With a population close to 6 million inhabitants in 2008 spread across 17 provinces, Laos is the least populated country of Southeast Asia with only 23p/km². Roughly 85% of the population lives in rural areas and is mostly made up of the dominant lowland Lao ethnic group. There are 19 officially recognized ethnic groups in Laos representing four ethno-linguistic families: Tai-Kadai, mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burmese. These in turn all have branches and sub-groups that anthropologists further classify into 230 distinctive entities. The vibrant traditional culture and indigenous knowledge of this diverse population permeates into all aspects of Lao life.
Many of them work in the rice fields, and initially for their daily use developed crafts such as wickerwork, silversmithing, weaving cotton and silk, etc.; these have now been developed in many places as fine handmade crafts sold to tourists and retailers worldwide. The most common ethnic groups you might meet are Khamu, Hmong, and Akha. We recommend employing a local guide to assist you with cultural interpretation and the language barrier.
The Hmong, also known as the Miao, originated from southern China and started to settle in Laos in the 19th century, when Chinese opium farmers forced them south into the mountains of Laos. There are an estimated 256,000 Hmong living in Laos. The two predominant groups are the Blue and White Hmong with only 15 Black Hmong villages. They inhabit the mountain areas of Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang and Sam Neua provinces. The Hmong particularly value silver jewellery: it signifies wealth and good life. Men, women and children wear silver — tiers of neck rings, heavy silver chains with lock-shaped pendants, earrings and pointed rings on every finger. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture and mainly grow dry hill rice and maize. They raise animals and also hunt and forage to supplement their diet. Opium poppy is the main cash crop for the Hmong; they also export their embroidery to the tourist markets in northern Thailand. The Hmong believe that everything has a spirit or “da.” Shamans play a central role in village life and decision-making. The “da” needs to be placated incessantly to ward off sickness and catastrophe, the shaman exorcises the bad “da” from his patients. Every house has an altar for protection against household spirits.
The ethnic group often referred to as Iko call themselves the “Akha”. They originate from the Tibetan Plateau and, thus, belong to the Tibeto-Burmese linguistic family. They are an estimated 66,108 Akha living in Laos including many sub-groups. They have their own language, but no written alphabet. Their main production system consists of growing dry rice (on burned areas), poppy growing and opium production, hunting and gathering and raising small livestock. Women have perhaps the most colourful and interesting costume in Laos. They are very skilful in spinning cotton (they do so while walking) and their very decorative textiles combine weaving techniques, embroidery, sewing, plaiting and the application of beads, feathers etc. and silver coins. The Akha live according to a complex system of rules and traditional beliefs: the “Akhazan” code. It rules their daily lives and is transmitted orally from one generation to another.
The Khmu, who are also known as Khamu or Kammu, were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. The Khmu ethnic group inhabits large parts of Northern and central Laos, Viet Nam and Thailand. There are 450,000 Khmu in Laos, representing the most important Môn-Khmer ethnic group. This ethnic group is divided into many sub-groups, amongst them is the Môn-Khmer. They prefer valleys of average altitude with a slope-basin which is favourable for grub cultures and their settlements. The traditional production system is mainly made up of slope rice culture, hunting and picking forest fruits, raising small livestock and exchanges of baskets with neighbouring villages. Animism and beliefs in spirits of the living and dead are the main features of the Khmu religion. These are characteristic to most of the Môn-Khmer ethnic groups. But magic and trance-like behaviours are specific to the Khmu.