Laotian Culture

The People


It is reckoned that Laos has somewhere between 70 to over 100 ethnic groups (no one can be sure!), and these are divided into four major cultural-linguistic collections. Hill tribes make up a significant proportion of the population, though precisely how many ethnic groups actually exist in Laos remains uncertain; figures range from a government list of 68 to estimates by independent ethnographers of 120 or more. Laos' rich and complex linguistic mixture is such that, in extreme cases, some minorities consist of only a few hundred people, and only occupy a particular mountaintop or valley!

The Lao-Loom, or lowland Lao, speak Laotian Tai and live in the lowlands and cities and along the Mekong River. The Lao-Loom comprise about two-thirds of the country's total population.

The Lao-Tai, or tribal Tai, include the Black Tai and Red Tai (so-called in reference to the colour of their women's dress), who live throughout the country, especially at higher elevations

The Lao-Toong speak Mon-Khmer based languages, and are often termed the Austro-Asiatic people, (the largest group being the Kammu). These peoples are thought to be the descendants of the earliest peoples of the region; they live throughout Laos and in neighbouring countries, and their settlements are usually situated on the slopes at moderate elevations, and this pattern may have been due to immigration pressure by the early Lao who eventually took over the valleys.

The Lao-Soong group, including the Hmong (Meo, or Miao) and the Man (Yao), probably migrated from southern China to Laos in the late 18th century, and live in the mountains at the highest elevations, since most other land spaces had already been occupied at the time of their arrival.

Each of these groups, and the divisions within them, have their own culture, but in this website most of the focus is on lowland Lao culture.

In the Plain of Jars area, the most numerous peoples are the lowland Lao, Hmong, Black Tai, and Kammu. The Puan people, the Lao of the Plain of Jars, are a group of lowland Lao whose language and customs are slightly different than the Lao Loom in other regions. However, in modern times, after frequent population movements in and out of the area, they have been assimilated into the mainstream Lao group, and their language, for all practical purposes, approximates the common Lao tongue, except for some vocabulary and tonal differences.

The lowland Lao share many similarities with the Thai people. Having a common origin, the language and customs are basically the same, while most of the differences between them are largely the result of the past 500 years of history, their destinies having taken contrasting paths.

One noticeable difference however, is the food. The Lao have a tradition of eating things raw, including game meat and buffalo and fish, and uncooked vegetables, many of them wild herbs, grasses, leaves, and roots. This could be attributed to the forested mountainous character of their environment. The type of rice Laotians eat is also distinctive - sticky, or glutinous rice - which is eaten by kneading a small handful into a ball and dipping it into a dish of condiments. Sticky rice is served in reed baskets with a tight fitting cover that slips on and off. When Lao go off to work in the fields or elsewhere you will often see hanging at their side a small version of these round woven baskets to carry their sticky rice, and perhaps a small amount of fish or meat which will serve as a mid-day meal. The most ubiquitous dish eaten with sticky rice is pa dek, a highly pungent fermented fish sauce. It is common to see on the back verandah of a Lao peasant's house an earthenware jar of fermenting pa daek.

The second distinctive dish of the Lao is tam som (tam makhoong), which is a salad made from strips of unripe papaya, chilies, pieces of crab, little eggplants, and pa laa, another form of fermented fish. And then there is laap. It is made with fish, chicken, duck, pork, beef, buffalo or game meat. The meat and innards, often raw, are finely chopped and spiced with onion, chilies. and other herbs such as mint and lemon grass.


Visual Arts


The focus of most traditional art has been primarily religious and includes wats (temples), stupas, and several distinctively Lao representations of Buddha. (Stupas are monuments where the ashes or bones of eminent people are enshrined, the most renouned stupas claiming to hold the remains of the Buddha himself, the smaller ones of ordinary people are called chedi.)

As in Thailand, the Ramayana epic imported from India, serves as a popular subject of paintings and murals. The Lao remain skillful carvers and weavers, but traditional silver-smithing and gold-smithing are declining arts. Laos is most famous for its weavings. Most women in the small villages of Laos weave in order to support themselves. The materials used for weaving are silk and cotton. Cotton weavings are used to make women's traditional sarongs, called paa-sins

Laotian Literature



Unfortunately very little is known concerning the history of Lao's literature because early society was generally decentralized and isolated, and the quality of parchment did not lend itself to preservation, which in turn led to the written word becoming illegible in a relatively short time. The political insatability, especially in areas such as Sieng Khuoang (the Plain of Jars) was as well a barrier to a more enduring literary heritage.

Laotian language was created in the fourteenth century and is read from left to right. The Laotian language contains fifteen vowels and thirty constants. The first record of Laos's traditional literature is from the 15th and 16th century and it differs prominently from western literature because Laos does not write fiction literature. Of all the literature that has been written ninety percent has a Buddhist religious theme, or else historical as traditional literature was not meant for entertainment, but rather, as an education or a teaching tool. Popular literature, in contrast, is maintained by an oral tradition of folk tales.


Traditional Festivals



Lao Festivals are usually linked to agricultural seasons or historical Buddhist holidays. The biggest celebration, New Year, interestingly enough takes place in mid-April, and this is also true of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and among the Dai people of Yunnan, China. Boon Bang Fai (the rocket festival) takes place a month later in May, when more significant rain showers should materialize. This is an animist celebration with plenty of processions, music and dancing, accompanied by the firing of bamboo rockets to prompt the heavens to send rain. The week-long Tat Luang Festival in Vientiane in November has the whole repertoire of fireworks, music and parades.

Festivals in Laos are mostly linked to the agricultural seasons and historical Buddhist holidays, so called " BOON."

     February: Boon Maka Bucha, the rice roasting ceremony organized at the beginning of February (on full moon day) to celebrate the fruitful harvesting.

