Skip to main content
Select Source:




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 peopleseveral 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 (eatliterally, "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 (131673), made Buddhism the state religion in the fourteenth century, and almost all Lao are Theravada Buddhists. Buddha is regarded as a great teachernot 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 lifesickness, 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 workhauling 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 garmentone 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.


Papaya Salad


  • 3 cups shredded green papaya (shredded cabbage, rutabaga, sliced green beans, or grated carrots may be substituted)
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 to 3 fresh, small, hot, Thai chilis
  • cherry tomatoes
  • fresh lime juice
  • fish sauce (salt may be substituted)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar


  1. Grind garlic and chilis in a bowl with a mortar.
  2. Add vegetables and cherry tomatoes and mix well.
  3. Sprinkle lime juice and fish sauce over the top to taste.
  4. Sprinkle entire mixture with sugar and mix well.

Lao Papaya Salad is hot, sour, salty, and sweet all at once. Serve with lots of rice.

12 FOOD.

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 foodrice 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.


Cordell, Helen. Laos. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio, 1991.

De Berval, Rene. Kingdom of Laos. Saigon: France-Asie, 1959.

Diamond, J. Laos. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1995

Stuart-Fox, Martin. Buddhist Kingdom, Marxist State: The Making of Modern Laos. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1996.

White, Peter T. "Laos Today." National Geographic (June 1987): 772-795.


Embassy of Laos. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Laos. [Online] Available, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lao." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lao." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 15, 2017).

"Lao." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



ETHNONYMS: Lao Loum, Lao Meui, Lao Neua, Lao Phuan, Lao Yuon


Identification. The Lao are a lowland people who speak the Lao language and live in Laos and parts of northeast Thailand. They are predominantly Buddhist, but also respect animist spirits. The traditional Lao name for their country is "Pathet Lao," meaning "the country of the Lao," but this name was also applied to the insurgent Communists during the Second Indochina War. The present name for the country is the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Location. Laos extends 1,400 kilometers in a northwest-southeast direction between 14° and 23° N and 100° and 108° E. The Lao live primarily in the valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries, at elevations below 1,000 meters. Northeast Thailand on the right bank of the Mekong is also home to many more Lao than presently live in Laos; they are called Lao (or Thai) Isan after the Thai name for that region. The north and east of Laos is characterized by rugged mountains and narrow valleys, while the terrain close to the Mekong and south of the capital, Vientiane, is more level and more heavily populated. Numerous non-Lao minority groups inhabit the upland areas of Laos throughout the country. The tropical monsoonal climate has three seasons: a warm rainy season lasting from June to November, a cool dry season from December to February, and a hot dry season from March to May.

Demography. The present population of Laos is about 4.2 million, of which about 2 million are Lao. The population density in Laos averages 17 persons per square kilometer. Separate demographic data are not available for the Lao, but national population growth is about 2.9 percent per year, and the crude birth rate is about 47 per thousand. Life expectancy at birth in Laos is about 50 years.

Linguistic Affiliation. Lao is included in the Tai Family of languages. Numerous dialects, for the most part mutually comprehensible, are spoken by different subgroups across the country and in northeast Thailand. Lao is a monosyllabic, tonal language, with numerous borrowings from Pali and Sanskrit. Orthography was simplified following the accession of the present government in 1975, and was made completely phonetic. The writing system uses twenty-six consonants and eighteen vowel symbols that can be combined to represent twenty-eight vowel sounds. There are two tone markers.

