Laos has a total population of 6,834,345 (2009 est.) with an average growth of 2.32%. The country’s low population density has allowed the continuation of a village society dependent on subsistence agriculture. Laos’ lack of adequate infrastructure and effective transportation networks has contributed to relative independence and autonomy of most villages. Lowland Lao ethnic groups considered residency in a village as an important aspect of social identity while upland Lao ethnic groups perceived clan membership as the more important point of social identification.
About 67% of the country‘s population are Laotians and are related racially to the Thai people. Roughly a quarter of the population particularly on the Southern part of the country is ethnically belonging to Mon-Khmer group, about 15% are Thais and the remaining of the country’s population are various hill tribes.
Lao is a multiethnic nation with more than forty ethnic groups, which are classified within three general families: Lao Sung (highland Lao) embraces Hmong-Mien peoples of Austro-Thai language family and Sino-Tibetan language family; Lao Theung (upland Lao) comprises all Austro-Asiatic language family and the Lao Loum (lowland Lao) corresponds to Lao, Lu, Phuan and other Thai speaking Austro-Thai language family.
Lao Sung are the highland Lao this include the ethnic groups of Hmong, Akha, and Mien. Lao Sung comprises 10 % of population in 1993. They are believed to be the most recent migrants to the country and have been coming from the southern China since the late 18th century. Highland villages reside on mountain tops, hillsides over 1,000 m in elevation and upland ridges. Most of them are considered as semi-migratory since they moved to new locations when swidden farming resources have been exhausted in the old area. Majority of the Lao Sung village are settled in the north with only Hmong villages found as far as south as Vientiane.
More than two-thirds of Lao Sung is considered Hmong. Hmong villages in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are traditionally found on mountain or ridge tops. Hmong who fled China and migrated to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand were traditionally paddy rice farmers who adopted swidden farming because of lowland basins that were already settled in the region. Hmong villages rely on swidden farming to produce rice, corn and other crops. They tend to plant a field until the soul was exhausted, rather than once a year or two before letting it to be untilled.
Hmong houses usually measures from about five by seven m up to ten by fifteen m for large extended households. Usually built directly on the ground, with walls of vertical wooden plank and gabled roof of thatch or split bamboo. Interior of the house is commonly divided into a kitchen at one end and several sleeping niches at the other end with beds raised thirty to forty cm above the dirt floor. Crops such as rice and corn are generally stored in large woven bamboo baskets inside the house.
The swidden farming system being practice by Hmong villages is based on non-glutinous rice supplemented by corn, tubers, wide variety of vegetables and squash. Hmong traditionally grow opium in small quantities for medical and ritual purposes however during the French colony the expansion of opium production was encouraged. Since then opium become an important cash crop for the Hmong and other Lao Sung villages. Opium is considered to be the only product that combines high value with low bulk and is nonperishable so easy to transport, thus despite the government’s effort of prohibiting opium production Lao Sung villagers particularly in isolated upland settlements plant opium poppies in cornfields during cold season. Highland Laos also raise chickens and pigs in large numbers as possible, buffaloes and cattle graze in the surrounding forest and abandoned fields.
Highland village farming depends on household labor and simple tool. The area of land to be cleared and farmed determined to the number of workers in the household. Crops such as rice and corn are weeded twice and three times respectively during the growing season. Other crops like beans, cucumbers, peppers and squash are inter-planted with rice or corn while arrowroot, cabbage, and taro are found adjacent to the swiddens or in the village.
Hmong society are subdivided into different clans and usually named according to the features of traditional dress. The Green Hmong (sometimes called Blue Hmong) are the most numerous one; the Striped Hmong; and the White Hmong. Languages used by Hmong clans maybe somewhat different but mutually comprehensible. Households are consisting of large patrilineal extended families in which the parents, children, and wives and children of married sons all living in the same roofs. They also reckon kinship patrilineal kinship and recognized fifteen or sixteen patrilineal exogamous clans, tracing their descent back to a common mythical ancestor.
The governance of the village of Lao Sung is in the hands of headman and its council, however the clans elder’s’ opinions play an important plan in decision making of the administration. Among the highland Lao, Hmong preserved the tradition of king and sub-chiefs and a large-scale organization, though the practice was limited to village. Inter-household cooperative relationships occurs less often rather cooperation mostly take place among the primarily close kin who can be relied upon for assistance in case of emergency or family hardship.
About 22% of the population comprises of Lao Theung. Lao Theung consists of at least thirty-seven different ethnic groups scattered throughout Laos. They are thought to be the descendants of the earliest people to inhabit the region. Lao Theung groups usually reside in a relatively limited geographic area such as border between Bokeo, Oudomxai, Louang Namtha and the provinces of Attapu and Saravan in the south.
A great number of Lao Theung villages are found on mountain slopes but neither at the peak nor the ridges. However a growing number of villages have been founded at lower elevations near rivers or roads. They speak languages of Austroasiatic family however some languages are closely related to such as Kammu, Lamet, and Sam Tao. Lao Theung is considered to be a swidden farmer and semi-migratory since they have occasionally moved their villages as swidden areas were exhausted.
Lao Theung groups depend on swidden rice cultivation as a basis of their household economy. Swidden rice seldom yields as much as paddy fields thus cassava, corn and wild tubers serve as an important component to supplement a frequently inadequate rice supply. They also engaged in hunting and gathering in the forest surrounding the village. Fishing is also common for some groups although rarely practiced by others.
Lao Loums dwell in the lowlands on the banks of Mekong River and its tributaries, and in the cities. They have been the dominant group with 68% of the population. They speak Laotian Tai which is similar to the language spoken by the Thais. They traditionally live in stable independent villages situated near lowland rivers or streams. Houses are built by hands using local materials such as wood, bamboo or thatching grass. Houses of Lao Loum commonly range from five by seven meters to eight by twelve meters. Houses are usually built with a porch on the long side that serve as a public area while interior is divided into one or two sleeping rooms, common room for eating and visiting and a separate kitchen.
Lao Loums economy is focused on paddy rice cultivation and most village activities and daily life revolved around rice production. Household works center on paddy production during the time of transplanting and harvesting cooperative work groups are often organized by several families to help the tasks completed in time. Sticky rice is considered as the staple food. It must be steamed rather than boiled and commonly eaten with fingers and dipped in soup or vegetable or meat dish. Meals are relatively simple and commonly include chicken or duck and a bottle of local rice liquor.
The lowland villages also practice swidden rice farming however this method is less efficient than paddy rice cultivation. Swidden rice in certain villages is grown as a supplement to paddy rice production. In general, Lao Loums are largely self-sufficient, they grow their own food, make their own clothes and tools, and trade any spares for household goods, kerosene, medicine and soap.
Traditionally, fishing and hunting plays an important role in the household economy of lowland villagers. To hunt small deer, wild pigs or birds homemade rifles are used. Nets, traps or hooks are used to catch fish. Education for lowland villages is usually provided to boys and young men through Buddhist temples. However this practice is being supplanted by national education system although old practice still exists in some areas.
Laotians are considered warm and welcoming, always honoring guest with a respectful “Sabai dee” greeting. They greet each other with “nop”, a prayer-like gesture in which palms are placed at chest level without touching the body. Person in low status does “nop” to show respect to their elder or social superior. Lao people are known for being frank, friendly and open-minded. They possess a deep sense of courtesy and respect. As a custom of the Laotians, shoes are removed when entering a Wat or a private home. Men usually sit with legs crossed or folded to one side while women prefer the latter. As a gesture of hospitality they served guests with fruits or tea upon entering their house.