Lao Culture

Core Concepts

  • Politeness
  • Modesty
  • Face
  • Harmony
  • Respect
  • Diversity

Officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Laos is located in Southeast Asia. It is the only landlocked country in the region, bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Laos is incredibly diverse in terms of ethnic and linguistic groups. Nonetheless, most Lao share common values, attitudes and collective experiences. For example, many Lao have a collectivistic outlook and seek to maintain harmony and honour among their family, friends and communities. Additionally, most Lao have experienced hardships resulting from the events of the Indochina Wars. Despite adversities on a national or local level, Lao are often warm and modest people who find contentment in their day-to-day lives.

Geography and Space

Laos has the lowest population density of any country in the Southeast Asia region. The most densely populated areas in the country are in and around the capital city of Vientiane. Along with Vientiane, many of Laos' major cities and towns are located along the banks of the Mekong River. The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and has historically been the economic and cultural focal point of Laos. The centrality of the Mekong continues today as the river remains the primary channel for transportation, fishing, trade, irrigation and tourism.

Over half of the population (59.3%) reside in the rural areas of Laos. As such, Laos is mostly united through agriculture, particularly rice cultivation. Many Lao live in villages that range from a few houses to several hundred. In every lowland village, there is a Buddhist temple, which is the main centre for social and recreational activities. In turn, each village supports at least one monk who oversees the local temple.

Ethnicity and Language

Laos is ethnically and linguistically diverse, with some estimates indicating there are more than 100 known ethnic groups in the country. Many of the ethnic groups in Laos speak their own languages and dialects, with some of the minority languages having no written form. Typically, the Lao population is categorised into three main ethnic groups depending on their geographic location. However, people will generally identify as ‘Lao’ foremost, followed by their ethnic group.

Lao Loum

The Lao Loum (‘lowlanders') consists of those who are ethnically Lao, with most Lao Loum occupying the lowlands of the country. The Lao Loum generally reside on the banks of the Mekong. It is believed that many of the ethnic groups under Lao Loum are descendants of the Tai people (not to be confused with Thai from modern-day Thailand). Ethnic Lao is the largest ethnic group found in Laos, making up just over half of the total population (53.2%). The official language of the country is Lao, the native language of the ethnic Lao. Many Lao can also speak and understand Thai due to the similarities between the two languages. Moreover, many Lao consume a lot of Thai media. However, the Lao language and Thai language are quite distinct from one another.

Lao Theung

The second largest ethnic category in Laos is the Lao Theung (‘highlanders'), located in the central and southern mountains of Laos. This ethnic category contains those of Austroasiatic origin and belongs to the Mon-Khmer language family. The largest ethnic group within the Lao Theung is the Khmu, located primarily in northern Laos. Along with the Khmu, there are over 20 other ethnic groups such as the Makong and Katang. The Lao Theung have been experiencing changes to their lifestyles and cultures due to increasing pressure from recent land reform programmes.

Lao Sung

The Lao Sung (‘mountain people') is the smallest ethnic category, made up of more than 30 tribes located in the mountainous regions of Laos. The two principal groups are the Hmong (at times referred to as Meo or Miao) and the Yao (sometimes known as lu Mien, Man or Mien). It is believed that the Hmong and Yao are descendants of ethnic groups once located in southern China. Many Hmong live in hiding in the jungles of Laos in fear of being persecuted for their grandparents’ decision to support the US army during the Second Indochina War. Many Hmong have attempted to flee over the border into Thailand. Nevertheless, relations between the current Lao government and the Hmong are improving, as seen from the greater representation of Hmong men and women in the political sphere.

Interethnic Relations

While much of the population fits into one of the three ethnic categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Sung, there are several other ethnic groups in the country. For example, there are many ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese residing in Laos. The ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country has played a significant role in shaping contemporary Laos. Throughout Lao history, ethnic diversity has produced, at times, a turbulent relationship among ethnic groups. These complex relations remain a crucial part of the national identity of Laos.

Complicating matters further, the geopolitical position and borders of Laos are creations of centuries of colonialism, regional conflicts, foreign interventions and revolutions. The boundaries of the ancient kingdoms throughout the Southeast Asia region for the most part have disappeared. Modern-day borders do not reflect the ethnic dispersion of people in the region. Indeed, the northeast region of Thailand was once a part of Laos. Today, there is an ethnic group known as ‘khon Isan’ (‘people of the Isan region’) who communicate in Lao and are ethnically similar to ethnic Lao. The Lao language spoken in Laos and northeast Thailand is very similar, and people from Isan and Laos understand each other. However, Lao-Isan has been influenced by the modern-day Thai language; thus, there are some distinctions.