April: Lao New Year Day. The biggest celebration, New Year, interestingly enough takes place in mid-April, and this is also true of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and among the Dai people of Yunnan, China. Houses are cleaned, offerings are made in wats and everyone gets dowsed by water.

May: Boon Visaka Bucha , a Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha, all combined on a single day. People flock to the temple for a candlelight procession three times around the main building (the sim) and to make offerings.

This is also the time of the Rocket Festival, Boon Bang Fai, marked by a colorful parade with lovely girls and decorated bamboo rockets, moving from the village in the afternoon for competitive launching in the rice fields Rockets are fired into the sky, alerting the heavens that the people are ready for the rainy season. The rain insures a good harvest. The two alternate fables behind the Rocket Festival can be found at the link below:

http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/Lao_Folklore/rocket_festival/rocket_festival.htm#Rocket history

July: Boon Khao Phansa. The beginning of Pansa, or Buddhist Lent

August: : Boon Khao Phadabdin. During the last week of August a foodstuff people make offerings to the spirits of their departed ones.

September: : Boon Khao Salak. A foodstuff offering ceremony to the venerable monks and novices held in the temples countrywide.

October: Boon Ok Phansa. The end of Pansa, Buddhist lent ending. ceremony held in the temples countrywide, and boat racing takes place in some areas, the most notable on the Mekong River in Vientiane. Shortly after this, is another special day called Katin, when the people offer new robes to the monks.

November: Tat Luang Festival. This significant event is takes place in Vientiane at the full moon day of November to celebrate this important national shrine. On this occasion there is a crowded market fair and colorful fireworks at night.


Lao New year - Pii Mai or Song Kran



The origins of this momentous holiday is difficult to pin down - either from Yunnan China, or possibly, India. It is actually the clebration of the vernal equinox, much like the origins of Easter and the Indian Holi festival. In southeast Asia, the date of Pii Mai probably has a seasonal basis, since it coincides with the beginning of the agricultural season and the hydrological water year (when the monsoon winds arrive bringing the first sprinkling of showers). Houses are cleaned, offerings are made in wats and everyone gets dowsed by water.

Cleansing to get ready for the approach of a new year is a very instrumental part of the celebrations, and water is a common theme. The first ceremony consists of washing Buddha images with holy jasmine water. The there is the rot nam, whereby the junior members of the family anoint and sprinkle water on their elders. For tourists, the most noticeable and memorable custom is the dousing of passerby with buckets of water, and hardly anyone walking around at this time can avoid ending up sopping wet.

The New Year celebration symbolizes the cleansing of the past year in order to bless the year to come. This celebration serves to eliminate all of the evil influences that had assimilated during the previous year and guarantee good fortune for the next year.


Hmong New Year



Hmong New Year is more closely associated with Chinese New Year, and the time of celebration is either January or February (the first lunar month) as compared to April for Pii Mai (fifth lunar month).

New Year sacred rites include the traditional sweeping of each house to drive out all the evil spirits and misfortunes of the past year, during which a rooster is sacrificed and blessings are pronounced for health and prosperity for a particular household during the New Year These rituals are all practiced within each individual household. However, one major ritual is performed by all of the heads of househols of the communities.

The performance of the Ntoo Xeeb is held on the first day of January and promotes the welfare of the entire village. Ntoo Xeeb translates into trees that have roots above the ground The purpose of this ritual is to call forth the Ntoo Xeeb spirit to protect the health and welfare of the people in the village. The villagers take the site of the ritual into special consideration because it must be a sacred well-protected location. After cleaning and enclosing the ritual site, it is time for the actual ritual to take place. Only the head of each household is allowed to be present. First, they make offering of tea and rice wine to the four kinds of forest spirits. Next, the leader ritually removes branches from the gate opening. The purpose of the chant is to invite the spirit to the ceremony and ask it to accept the offerings and in turn provide them with its blessing for the year The last part of the ceremony consists of the men rushing to the altar and placing incense and candles on it. They all must ask the spirit for whatever it is that they want.

Probably the most popular activity for younger people, is the ball throwing courtship ritual, where young men and women stand in two lines facing each other, and toss a clothball back and forth.

Two good websites to find out more about Hmong culture are:



Spirit Gates


Many hill tribe villages have spirit gates on the paths above and below each village, to protect the residents and deter evil spirits. Some of these may have male and female wooden figures alongside. These gates act as a kind of barrier to the spirits outside the village and provide a way of purifying villagers returning from the forests. In most cases, they are never taken down, but they are rebuilt every year with a ceremony dedicated to the spirits. Usually, only men are involved in this activity. The top of the gates may be adorned with figurines, effigies, animal parts, or carvings depicting weapons such as an AK-47.

The Akha in the Golden Triangle region are the peoples most often associated with spirit gates, however most tribes that live in forested mountains in Asia construct them, including the Hmong.

For some hill tribes, if a visitor enters a village through a gate, it is obligatory to enter at least one house.

The Spirit Gate is used to separate the human world from the spirit world, Everything beyond the village gate is considered as part of the domain of the spirits. If one were to venture forth into the forest, they would be at the mercy of the spirits, which may follow that person back to the village to bring sickness or some other misfortune. Upon returning to the village, that person is expected to pass through the village gate in order to exclude any malicious spirits.

Occasionally, there would be a rash of sickness running through the village, and this would be interpteted to mean that the spirits are running havoc on the community, which requires an offering to be made to appease them.


Music and Dance


Music and dance, as in most societies, is a key element of culture, serving complex social needs as well as pure entertainment. Another web page dealing with that topic, including downloads and multimedia can be found on this site. Click here

For more on Lao culture, visit

SE Asian Languages and Cultures - Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University


Lao Cuisine