History and Cultural Relations

Original Lao settlers were part of the overall Tai migrations from southern China, beginning over 2,000 years ago. By the eighth century, Tai groups had settled through much of northern Southeast Asia, commonly in semi-independent muang, or principalities, each under the leadership of a local lord. Shifting alliances and the rise and fall of petty kingdoms continued until King Fa Ngum first unified a Lao state in 1353, with its capital at Luang Prabang and encompassing all of present-day Laos and northeast Thailand. This kingdom of Lan Sang (Million Elephants) lasted about 200 years, but disintegrated under the Burmese invasions of the late sixteenth century. King Soulingna Vongsa briefly revived the kingdom during the latter half of the seventeenth century, but it again foundered and remained divided variously under Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese influence and control until the French entered in 1893. French colonial rule served to unify the Lao provinces on the left bank of the Mekong, and reestablished the royal house of Luang Prabang under a French protectorate, but otherwise had little effect on village life. Two major periods of war (the nationalist struggle against the French between 1944 and 1954 and the Second Indochina War between 1956 and 1975) disrupted Lao villages and distorted the development of Lao towns. A Communist government took control of the present area of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in late 1975, ushering in a period of revolutionary enthusiasm, reorganization, out-migration, and consolidation. The mainly subsistence economy of Lao villages continued after 1975, but was modified by government efforts to establish collective work groups and villagewide agricultural cooperatives and to bring education and administrative oversight to rural areas. By the early 1980s the hardships of war and rapid revolutionary transformation had diminished, returning village life to approximately the same level and style as in the early 1960s. In the late 1980s, Laos gradually allowed the entry of foreign businesses and tourists, and took tentative steps toward greater political openness.

Lao and Thai have long been closely aligned culturally, and prior to 1975 the Mekong was more a communication path than a frontier. The absence of good education in Laos prompted many Lao to study in Thailand, and villages in border regions regularly participated in each other's traditional celebrations and festivals. Prior to the 1970s the Lao educational system was based on a French curriculum, and a small Lao elite was educated at French schools elsewhere in Indochina or in France itself.


Most Lao live in villages of from ten to several hundred families. Villages are usually of the cluster type, although a number established since 1975 have been laid out in rectangular or linear patterns along a central road or a strip of public land. Few Lao villages include families of other ethnic groups. Houses are made of wood or bamboo and built on stilts above the ground. The grounds under and around the house accommodate a rice granary, family livestock and poultry, vehicles, a kitchen garden, craft equipment, and perhaps a kitchen lean-to. Towns have developed as market and administrative centers, often on the site of old muang capitals. They are ethnically diverse but few have populations over 5,000, except for some provincial capitals.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lao economy is based on subsistence rice production, usually in paddies, but also in swiddens in hilly areas. The rice-growing season extends from about June through December; dry-season vegetable crops are planted in some areas where water can be carried. A few villages with irrigation systems grow a second rice crop during the dry season. Most rural families have livestock including water buffalo, brahmin cattle, pigs, and poultry. Buffalo are the main source of farm draft power.

Industrial Arts. In the past Lao women wove most of the cloth for their family's clothing, but manufactured clothing is now steadily replacing all but the traditional woman's skirt (pha sin ). Many villages have artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, or boatwrights, who are dependent on farming but practice their specialty when the need arises. Some villages specialize in activities such as pottery, charcoal, or tobacco production.

Trade. Although most Lao villages have access to market goods, trade is very limited, primarily because roads are poor or nonexistent. Traveling merchants who sold medicines and household goods, and bought farm produce and handicrafts, were strongly discouraged in the first years of the new government but are now reappearing. Rural families can also sell small agricultural surpluses and forest products at district market towns. A state marketing network buys and sells produce and dry goods on an irregular basis.

Division of Labor. Different farming and household tasks tend to be assigned to men and women, though the division is not rigid and anyone can perform any task without social disapproval. Women and girls are primarily responsible for cooking, household maintenance, carrying water, and care of small domestic animals. They also transplant rice and weed swidden fields. Men and older boys are primarily responsible for the care of buffalo and oxen, for hunting, and for plowing the paddy or clearing the swidden fields. The oldest working man in the household directs household rice production and represents the family in temple rituals and village councils. Both men and women plant swiddens, harvest, thresh and carry rice, and work in the gardens. Most Lao petty traders have been women.

