LOCATION: Laos; Thailand
POPULATION: About 23 million
RELIGION: Theravada Buddhism; animism
The Lao originated in southern China and moved southward into present-day Laos, forming a kingdom in the Mekong River valley in the fourteenth century and pushing the earlier inhabitants of the area, the Kammu, into more mountainous areas. After three centuries, however, disputes over succession to the throne and foreign invasions split the country into three rival kingdoms in the north, center, and south. Caught between the growing power of the Siamese and the Vietnamese, the Lao lost power and territory so that today most Lao people live in Thailand (formerly Siam).
Laos was colonized by the French in the 1890s and treated as the hinterland to their colonies in Vietnam. Laos was unified after World War II and achieved independence within the French Union in 1949 and full independence in 1953. However, regional divisions were replaced by political ones. The Lao were divided into three factions: a right-wing group backed by the United States; a neutralist group in Thailand; and a communist group backed by Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and China. After a devastating civil war fought with heavy American bombing on behalf of the right, and with Vietnamese troops on behalf of the left, the communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) took control of the country in 1975, abolished the monarchy, and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR). In the political, economic, and social upheavals that followed, about 10 percent of the population fled as refugees, draining the country of skilled and educated people. Although the aging Lao leadership maintains one-party control and continues to assert communist ideology, it has loosened social and economic controls and now invites foreign investment and tourism.
Laos is a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordering on Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos has an area of about 91,400 square miles (236,800 square kilometers), roughly the size of Idaho. It runs about 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) from north to south and averages about 150 to 200 miles (240 to 320 kilometers) across. The country is extremely mountainous, with only about 4 percent of the land suitable for farming. It has a tropical monsoon climate and most people engage in subsistence rice agriculture. The Lao make up two-thirds of the population, or somewhat over 3 million of the population of almost 5 million. They occupy the most desirable land in the river valleys and live clustered along the Mekong River across from northeast Thailand, most of whose people are Lao, and in the southern plateau. The Lao of northeast Thailand, together with Lao groups in northern Thailand, represent one-third of the whole population of Thailand, or about 20 million people—several times the number of Lao in Laos itself.
After the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, about 360,000 refugees left the country. Refugees were predominantly Lao, but included many Hmong and smaller numbers of other minority groups. Many of the French-speaking elite went to France, but most Lao went to the United States. They live scattered across the country, although southern California is a favorite location because of the warmer climate. Canada and Australia also received thousands of Lao refugees while thousands of others stayed illegally in Thailand, blending in with the Lao population of northeast Thailand.
Lao belongs to the Tai family of languages and is related to Thai, but Lao has its own alphabet and numbers. Many words have Sanskrit and Pali roots, especially terms relating to religion, royalty, and government. Most Lao words have one syllable and the grammar is very easy. However, Lao is difficult for Westerners to speak because it is a tonal language. There are six tones, and words that sound similar to a Western ear may be very different depending on the tone. For example, the word ma in mid tone means "come"; ma in a high tone means "horse"; and ma in a rising tone means "dog."
Lao is written from left to right, but no space is left between words, only between phrases or sentences. Readers must know where one word ends and the next word starts. Vowels can appear before, after, above, or below the consonants they go with, or in various combinations thereof. Relatively few people, probably only just over 2 million, can read Lao. While the Lao in Thailand speak Lao, their education is in Thai, so they are literate (can read and write) in that language.
Girls are often given names of flowers or gems, while boys might be given names that suggest strength. However, many have simple names like Daeng (red) or Dam (black), or might be called by nicknames like Ling (monkey). Family names were made compulsory in 1943 but aren't as important as first names. The phone book is alphabetized by first names, and a man named Sitha Sisana would be addressed as Mr. Sitha.
Some common expressions are: sabai dee (greetings), la kon (goodbye); khob jai (thank you); kin khaw (eat—literally, "eat rice," the most important food); bo pen nyang (it doesn't matter, never mind, it's nothing).
A Lao legend explains the origins of the Lao and Kammu, the original inhabitants of the land:
Once upon a time three chiefs settled the earth and began rice farming with their water buffalo. After a few years the water buffalo died, and from his nostrils grew a creeping plant that bore three gourds which grew to enormous size. Hearing a loud noise from inside the gourds, one of the chiefs took a red hot iron and pierced each gourd. Crowds of men came squeezing out of the narrow openings. The chief then used a chisel to carve out new openings for the men. This is the origin of the different people in Laos. The Kammu, a dark skinned people who wore their hair in chignons, came out the holes made with the red hot iron; and the Lao, a lighter skinned people who wore their hair short, came out the openings made by the chisel.
