One of South East Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries, Laos has long defied the best efforts of anthropologists and linguists to classify its complex array of ethnicities and sub-ethnicities, many of which utilise several different names and synonyms given to them by the government or by other ethnic groups.
Although it is no longer given official credence, the threefold 1970s classification Lao Loum (‘Lowland Lao’), Lao Theung (‘Upland Lao’) and Lao Soung (‘Highland Lao’) is still quoted widely. Based loosely on the altitudes of ethnic minority settlements, this simplified system may be understood as follows:
+ Lao Loum – Lao, Lu, Phuan and other Tai-speaking groups (Austro-Thai language family)
+ Lao Theung – all Austro-Asiatic language family groups
+ Lao Soung – Hmong-Mien (Austro-Thai language family) and all Sino-Tibetan language family groups
However, this brief overview utilises the more universally accepted system which classifies ethnic groups within the three great language families of Austro-Thai, Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan.
In his four-volume work Ethnic Groups of Laos (White Lotus, 2003), Joachim Schliesinger has identified 94 different ethnic groups in Laos, although he admits that because of the extremely complicated ethnic situation in Laos this should not be regarded as a final figure but rather simply as a tentative one which can serve as the basis for further work.
The majority Lao population is drawn from the Austro-Thai language family, which is represented by three distinct groups in Laos:
(i) the Tai-Kadai group may be subdivided into three branches:
+ Northern Tay-Tai speakers include Giay, Nhang, Seak, Tai Air, Tai Chiangki, Tai E, Tai Guan, Tai Khang, Tai Mene, Tai Meuy, Tai Nua, Tai Oh, Tai Pao, Tai Poreng, Tai Pouark, Tai Pun, Tai Sam, Tai Senkap, Tai Souei, Tai Then, Tai Yor, Tai Yuang and Yoy;
+ South Western Tay-Tai speakers include the majority Lao population, plus Lao Isaan, Lao Ngaew and Lu (Lao-Lu sub branch), and Kalom, Phu Tai, Phuan, Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, Tai Gapong, Tai Khao, Tai Khoen, Tai Wang, Tai Yai and Yuan (Tai sub branch);
+ Unclassified Tay-Tai speakers include Tai Add and Tai Poua;
(ii) the Hmong-Mien group may be subdivided into two branches:
+ Hmong speakers are drawn from three linguistic sub branches – the Chuanqiandian sub branch is represented by the Hmong Do (White Hmong) and their Hmong Lay and Hmong Qua Mba (Striped Hmong) sub groups, the Hmong Lenh (Flower or Variegated Hmong) and the Hmong Njua (Blue or Green Hmong); the Qiandong sub branch by the Hmong Du or Black Hmong); and the Xiangxi sub branch by the Hmong Si (Red Hmong);
+ Yao (Mien) speakers comprise Yao (Mien) and their Lanten sub group;
(iii) the Austronesian or Malayo-Polynesian group is represented in Laos by a small group of Cham (Chamic branch).
The Austro-Asiatic language family is represented in Laos exclusively by its Mon-Khmer language group, which is in turn subdivided into the following six branches:
+ Bahnaric speakers include Brau, Chieng, Loven, Nha Heun, Oy, Sedang, Sou, Talieng and Yae;
+ Katuic speakers include Alak, Bru, Ca-tu, Kaleung, Katang, Kui, Makong, Nghe, Pa-co, So and Ta-oi;
+ Khmuic speakers include Htin, Khang, Khmu, Mlabri, O-du and Xinh-mun;
+ Palaungic speakers include Bid, Doi, Keu, Lamet and Samtao;
+ Viet-Muong speakers include Bo, Krih, Liha, Maleng, Muong, Phon Sung, Phong, Thavung and Tum;
+ Unclassified Mon-Khmer speakers are represented by the Lavy.
The Sino-Tibetan language family is represented in Laos by two language groups:
+ Han (Sinitic) speakers comprise South Western Mandarin (Yunnanese)-speaking Haw or ethnic Chinese
+ Lolo-Burmish speakers include Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La
Ethnic settlement in Laos is extremely complex, but it is possible to discern a general pattern.