Land Tenure. In the past, all land theoretically belonged to the king; now all land belongs to the state. In practice, use rights may be bought and sold, but there is little trade in land. Paddy-land holdings are relatively equally distributed, with only a few influential families owning more than 20 hectares prior to 1975. Presently paddy holdings average around 1 hectare per family, with few families controlling more than 3 hectares. Except in urban areas, almost all families have access to some farm land. Swidden fields are used temporarily by farmers who claim no permanent rights to these fields.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral. Surnames have been adopted only over the last several decades. Wives usually take their husband's last name. Kin groups are defined partly by choice: siblings and immediate maternal and paternal relatives are recognized by everyone, but more distant relatives may be recognized only if the kin relationship has been cultivated. Kinship relationships are recognized and reinforced through sharing of goods and produce, labor reciprocity, and participation in family and religious rituals.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms differentiate by gender, by relative age (e.g., younger brother, older sister), by generation, and by side of the family.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage partners are not prescribed. Young people often marry cousins or others from their own village. Marriage partners may be proposed either by parents or by the young people, but parents of both families are generally consulted and must approve in order for traditional marriage negotiations to proceed. Bride-price varies greatly, but usually includes gold, one or more animals, and, these days, cash. The marriage ceremony itself takes place at the bride's family home and is a Brahmanic/animist ceremony. Polygyny was practiced but uncommon before 1975, but has been prohibited by the present government. Divorce is discouraged, though it may be initiated by either party. Initial residence varies, but is usually uxorilocal; patrilocal residence is also common. Most couples establish an independent residence after several years, though there is a strong tendency for the youngest daughter to continue to live with her parents to care for them in their old age.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is usually a nuclear family but may include grandparents and/or siblings or other relatives, often on the wife's side. The average household consists of six to eight persons. Two or more related households may farm together and store their rice in a common granary.

Inheritance. The custodial daughter and her in-marrying husband often inherit the house compound and much of the parental paddy land. Other children may receive an inheritance when they marry or leave home, with sons and noncustodial daughters receiving relatively equal shares. The content and the timing of each child's inheritance is determined by the parents. The passing on of house and field ownership to the custodial child and spouse signals the passing of authority to the next generation.

Socialization. Children learn by observation and direct instruction. Infants and very young children are indulged; older children are expected to obey their elders and help with family tasks. By age five, girls help with household work; by age nine, boys pasture cattle or buffalo. By adolescence, children can carry out nearly all adult subsistence tasks, at least with supervision. Both boys and girls attend village schools, although usually only a few boys are encouraged to continue their education in the district or provincial capital.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lao society lacks rigid social classes and no longer has a hereditary elite. Buddhist monks and school teachers are accorded respect, as are elders. Socioeconomic stratification is limited, particularly in rural villages where there is little or no occupational differentiation, and is based on wealth, occupation, and age. The household and extended-kin group form the basis for village social organization. Labor exchange groups for farming or other tasks are usually drawn from the entire village, or from the neighborhood, if it is a larger village.

Political Organization. Laos is a Communist state governed by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party through the party's Central Committee and the Council of Ministers. As of 1989 there was no constitution, although People's Assemblies had been elected at the district, province, and national level. Laos is administratively divided into 16 provinces (khoueng ) and the municipality of Vientiane. Provinces are subdivided into districts (muang), subdistricts (tasseng ) and villages (baan ), although the tassengs are beginning to be abolished. Villages are "natural communities". They are governed by a locally elected headman and village council. Muang officials are appointed by the provincial or national government, and are responsible for most administrative duties such as tax collection, school supervision, and agricultural improvement; they are also the main link in communicating policies promulgated by the central government to the village. Budgetary and personnel constraints severely limit the scope of government services. Most villages have at least a one- or two-grade school, but no health services. The level and quality of education increase with proximity to district and provincial towns.

Social Control. In the village, social control is based on the need to maintain a good reputation in the community. Numerous family economic and life-cycle activities require the support and cooperation of fellow villagers, which will be withheld from those seen as dishonest, lazy, or uncooperative. In extreme cases, persons have been accused of witchcraft and expelled from a village.