Lao proverbs give us an idea of their cultural attitudes.
To judge an elephant, look at its tail;
To judge a girl, look at her mother.
Flee from the elephant and meet the tiger;
Flee from the tiger and meet a crocodile.
(Their version of "out of the frying pan into the fire.")
When the water level falls, the ants eat the fish;
When the water level rises, the fish eat the ants.
The first Lao king, Fa Ngum (1316–73), made Buddhism the state religion in the fourteenth century, and almost all Lao are Theravada Buddhists. Buddha is regarded as a great teacher—not a god, a creator, or a savior. He taught that suffering is caused by desire, anger, and illusion. Each person is responsible for his own salvation. A person's karma, the balance of good and bad deeds, will affect this life and future reincarnations.
When the communists took over in 1975, they did not dare eliminate something so central to Lao identity as Buddhism. Rather, they continued state control of the Buddhist hierarchy and tried to manipulate religion for political purposes. Many monks fled as refugees or disrobed rather than promote government policies. In recent years government controls have eased and there has been a revival of Buddhism.
Animism, belief in spirits, coexists with Buddhism. Ancestor spirits, the local guardian spirits of each village, are appealed to at the beginning of the agricultural year for successful crops. These spirits should also be informed of major changes in a person's life—sickness, a move, a marriage.
The Lao believe the body contains thirty-two spirits, and illness can result if a spirit leaves the body. A baci ceremony is held to call the spirits back to the body in order to cure illness, to protect someone about to make a major life change, or to bring health, happiness, and prosperity. A beautifully decorated tray filled with ritual offerings is presented to the spirits. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the person who is sick or who is being honored, and blessings are recited when the strings are tied.
The most important Lao holiday is Songkarn, the Lao New Year, celebrated from April 13 to 15. After several months of drought, the first rains of the year begin in April, bringing the start of the agricultural year. Water is poured over Buddha images and elders as a blessing. After this is done very decorously, Songkarn turns into one big water fight, with water splashed on everyone in sight. Since the temperature is over 90°F at that time of year, the water feels good. People try to return to their home villages for Songkarn to visit friends and relatives and to join in the fun.
The Rocket Festival is a popular traditional Lao holiday, although not an official holiday. Today it is celebrated on Wisakha Bucha, the day celebrating the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. The Rocket Festival is based on a fertility rite that predates Buddhism in the area. Village men build bamboo rockets packed with gunpowder, and villages compete to see whose rocket can fly the highest. The men hold boat races on the rivers, and the village women hold folk dance contests. This holiday is based on the lunar calendar and falls sometime in May.
Independence Day on July 19 celebrates the granting of autonomy, or independence, from the French Union in 1949; National Day on December 2 celebrates the proclamation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, a one-party communist state.
The That Luang Festival occurs on the day of the full moon in the twelfth lunar month and celebrates the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos.
The main rite of passage for a Lao man is ordination as a Buddhist monk. In the past, most Lao men spent at least one three-month period of Buddhist Lent as a monk, learning about religion, chanting Pali texts, and practicing self-control and meditation. To be ordained, a man reenacts the life of Prince Gautama, who renounced the world and became Buddha, the Enlightened One. The initiate is dressed in finery and escorted with pomp to the monastery, where his head and eyebrows are shaved. He then changes into a simple robe, renounces the world, and takes his vows as a monk. There is no set length of time for ordination, so a monk can disrobe and return to lay life at any time. Fewer men become ordained today and often for shorter periods, but it is believed that a man gains maturity by doing so, and women consider it desireable for a male to be ordained. There is no ordination for women.
The Lao are a fun-loving people. They work hard when they have to, but they believe that life should be enjoyed. Lao are personable and friendly and have a good sense of humor. They enjoy having people around and are quick to invite them to share a meal or sit and talk. They try to avoid confrontation and appreciate a person with self-control.
It is considered improper for men and women to touch in public. However, if men hold hands with each other or women hold hands with other women, it is considered friendly and there are no sexual connotations.
In the past both the spoken language and body language showed relative social position, with the inferior person bowing to the superior person, but the communist government insisted on more egalitarian relations, at least overtly. Still, however, a Buddhist will prostrate himself and bow his head to the floor three times in front of a Buddha image or a monk as a sign of respect.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world with an estimated income in the late 1990s of about $2,000 per year. The population is mainly rural with 85 percent depending on agriculture, mostly subsistence rice cultivation. The Lao are largely engaged in wet rice agriculture, depending on seasonal rains to flood their fields.
