wife to establish their own separate household. Marriages are typically arranged, and Hmong girls typically marry between fourteen and eighteen years of age. The practice of polygamy is observed among the Hmong, and at one point, between 20 to 30% of marriages were polygamous. The Hmong are divided into subgroups, including the Black, Red, White, Green, and Striped. The names are based on their traditional manner of dress.

As opposed to a centralized place of worship, such as a Buddhist Wat, individual household shrines are preferred. The Hmong are animists, and shamans play an important role in the village, both to ward off ill spirits and for fortune telling. Some Hmong, due to exposure to missionaries, have converted to Christianity.


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