Amongst the Mon-Khmer groups of the Austro-Asiatic family, Bahnaric speakers (Brau, Chieng, Loven, Nha Heun, Oy, Sedang, Sou, Talieng, Yae) and Katuic speakers (Alak, Bru, Ca-tu, Kaleung, Katang, Kui, Makong, Nghe, Pa-co, So and Ta-oi) may be found predominantly in the six southernmost provinces of the country (from Khammouane south to Champassak and Attapeu), while Khmuic speakers (Htin, Khang, Khmu, Mlabri, O-du, Xinh-mun) and Palaungic speakers (Bid, Doi, Keu, Lamet, Samtao) are settled mainly in the northern provinces and Viet-Muong speakers (Bo, Krih, Liha, Maleng, Muong, Phon Sung, Phong, Thavung, Tum) in the east-central region.
Tai-Kadai speakers drawn from the Austro-Thai language family (other than the ethnic Lao majority) – including Giay, Nhang, Seak, Tai Air, Tai Chiangki, Tai E, Tai Guan, Tai Khang, Tai Mene, Tai Meuy, Tai Nua, Tai Oh, Tai Pao, Tai Poreng, Tai Pouark, Tai Pun, Tai Sam, Tai Senkap, Tai Souei, Tai Then, Tai Yor, Tai Yuang and Yoy (Northern Tay-Tai), Lao Isaan, Lao Ngaew and Lu (South Western Tay-Tai, Lao-Lu sub branch), Kalom, Phu Tai, Phuan, Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, Tai Gapong, Tai Khao, Tai Khoen, Tai Wang, Tai Yai and Yuan (South Western Tay-Tai, Tai sub branch) and Tai Add and Tai Poua (Unclassified Tay-Tai) – are concentrated largely in the central and northern regions of the country.
The Hmong and Yao peoples (Austro-Thai language family), together with various Tibeto-Burman language family ethnicities such as the Haw (Han Chinese) and Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La (Lolo-Burmish), are settled predominantly in the mountainous northern provinces.
Exact figures on the ethnic make-up of Lao society are equally difficult to determine.
At the time of writing figures gathered during the government census of 2005 have yet to be broken down by ethnic group. However, according to the 1995 census, the so-called Lao Loum or ‘Lowland Lao’ made up just over 3.1 million or 68 per cent of the then total population of just over 4,581,000. Of these just under 2.4 million (52 per cent of the total population) could strictly be designated as ethnic Lao; the remaining 700,000 (15 per cent of the total population) comprised various other Northern, South Western and as yet Unclassified Tay-Tai speaking peoples.
Of the remaining 1.48 million Lao citizens, just over 1 million (22 per cent of the total population) comprised Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer peoples (designated by the government as Lao Thueng or ‘Upland Lao’), just over 400,000 (9 per cent of the total population) were Lao Seung or ‘Highland Lao’ (Hmong, Yao, Haw, Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La) and around 45,000 (1 per cent of the total population) ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese.
More recent estimates suggest that out of a total population of 5.6 million (2005) there are currently over 3 million ethnic Lao (54 per cent of the total) and around 2.6 million other cultural distinct ethnic people, including other Tay-Tai speakers (46 per cent of the total). The most numerically significant of the non-Lao ethnic groups are the Khmu (500,957, 1995), Hmong (315,465, 1995), Lu (119,191, 1995), Phuan (115,000, J Schliesinger estimate 2001), So (102,000, SIL estimate 1993), Katang (95,440, 1995), Akha (66,108, 1995), Tai Dam (65,000, J Schliesinger estimate 2000) and Bru (64,000, SIL estimate 1993).

Many of Laos’ ethnic minority groups preserve distinctive music and dance traditions, which function together with the production of art objects to propitiate the spirits and celebrate social milestones in the lives of members of the community.
Numerous different types of musical instrument are utilised in accompaniment of solo and group songs and dances.
Wind instruments are found amongst almost all ethnic groups and range from vertical and transverse bamboo flutes to single and double reed wooden trumpets and buffalo horns. However, the most ubiquitous wind instrument in Laos is the khene, which is used not just by the Lao ethnic majority but also by many other Tay-Tai speaking groups. The Hmong also have their own distinctive version of this instrument.