Water buffalo are used to plow, and agricultural practices have changed little over the centuries. Mechanization in the form of water pumps and small tractors is just beginning.
Rural homes are built on stilts to avoid flooding. They are made of wood or bamboo, often with walls of bamboo matting, and roofs of thatch or corrugated tin. Lao houses usually have little or no furniture. People sit, eat, and sleep on mats on the floor. Village houses are built close together, and farmers walk to their fields outside the village. There are no secrets in a small village, and gossip is a potent weapon to keep people in line.
Villages rarely have electricity or running water. Laos has great potential for hydroelectric power and currently exports electricity to Thailand. But the Lao buy electricity back from the Thai for their cities across the Mekong River from northeast Thailand, as Laos has no national power grid.
There are few roads, and some of these are impassable quagmires in the rainy season. Most transportation is by boat along the rivers. Ox carts are still common.
Health facilities are limited. Malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, and parasites are major problems. Life expectancy is about fifty for men and fifty-three for women. The Lao undoubtedly do better than minority (mainly rural) populations, as they are more likely to live in or near the cities or along transportation routes, and they continue to favor themselves at the expense of minorities.
Lao families are close and children are welcome. The LPDR government had banned birth control devices until recently, but few people have access to birth control services. Women have many children but there is a high rate of infant and child mortality.
There is no dating, but groups of young men in the village go from house to house in the evening to call on families with young women and engage in banter with them and their parents. Traditionally, the young man is expected to pay a bride price and move in with the wife's family on marriage. When the next daughter marries, the couple might set up housekeeping on their own with help from the wife's parents. Ultimately the youngest daughter is left to take care of the parents and inherit the family home and remaining farm plot.
Women are responsible for much heavy work—hauling water for the household and, in the absence of rice mills, pounding the rice in big mortars of hollowed out logs to husk it. The men plow and deal with draft animals, while women tend to be responsible for pigs and poultry and vegetable gardens. The animals usually live under the house. Everyone, including the children, helps with transplanting and harvesting rice.
Children rarely have toys but enjoy catching fish, frogs, and insects to supplement the family diet. Boys are skillful with slingshots and blowguns in hunting small birds. Young girls help with child care and often carry a younger sibling astride a hip while they play with their friends.
When the communist government came to power in 1975, it tried to ban blue jeans, calling them bourgeois Western decadence. It even tried to do away with the sin, the traditional sarong-like women's lower garment, but the government soon had to back down. The sin is a very practical garment—one size fits all. It is a tube of cloth folded with a pleat to fit the waist and secured with a belt or a tuck in the waist. Worn above the breasts, it makes a useful garment for bathing in the public stream or well, which is necessary since few village homes have bathrooms. A dry garment is slipped over the wet garment, which is then dropped without any loss of modesty. Lao women continue to wear the sin, sometimes adapted into a skirt, with a blouse. On special occasions women wear handwoven silk sin with beautiful tie-dyed patterns and a colorful woven and embroidered strip added to the hem.
Lao men wear shirt and pants, but bathe and relax around the house in a phakhawma, a cloth about two yards long and thirty inches wide that can be worn as a skirt-like garment or wrapped into shorts. Little children often go naked or wear only a shirt. It is common for people to go barefoot or wear rubber sandals. In the cities, of course, Western dress is common.
Lao Papaya Salad is hot, sour, salty, and sweet all at once. Serve with lots of rice.
The staple food of the Lao is sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice or sweet rice. The rice must be soaked for several hours before being steamed in a basket over a pot of boiling water. It is then put in another basket that serves as a serving dish or lunch pail. Sticky rice is eaten with the fingers, so one doesn't need dishes or silverware. People take a bit of rice from the basket and shape it into a small ball. It is then dipped into the serving dish for whatever other food is offered, most likely a hot sauce of chilis, garlic, fish sauce, and lime. The Lao have two categories of food—rice and "with rice." Foods other than rice are limited and are served more as condiments, something to add flavor, so they tend to be very hot or very salty so that one will eat a lot of rice with them.