The Indochina Wars

Throughout modern Lao history, the country has had interactions with various other countries from the Western world. These interactions have made a significant impact on Lao culture. The first notable interaction between Laos and the West was the colonisation of the country by France. Following its colonisation of Vietnam, France began to incorporate much of Lao territory into the French empire. A treaty between France and Thailand in 1907 defined the present-day boundaries of Laos.

Interactions between Laos and France continued well into the mid-20th century. During the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the ‘Pathet Lao’ (‘Land of Laos’) was formed – a communist resistance organisation associated with a Vietnamese counterpart, the Viet Minh. These two forces set out to gain independence from the French for the respective countries. Eventually, Laos gained independence from the French in 1953. However, the country quickly became subsumed into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975), which is often referred to in the English-speaking West as the Vietnam War.

During the early 1970s, the United States intensely bombed Lao territory to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran from North Vietnam through Laos, ending in South Vietnam. However, the bombing extended well beyond the trail and lasted for nearly a decade, leaving permanent craters and unexploded bombs in many rural areas. The impacts of the Second Indochina War remain to this day. For example, the expansion of land for cultivation has been severely impeded due to large quantities of unexploded ordnance throughout the country's potential farmlands. In turn, only a small portion of Laos' total arable land is cultivated. Moreover, many live with a constant sense of uncertainty as to the location of the unexploded bombs.

Since the end of the Second Indochina War, migration from Laos has increased significantly. Indeed, it is estimated that 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status, with many resettling in France, the United States and Australia. Some refugees were survivors of the Hmong ‘secret army’, while others were among the country’s educated and professional elite. Many Lao do not like to discuss the Second Indochina War because of its tragic effects on the country’s economy, stability and the Lao people. Present-day perceptions of the war and America differ depending on the individual and their experiences. For the most part, the younger generation of Lao are more accepting towards the United States. The aftermath of the war still directly impacts daily life, and the country continues to rebuild from these events.

Harmony and Honour

At times, Lao may come across as reserved and modest when interacting with others, mainly due to the concept of face. Informing the way in which Lao behave and communicate to one another, the concept of face refers to a person's or collective's reputation, dignity and honour. Through actions such as complimenting a person or demonstrating respect, one can give face. Moreover, pointing out someone's error, criticising another or raising one's voice are all seen as actions that can cause the loss of face and bring shame.

Generally speaking, conservative conduct is the norm in Laos as people wish to maintain harmony between each other. Indeed, Lao place a high value on harmony and unity with others, keeping a secure network with their community and relatives. To preserve peace and minimise the risk of losing face, Lao are often contemplative and deliberate in how they present themselves. Many Lao seem to have a calm disposition, while simultaneously avoiding excessive displays of negative emotions (such as anger or selfishness) or outbursts. This is done in part to maintain the face and honour of one's self, family or community.

Baci Ceremony

A cultural practice found across Laos is the ‘sou khouan’ or ‘baci’ ceremony. The baci is a general ceremony that occurs throughout a person’s life cycle or events that mark a transition in a person’s life. For example, the ceremony occurs when one is born, getting married, entering into monkhood, leaving home, returning home, and at the beginning of a new year.

In a baci, strings are tied around a person's wrist as a means to preserve good luck or good fortune in life. It is believed that the strings must never be cut and should not be removed for at least three days after being tied. Many people will leave the strings on for longer, with some keeping them until the strings disintegrate months later. The baci also involves offerings, food and religious chanting by a ‘maw phawn’ (‘wish priest’).

Fatalism and Contentment

Fatalism refers to the idea that events are predetermined, to the extent that one is unable to change them. The idea of fatalism plays a large role in the perspectives adopted by Lao, as they will often contemplate how their actions will impact their future while being quite accepting of the outcome. This is not to be interpreted as Lao having an unwillingness to take responsibility for life circumstances; rather this sense of fatalism usually translates into an acceptance of the events and trajectories of an individual’s life.

The Lao expression of “bo penh ngan”, which means ‘nevermind' or ‘no problem', reflects the Lao tendency towards acceptance and contentment. For many Lao, life should be enjoyed at the current moment, and problems should not be taken so seriously as to disrupt the enjoyment. Indeed, many Lao are concerned with making sure everything has some sense of ‘muan’ (‘fun’). This can be seen in the way some Lao inject playfulness and fun into mundane activities. For example, it is common to see Lao people smiling and laughing when interacting with others.


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