Stringed instruments are also popular and range from plucked gourd lutes to bowed bamboo fiddles.
Percussion comes in various shapes and sizes, ranging from bronze drums and gongs to wooden bells, bamboo clappers, chimes and even pestles and mortars. Bronze drums carry great ritual significance in the wider South East Asian region, and in Laos, as in neighbouring Vi?t Nam and Cambodia, they constitute an integral part of ritual ceremonies amongst Mon-Khmer and Lolo-Burmish groups.
Fokloric dance remains an important means of celebrating everyday events and pastimes. Many different varieties of ethnic minority folkloric dance are performed in Laos, ranging from the xoe and sap (bamboo pole) dances of the Tay-Tay speaking groups to the robam of the Khmer, the khene and umbrella dances of the Hmong and the bell and drum dances of the Yao.
Complementing the lam and khap of the Lao ethnic majority, several Tay-Tai speaking ethnic minority peoples preserve their own call-and-response dialogue song traditions in which boys and girls engage in flirtatious vocal banter.
Best-known are khap tai daeng (Red Tai) and khap tai dam (Black Tai) from the Tai ethnic minority of Samneau Province, lam meuy from the Tai Meuy ethnic minority of Borikhamxai Province and, from the Phu Tai ethnic minority, lam phu tai in Savannakhet Province and khap phu tai in Phongsali Province. These genres sometimes employ a khene, but performances are more commonly accompanied by ethnic minority instruments such as bamboo flutes or fiddles, or simply by hand clapping.
The rich performance traditions of Laos’ ethnic minorities are currently being documented and researched with a view to revival and development through the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Institute of Cultural Research (ICR) and the National Library’s Archives of Traditional Music in Laos (ATML).

Craft production has long been one of the most important functional aspects of material culture amongst the ethnic groups of Laos. Some ethnic crafts carry a ritual function, but most are produced purely for domestic use.
Basket weaving is practiced widely by ethnic minority groups from all three major language families and includes the production of fish and animal traps, mats and all kinds of household containers, including the ubiquitous back-basket in which products are carried to and from the market.
Woodworking also features prominently amongst the ethnic minority handicrafts practiced in Laos. Renowned amongst the Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer groups are the carpenters of the Bahnaric-speaking Brau, Loven, Oy, Sedang, Sou and Talieng, the Katuic-speaking Nghe, Pa-co and Ta-oi and the Khmuic-speaking Khang and Xinh-mun. South Western Tay-Tai groups such as the Lao Isaan, Lu, Tai Khao and Yuan and highland communities such as the Hmong, the Yao and the Lolo-Burmish Akha, Kongsat, Phanna and Poussang are also known for their proficiency in this area.
The Hmong, the Yao, the Sou, the Khang and the Xinh-mun are all known for their boatbuilding skills. However, woodcarving is more commonly associated with the production of items such as cross bows, spears, bows and arrows, tobacco pipes, bowls, spoons and combs. Certain ethnic communities also preserve the art of creating musical instruments such as lutes, fiddles, flutes, reed trumpets, mouth organs and ideophones, which are manufactured from a variety of natural materials including gourd and bamboo.
With a few notable exceptions (inspired perhaps by their close proximity to Tai weavers), textile weaving and dyeing has largely died out amongst the Mon-Khmer ethnicities of Laos, but it remains alive and well amongst most Tai-speaking communities. Of particular note are the textiles of the Tai Chiangki, Tai Mene, Tai Meuy, Tai Pouark, Tai Sam, Tai Souei and Tai Then (Northern Tay-Tai); and the Lu, Kalom, Phuan, Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, Tai Gapong, Tai Khao, Tai Khoen, Tai Wang and Yuan (South Western Tay-Tai). Hmong, Yao and Sino-Tibetan ethnicities such as the Lolo-Burmish speaking Akha, Ha Nhi, Lolo and Phunoi are also proficient weavers and dyers, but they are perhaps best known for their sewing and embroidering skills, which have given rise to some of the most spectacular and colourful traditional costumes in the world.
In many parts of the country these colourful costumes are decorated with copious amounts of silver jewelry. Accordingly, silversmithing is still practised by a number of ethnic groups, predominantly by the Hmong, the Yao and Tibeto-Burman ethnicities such as the Akha, but also by some Mon-Khmer groups in the southern half of the country.
