The major religion followed in the country by nearly 65% of the population is Theravada Buddhism. This religion was first established in Laos as early as the 14th century and soon became more popular than other religions like Brahmanism and animism. Similar to neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Thailand, religion is very important to many people and has a great influence on the local’s day-to-day life and culture. The temples and monasteries throughout the country are seen not only for their religious role, but also appreciated as a place for social functions. Plus, the temples can help to offer a place for the poor children and families to receive an education.
The majority of the local ethnic Lao people follow the Theravada Buddhism religion, as well as a number of the Tai groups. Other beliefs in the country include those associated with shamanism and labelled animistic which can relate to spirits of the realm, city spirits, district spirits, village spirits and house spirits. Many of the spirit based faiths strongly overlap with Buddhism and witnessed in temples and stupas. Also, the non-Buddhist Tai are followers of the territorial spirits. A large percentage of the population holds beliefs that concern sacred objects and places. The lineally organized groups are keen on ancestor worshipping.
With Theravada Buddhism being the most prominent religion, there is an estimated 4000 temples throughout the county that are a major point for not only the religious practices, but also as a place to gather for the rural communities. For tourists on the Laos travel packages, it is certain to be noticed that the religious traditions are held strongly throughout the lowland Lao villages.
Also, there are the upland people (most of those entered the country from southern China) that prefer to combine local religions and Buddhism with Confucian ideas. The local population of Vietnamese that are mostly city based or in rural areas in the north east of the country favour a form of Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism.
For the non-ethnic Lao, Christianity has started to grow in popularity with the Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong and Khmu among the largest converts of this religion. Followers of the catholic faith are believed to be in the region of 45000 with the vast majority related to the ethnic Vietnamese who are based in southern and central regions along the Mekong River.
Other small religions followed include the Muslim and the Baha i faith. Even though the government does in theory give the freedom of religion, there has been in the past some attempts to restrict certain practices which were seen as superstitious and discouraged. Today, most of the control over religion in the country is relaxed and even the more unique religious traditions are accepted.
Among the Lao people, the monks make up the main religious practitioners in the country. Also, for a short period of time, the young men are seen to enter monkhood to help prepare for later life, such as getting married. Plus, this event is held to assist with the process of transferring merit from son to mother. A typical time-frame to become a monk is less than 30 days. However, the young men that come from a poor family stay for longer because it gives an opportunity to receive a proper education. Also, the temples will also accept older men who are looking for a retreat, while a few older women may enter the temples.
The total number of monks in Laos is in the region of 20000 with an estimated 8000 that have achieved the senior monk rank, which is an indication of several years studying in the temple. With the high number of monks in the country, it is relatively easy to see them walking around when on the Laos travel. The number of women in the temples is a lot lower, and approx 400 nuns are believed to be in place throughout the country.
The responsibility of the monks is quite varied and may be involved in organizing the Buddhist ceremonies and religious events, as well as acting as counsellors, traditional medical practitioners and dream interpreters. Plus, there are other practitioners of a religious nature, such as shamans and spirit mediums with many of these women. Mediums and shamans are common with most of the minorities throughout the country.
One of the most ever-present rituals is referred to as baci or sou khouan which relates to spirit calling and a standard choice for threshold occasions like at rites of passage.
Rituals and holy places
The Buddhist lunar calendar is used by the ethnic Lao people to mark the different rituals that take place throughout the course of the year. Festivals often coincide with the full moon and are celebrated with events like New Year (15 April), the three month event that marks the start and end of lent (July and October), and Buddha's enlightenment (May).
Most of the country’s sacred temples and stupas are a central focus point when the festivals are taking place, and this makes a great time to visit the country on the Laos family tour. A major festival takes place in the capital city, Vientiane in November and revolves around the That Luang stupa. Other events include the Rocket Festival, which is a type of fertility event and combines non-Buddhist beliefs and Buddhism. The New Year is a major event for a large percentage of the minorities, and is held in accordance with their local calendars.
Death and afterlife
The typical practice of the Lao people is for cremation after death, although this may not apply to those that suffer an abnormal death, such as dying in childbirth. Once the cremation is complete, the remains are placed in the temple fence of a small stupa. The remains are seen as magical and powerful with the ability to channel power and help achieve fulfilment after offerings are made. However, this doesn’t extend as far as ancestor worship which is more common with certain non-Buddhist Tai, Vietnamese and Chinese people. For these people, the preferred choice is the traditional burial that the ancestors are said to be active and present in the dealings of descendants, and likely to make offering at regular intervals.