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Meditating near Si Phan Don.  <img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click for full image
Travel Guide > Asia > Laos

Laos People & Culture

  
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People

Despite its small population, Laos has no fewer than 49 officially recognized ethnic groups. About half of the population are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the river plains.

Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong peoples who live higher up.

In today's egalitarian People's Republic, this caste division has been formally abolished, but it still persists in real life. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities.

Religion

The people of Laos are often considered in their ethnicity by their altitudinal location: lowlands, midlands and highlands.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.

Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns, however many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight.

These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).

Customs

Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private houses.

As with other Buddhist countries, showing the soles of your feet is very poor manners. Never touch any person on the head. Despite prevelant cheap alcohol, being drunk is considered disrespectful and a loss of face.

Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as the natives will find humor in any tourist showing anger. They will remain calm, and venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with government bureaucracy.

Local people near Muang Sing, Laos.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Respect for monks is part of Laotian life, and the monks take their duties seriously. Remember that monks are forbidden to touch women. Some undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can understand and speak English.

It is best not to compel them to stand next to you for a photograph, or start a conversation, if they seem reluctant.

Languages

The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. Most younger people prefer to learn English over other foreign languages in school, so young people generally know some basic English, though proficiency is generally poor.

French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular.

There are two main ways to turn the Lao script into the Latin alphabet: either French-style spellings like Houeisay, or English-style spellings like Huay Xai. While government documents seem to prefer the French style, the English spellings are becoming more and more common and are (naturally) easier for English speakers to read.





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