The several ethnicities still utilise bronze drums in their propitiation ceremonies, though sadly in many areas the art of casting these drums is dying out. In times gone by bronze drums were a symbol of wealth and status in many communities, but today an increasing number have been sold to tourists.
Other important traditional crafts practiced by ethnic minority communities in Laos include iron forging (a skill in which the Kui and several of the Bahnaric-speaking peoples were once famous), bamboo paper making and the production of jewelry from multi-coloured glass beads. Some Bahnaric and Katuic ethnicities – notably the Oy, Yae and Kui – also create rudimentary pottery.

In the outlying rural and mountainous districts of the country, most ethnic minority groups live in small or medium-sized villages of stilted or non-stilted thatched houses constructed from wood and bamboo.
As a very general guideline it may be said that Tai-Kadai (Lao-Lu, Northern Tai, South Western Tai) ethnicities drawn from the Austro-Thai language family, together with Mon-Khmer ethnicities (Bahnaric, Katuic, Khmuic, Palaungic and Viet Muong speakers) drawn from the Austro-Asiatic language family, live in river valleys and on the lower hillsides in stilted or part-stilted houses, whilst mountain-dwellers such as the Hmong-Mien sub-groups of the Austro-Asiatic language family and members of the Sino-Tibetan language family show a preference for houses constructed directly onto the ground in the high plateaux. However, this is no more than a generalisation and many ethnic and regional variations exist – for instance in cases where members of one ethnic group living in close proximity to a more culturally dominant ethnic group have adopted the latter’s architectural style, or a mountain-dwelling ethnic group such as the Hmong has been resettled in a lowland area with a view to eradicating opium cultivation and encouraging settled agriculture.
The residential housing of Tai-Kadai ethnicities varies significantly throughout the country in size and quality, from the rudimentary single-roomed bamboo house on stilts constructed by many Northern Tai ethnicities to the larger dwellings built by the Lu and by certain South Western Tai groups – most notably the large open plan stilted houses of the Tai Daeng, Tai Dam and Tai Khao, with their characteristic tortoise shell-shaped thatched roofs. Lao Isaan, Lao Ngaew and a few South Western Tai groups such as the Kalom and Phu Tai live mainly in houses of traditional Lao design.
In the past several Mon-Khmer ethnicities – including the Bahnaric-speaking Brau, Sedang and Yae, the Katuic-speaking Ca-tu, Katang, Kui, Pa-co and Ta-oi and the as yet linguistically unclassified Lavy – constructed stilted long houses measuring up to 30 or 40 metres in length, which provided living quarters for numerous extended families. Sizeable long houses were also built directly on the ground by the Lanten, a sub group of the Yao (Mien). Bahnaric and Katuic long houses were traditionally clustered around a communal house, where ritual ceremonies were performed, guests welcomed and important issues of the village discussed by elders. This communal house could resemble a larger version of the residential long house or alternatively take the form of an imposing structure known as the rong house, which was characterised by its high ground clearance and steep two- or four-sided roof with sculpted finials. Today residential long houses and tall-roofed communal houses may still be found in remoter communities of southern Laos close to the Vietnamese border, but over the past 50 years communal house design has become simpler and there has been a trend towards the construction of smaller, more rudimentary stilted houses of bamboo and wood, grouped in clusters of between 20 and 100 and each accommodating just one nuclear family.
In contrast to the Bahnaric and Katuic groups of the south, representatives of the Khmuic, Palaungic and Viet-Muong branches of the Mon-Khmer language group of northern Laos tend to live in more rudimentary stilted dwellings made predominantly from bamboo.
A common feature of many settlements belonging to ethnic minorities of Mon-Khmer extraction is the bamboo spirit gate which marks the boundary of the village. A buffalo-sacrificing ground may often be found nearby.
Like the Hmong, Yao and Haw, most ethnicities of Sino-Tibetan language family construct their wood and bamboo houses directly onto the ground in mountain clearings. Notable exceptions are the Akha, Kongsat, Phanna and Phunoi, who build stilted or part-stilted dwellings.

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