Conflict. Whenever possible, open conflict is avoided in Lao society. Intermediaries are used informally to express or resolve discontent. Intervillage conflict is uncommon among Lao villages, but ethnic prejudice has led to disputes between Lao and hill-tribe villages, often over land use and animal grazing. A civil war between leftist and royalist factions continued between 1956 and 1975, and was closely tied to the war in Vietnam.

Religion and Expressive Culture

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.

See also Hmong; Kmhmu; Lao Isan


Condominas, Georges (1962). Essai sur la société rurale lao de la région de Vientiane. Vientiane: Royaume du Laos, Ministère des Affaires Rurales; UNESCO.

Ireson, W. Randall, and Carol J. Ireson (1989). "Laos: Marxism in a Subsistence Rural Economy." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 21(2-4): 59-75.

Stuart-Fox, Martin (1987). Laos: Politics, Economy, and Society. London: Frances Pinter.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 15, 2017).

"Lao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



Basic Data
Official Country Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
Region: Southeast Asia
Population: 5,497,459
Language(s): Lao, French, English,
Literacy Rate: 57%

History & Background

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao or Lao PDR) is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Cambodia in the mainland of Southeast Asia. The country's total population is only 5,497,459 million (July 2000 estimate). It occupies an area of 237,000 square kilometers, roughly the same size of the state of Oregon in the United States. Unlike many areas of Asia, Lao has a low population density of 148 persons per square kilometer. Its neighbor Vietnam has a density of 1,593 persons per square kilometer, while Thailand has a density of 811 persons per square kilometer. Despite its sparse population, Lao PDR has a high population growth rate of 2.86 percent per year. If that rate persists, the population will double to more than 10 million by the year 2025, putting a tremendous pressure on the educational system. An additional pressure on education is that 43 percent of the population is 14 years or younger.

Lao is much less urbanized than many other Asian countries; it has only four major cities that are relatively small. With the relaxation of controls on the movement of people in the early 1990s, there has been considerable migration from rural to urban areas like Vientiane and Savannakhet. The large Lao diaspora resides mainly in the United States, France, Canada, and Australia (Mayouri 1993). These immigrants are mostly former refugees who fled the Communist regime from 1975 to 1985.

Lao has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Asia, with 47 main ethnic groups and 149 subgroups representing 47.5 percent of the population. These many diverse ethnic peoples are normally classified into the three basic groups of Lao Loum (lowland), Lao Theung (upland), and Lao Sung (upland). A prominent Lao Sung group is the Hmong, who are prominent among the Lao diaspora.

Although the terrain of Lao PDR is covered with rugged mountains, the country is basically agricultural with a high percentage of subsistence farming87 percent of the harvested area devoted to rice production alone. Roughly 80 percent of the population is employed in agriculture. Lao is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world as well as in the region. Per capita income in 1999 was US$280. This per capita income level has, however, improved significantly from US$77 in 1966 and US$80 in 1981. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) ranks Lao 136 out of 174 countries, the lowest ranking in Southeast Asia with the exception of Cambodia (number 140). On average Lao children undergo less than three years of schooling, and the quality of that schooling is highly uneven. Life expectancy at birth is only 51.7 years.

The major leitmotif of Lao history is its amazing ability to survive as a distinct political and cultural identity despite being surrounded by powerful neighbors like China, Burma, Vietnam, and Siam. Originally Lao was known as Lan Xang (literally meaning the land of a million elephants). The Lan Xang kingdom flourished from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. At the time of its greatest strength and influence in the seventeenth century, it occupied much of what is now Lao, north and northeast Thailand, and parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. The kingdom was a flourishing center of Buddhism and the arts (literature, dance, drama, and music). From the beginning, Lao had a literate culture with a phonetic alphabet derived and influenced by ancient Indian scripts. Unfortunately, in the early eighteenth century conflicts among royals competing for the throne led to the subdivision of Lao into three smaller kingdoms that later fell under the control of Siam and then to French colonialism.

