Laos has a population density that is quite low compared to neighbouring countries with a total population of approx 6.7 million people, and about 19 persons per sq km. But, even with this relatively small population the Laos people are still split between 49 different ethnic groups. The different ethnic groups vary with the local traditions, culture and language.
A large percentage of the population (over 65%) is located in the fertile lowland plains and the Mekong River, and these people are referred to as the Lao Loam. The next large grouping includes the Lao Thing who resides on the mountainous slopes of Laos and account for nearly 25% of the population. The remaining inhabitants include the Yao (or Mien) and Hmong (or Meo) tribes people at about 9% and the last 1% consists of the ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese.
The official Lao language is Laotian and is spoken in many areas of the country, including the capital city of Vientiane. This language is tonal in nature (6 different tones) and is quite similar to the Thai language. Beyond the officially recognized language, there are a number of regional languages that are used by the minority groups, with a particular group including the Sino-Tibetan people.
Also, the similarity of the language with Thailand means there are a lot of Lao speakers that live in the north-eastern region of the country around Isaan.
Buddhism was first introduced to Laos in the 14th century and soon became popular with the Theravada form the most favoured. Today, the national religion is regarded as Buddhism with nearly 90% of the population following this faith. Even with the control of the communist government, the religion continues to have influence over the day-to-day life of the local people. Plus, there are plenty of religious festivals that are held throughout the year and worth seeing on the Laos holidays. A major event is the That Luang festival that is Vientiane-based and lasts for an entire week with great celebrations including light and sound shows, concerts and a huge fair.
The most established ethnic groups that can be seen on the Laos travel packages include the Akha, Hmong and Khamu. Also, when touring the rural regions of the country, it can sometimes benefit to travel with a local guide to help with the language barrier and cultural interpretation.
Most of the people from these ethnic groups work in the paddy fields. Plus, there are many local villages that create the skilfully created handmade crafts that are sold to the tourist trade and at local markets.
The Akha are an ethnic group that originated from the Tibetan Plateau and make up part of the Burmese-Tibeto linguistic family. This group (including many sub-groups) consists of nearly 65,000 people living in Laos. While the Akha have established their own dialect, they do not have a written alphabet. These people work in agriculture and mainly grow dry rice, as well as opium production and poppy growing. Plus, they are involved in raising small livestock and hunting and gathering for food supplies.
The costumes the women wear are among the most interesting and colourful in Laos. The women are skilled at creating all types of clothes and have great knowledge in plaiting, sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning cotton, and other textiles techniques.
The Akha people continue to live in accordance with traditional beliefs and a complex system of rules that relate to their specific needs. These beliefs are verbally passed from generation to generation and have a great impact on the daily life of the people.
The Hmong (also referred to as Miao) first arrived in the country from China and originally settled in Laos in the early part of the 19th century. The total number of Hmong that have made Laos home is in the region of 255,000. This ethnic group is split between two main groups: White Hmong and Blue Hmong, while there are also a small number of Black Hmong villages. Many of these people are based in mountainous regions of Sam Neua provinces, Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang.
An item that is particularly valued by the local Hmong people is silver jewellery which is reported to signify a good life and wealth. This silver jewelery is worn by men, women and children. Common items include pointed rings, earrings, silver chains and neck rings.
They are heavily involved in agriculture and rely on the slash-and-burn technique and mostly grow dry hill maize and rice. Other means to supplement the diet include hunting and forage, as well as to raise animals. A major crop that brings in the money for the Hmong people is the opium poppy. Also, the locals are skilled at embroidery which is exported and sold in a few of the markets located in northern Thailand.
In the villages the shamans take on the responsibility of a lot of the decision-making and overall have a central role in the community. The Hmong have a belief that everything has a da (or spirit). By placating the spirit it is possible to ward off catastrophe and sickness. Also, the private houses seen when touring the villages on the Laos tours are likely to have an altar to help give a degree of defence against potential household spirits.
The Khmu (also referred to as Kammu or Khamu) are seen as the indigenous people of northern Laos. This ethnic group is widely based in central and northern regions of Laos, as well as Thailand and Vietnam. It is estimated the total number of Khmu in Laos is in the region of 450,000 and is split into several ethnic groups. One of the major sub-groups is called the Mon-Khmer.
The preferred valleys have a sloped-basin and at an average altitude to help in creating the right settlement conditions. Common activities include raising small livestock, picking forest fruits, hunting, rice cultivation, and trading baskets with local villages.
A major part of the Khmu religion relates to the belief in spirits associated with the living and dead, as well as animism. These particular characteristics are followed by most of the Mon-Khmer ethnic groups – although the trance-like behaviours and magic are limited to the Khmu.