Religious Beliefs. Most Lao are Theravada Buddhists, but also practice aspects of animist worship. Small numbers have been converted to Christianity. Lao believe in spirits that inhabit certain locations, such as rivers, rice fields, or groves of trees. In addition, villages may have tutelary spirits and there is a goddess of the rice crop. Many of these spirits, especially village spirits and the rice goddess, received regular offerings in the past, but the present government has strongly discouraged such rituals. Malevolent ghosts or other spirits can possess people, and/or cause illness, which must be exorcised by a spirit doctor.
Religious Practitioners. The traditional ideal was for all men to become Buddhist monks for at least a short period. Today only a few choose to be ordained. Monks officiate at cyclical religious ceremonies and festivals, as well as at Buddhist household ceremonies and funerals. Occasionally they become active community leaders. Spirit practitioners are commonly elderly men, and there are mediums of both sexes. Practitioners are called upon to officiate at weddings, birthrelated rituals, and numerous informal ceremonies, called basi or sou khouan, marking such life events as recovery from illness, departure on or return from a journey, or construction of a new home.
Ceremonies. The Buddhist lunar calendar has a festival ( boun ) at the full moon of almost every month. The most important calendrical ceremonies are Buddha's enlightenment in the sixth month (May), the beginning and end of Lent (July and October), and New Year (15 April). Vientiane celebrates the That Luang festival in November. Families may also sponsor Buddhist ceremonies to bless the house, gain merit, or ordain a son. Animist basi ceremonies are performed by individual households.
Arts. Classical music, dance, and literature are strongly influenced by the Hindu epics such as the Ramāyana, and are similar to Thai and Khmer court forms. One popular form of folk music uses the khene, a bamboo-and-reed mouth organ accompanying one or two singers ( mo lam ) who improvise stories, banter, and courting duels. Buddhist temple architecture is characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations on the walls depicting events in the Buddha's lives.
Medicine. Illness is traditionally ascribed to imbalance of the body's spirits, spirit possession, or simply to change in weather. Western notions of germs and disease are now common, however, and use of patent medicines and antibiotics rivals traditional herbal and spirit cures among families who can afford them.
Death and Afterlife. According to Buddhist belief, death is followed by rebirth in a life appropriate to one's past karma. Following death by natural causes, the body is kept at home for one to three days, during which time villagers come to pay their respects and assist the family of the deceased during a more or less continuous wake. The body is usually cremated, but in some cases may be buried.