Traditionally, education in Lao occurred at the village temple and Buddhist monks were the teachers. After Lao became a French colony in 1893, a highly elitist system of French education evolved, which was oriented to the "civilizing mission" of colonial power. Even after Lao gained independence from France in 1949, the French elitist system persisted. During the period dominated by the United States, from 1954-1975, there was considerable expansion of the Lao educational system. High schools, vocational schools, and teacher training institutions were established. School enrollments in 1971-1972 were 17 times higher than in 1946. In December 1975, after years of civil war and the Cold War, the revolution was successful and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established. The new government carried out many reforms in the educational system to make it serve the broad masses.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

A major area of change after 1975 was in language reform, which simplified the Lao language to differentiate it more from Thai and to facilitate literacy among the people. The basic principles underlying these changes were articulated in a major policy volume titled simply Lao Grammar, written by a key intellectual, Phoumi Vongvichit. Actually, the Lao PDR constitution was not promulgated until August 14, 1991. Article 19 of the constitution states the legal foundations for the Lao educational system. The article emphasizes knowledge creation, patriotism, cultural preservation, ethnic harmony, and empowerment of the masses. It makes primary schooling compulsory, authorizes private schools that utilize the state curricula, and emphasizes the provision of educational services to ethnic minorities.

Educational SystemOverview

As a result of French colonial influence, Lao PDR follows a Western academic calendar, September to June. After the success of the revolution in 1975, Lao became the language of instruction at all levels of education. In the current structure of Lao education, primary education is for five years (compulsory), followed by three years of lower secondary, three years of upper secondary, and then three to seven years of postsecondary education, dependent upon the field of study. While children may start primary school at age six, the modal age is actually seven, except for several urban areas. A unified standard national curriculum is used, and the use of modern technology in Lao education is extremely limited.

Preprimary & Primary Education

Preprimary education for children aged three to five is the responsibility of individual parents. Its purpose is to prepare children for primary school. Currently only about eight percent of children in this age group are enrolled in preprimary schools.

With respect to the five years of compulsory primary education, basic infrastructure problems limit primary schools so that only 34.8 percent of them can offer the complete five years. Though this level of education is "compulsory," roughly 25 percent of children are not enrolled. Approximately 30 percent of villages do not have primary schools and, of 1000 students starting primary education, only 20.5 percent survive to grade five without repetition. Including repetition, another 34.7 percent survive to grade five. Overall, in 1996-1997, only 13.9 percent of Lao youth were completing primary education. There are significant disparities across provinces with respect to access to primary education; access is lowest in remote mountainous areas with large populations of ethnic minorities.

The basic curriculum of Lao primary education in grades one through five includes the Lao language, mathematics, social studies, physical education, music, and handicrafts. Of the 23 to 25 hours spent in class, 33 to 50 percent of that time is devoted to language studies. Mathematics instruction increases from three to six hours from grades one through six. Social studies instruction is about two to three hours, and the remaining time is used for physical education, music, and handicrafts.

Secondary Education

Among the various Lao educational sectors, secondary education is the fastest growing sector. Despite this rapid growth, still only 8.5 percent of Lao youth are completing lower secondary and only 4.8 percent are completing upper secondary. As with primary education, there are considerable disparities across regions of the country.

The basic curriculum of Lao secondary education includes the social sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, the Lao language, and foreign languages. Courses in art, physical education, and technology are also part of the curriculum.

Higher Education

Prior to a major reform undertaken in the mid-1990s, there were 10 institutions of higher education operated by several different ministries and related to such fields as medicine, education, agriculture, forestry, communications, and technology/electronics. In June 1995, the prime minister issued a decree to rationalize postsecondary education by merging nine existing higher education institutions and the Centre of Agriculture into a new National University of Laos (NUOL), under the unified administration of the Ministry of Education. The Lao government has received significant funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to assist in this consolidation and rationalization of higher education. Approximately 4 percent of Lao youth are able to complete postsecondary Education, but the Lao government does provide direct support to students at this level as bursaries or as subsidies to student dormitories. This scholarship funding is provided to quota students who are in the plan. Non-plan students must pay modest tuition fees.