Dried salty beef is a favorite dish if meat is available. Beef is sliced thin and liberally doused with fish sauce (a salty liquid made from salt and fish) or salt, and placed on a tray to dry in the sun to preserve it. The meat can also be deep-fried to cook it and remove most of the moisture
The literacy rate (percentage of the population who can read and write) in Laos is estimated at 45 percent. The Lao are much more likely to be literate (able to read and write) than minority peoples, and men are more likely to be literate than are women. The LPDR is the first government to make a serious effort to extend education beyond the Lao areas to minorities. However, with the loss of about 90 percent of its most educated population (who fled the country as refugees), education has perhaps been set back a generation, and already low standards have declined further. Universal primary education by the year 2000 is the government's goal but seems beyond reach given current progress. Many village schools have only one or two grades and little in the way of books, paper, or school supplies. Teachers are paid little and often infrequently, so they often have to farm or hold a second job to support their families. School sessions, therefore, tend to be sporadic.
There are five years of primary school, but probably only half of primary school-age children finish fifth grade. This is followed by three years of lower secondary school and three years of upper secondary school. Secondary schools are few in number and are located in cities and provincial capitals. One must pass a test to enter secondary school. School uniforms and supplies are expensive, the distances are great, and village education too rudimentary for many village children to continue their education. There are a few colleges and technical institutes in Vientiane, the capital.
In the early days of the LPDR, teenagers from "bad" family backgrounds, as defined by the communists (children of officials from the old regime or of shopkeepers), were often denied entrance to secondary education. Some teens fled the country on their own, risking being shot or drowning as they swam the Mekong River to Thailand. They were hoping to resettle abroad and continue their education.
Recently private schools have been allowed and are preferred over public schools by parents who can afford the fees. Lack of financial resources and trained teachers remains a problem for Laos.
The most distinctive Lao musical instrument is the khaen. According to a popular saying, "those who eat sticky rice, live in dwellings mounted on piles, and listen to the music of the khaen are Lao." The khaen is a collection of bamboo pipes of different lengths, each with a small hole for fingering and a metal reed, preferably of silver, all attached to a mouthpiece. There are six-hole, fourteen-hole, and sixteen-hole instruments. A khaen musician accompanies a mohlam performance, a traditional Lao entertainment that usually involves two singers, a man and a woman, and offers courting poetry, suggestive repartée, and dance. The songs and poetry represent oral literature passed on to performers by their teachers. Relatively few have been written down. Ability to add witty and rhyming repartée on the spot is valued. Males and females never touch in Lao dance.
A great work of Lao literature is Sin Xay, an epic poem. Sin Xay (which translates to "he who triumphs through his merits"), the hero, is rejected by his father, the king. He sets out to rescue his aunt, the beautiful Sumontha, from a giant who has carried her off. After many trials and combat with giants, demons, monstrous beasts, and magical beings, plus treacherous attacks by six half-brothers, Sin Xay rescues his aunt and reunites her with her brother, Sin Xay's father. The king regrets his previous rejection of Sin Xay and recognizes his nobility of character.
The vast majority of people are engaged in agriculture, especially subsistence rice farming on small family plots. Children help with farm chores from an early age, and most are engaged full-time in farming after leaving primary school. There is little industry. With the New Economic Mechanism (a policy of loosening of controls by the LPDR government), some people have gone into business and there is increasing interest in developing tourism and handicraft. The Lao predominate in the government bureaucracy.
Few Lao have time for sports, but those who do enjoy soccer, volleyball, and takraw— a Southeast Asian sport that involves keeping a rattan ball in the air without touching it with the hands. The feet and head are used as in soccer.
The biggest entertainment for the Lao in Laos, especially in the cities, is tuning in to Thai radio and television stations from across the Mekong River. The Lao government worries that Lao language and culture is being corrupted by the popularity of these programs and that youth are learning the wrong values from the commercialism of Thailand. The media in Laos is under tight Communist Party control and tends toward heavy-handed propaganda. They have nowhere near the impact of Thai mass media. In Thailand itself, mass media are spreading Thai language and culture to Lao-speaking areas.
The Lao are becoming increasingly known for their exquisite hand-woven textiles in cotton and silk with intricate tie-dyed designs. Basketry is another Lao specialty.
Discrimination by the Lao against the minority groups that make up one-third of the population of Laos remains a problem. In Thailand, on the other hand, the central Thai feel superior to the Lao of the North-east. Human rights are an issue as the LPDR government will not tolerate criticism of the one-party communist control. Dissatisfaction is widespread among the aging ideologues who hold power and an increasingly corrupt bureaucracy and military. The youth seem particularly disillusioned and attracted to the alternate vision of society offered by Thai television. Even the communist leadership of Laos is now calling for a return to Buddhist values. Poverty and lack of health and education will continue to hamper development and make life difficult, especially in the rural areas.
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