Administration, Finance, & Educational Research

Major policies are determined at the party congresses, which are held every five years. Laws in accord with these policies are debated and passed by the national assembly. Three bodies are primarily responsible for administering Lao education: the central Ministry of Education (MOE), Provincial Education Services (PES), and District Education Bureaus (DEBs). While the system is highly centralized, the governor and local areas and communities do have important influences on educational policy and implementation.

With respect to educational finance, in 1996-1997, 52 percent of national funding went to primary education, 24.6 percent to secondary education, and 6.4 percent to higher education. From 1993 to 1998, the education budget as a percent of GDP ranged from a low of 2.1 percent (1997-1998) to a high of 3.4 percent (1994-1995). As a percent of the national budget, educational expenditures have ranged from a high of 15.8 percent (1996-1997) to a low of 9.6 percent (1993-1994). Approximately 37 percent of government funds for education come from international grants and loans, primarily the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

The major body for conducting educational research is the National Research Institute for Educational Science (NRIES). The major focus of its research is curriculum development and research related to the development and evaluation of textbooks. The Faculty of Education at the National University of Laos also has research responsibilities related to education, and the Teacher Development Center, also at NUOL, is active in text development and related training.

Nonformal Education

With an overall literacy rate of only 57 percent in Lao PDR, nonformal education plays an important role. Administered by the Department of Nonformal Education in the Ministry of Education, nonformal education is targeted to serve illiterates, school-age children who are not able to study in formal schools, and school dropouts who wish to increase their level of education. To enhance nonformal education, community learning centers, jointly financed by the central government and local communities have been introduced; nearly 170 have been established around the country.

Teaching Profession

To qualify to teach at the upper secondary level, students need to have a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Education at NUOL (15 years of total schooling). To teach at the lower secondary level, they need to have completed at least 14 years of schooling with a diploma from 1 of 5 teacher training colleges. To teach at the primary school level, they need a diploma from 1 of 9 teacher training colleges or schools and need to have 11 to 12 years of total schooling. The lack of qualified teachers has been a major obstacle to improving the quality of education in Lao. Given the extremely low salaries of teachers and attractive new private sector opportunities, it is difficult to attract students to the teaching field. Anyone actually teaching in the classroom does receive a 10 percent civil service bonus. Despite this incentive, serious teacher shortages at the secondary level are likely.

To improve the quality of education, in-service training of existing teachers is extremely important. Such training is provided primarily by the Teacher Training Department, the National Research Institute of Educational Science, and the Teacher Development Center (TDC) of the NUOL. In the mid-1990s a new pedagogy was introduced by the Ministry of Education to move away from traditional rote memorization to more active, experiential, and problem-solving, student-centered type learning. TDC training and related text development has emphasized such innovative pedagogy. By 1998 major reform improved efficiency by consolidating 59 small teacher training schools into 9 larger institutions.


To be responsive to its new market-oriented economy and to improve the productivity of its people, improved education and human resource development are essential for the future of Lao PDR. Sparsely populated remote areas with the presence of many ethnic minorities present special challenges to Lao educators. Approximately 50 percent of the students entering grade one are being taught in a language that is not their native tongue. The rapid population growth in Lao will also put special pressures on its educational system. The Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s adversely affected the Lao government's financial capability to improve education. Despite these serious and persisting problems, Lao PDR has an excellent long-term future. The country has a strong sense of national identity and social cohesion, a favorable ratio of resources to people, a central location between China and Southeast Asia, rich ethnic diversity, positive informal education consisting of solid moral education and parenting, and the potential to leapfrog into the information technology arena. These important factors augur well for its long-term potential to develop its human resources and improve productivity.


Butler-Diaz, Jacqueline, ed. New Laos, New Challenges. Tempe, AZ: Program for Southeast Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1998.

Chazée, Laurent. The Peoples of Laos: Rural and Ethnic Diversities. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1999.

Constitution de la Republique Democratique Populaire Lao. Vientiane: National Assembly, 1991.

Development Co-operation Lao PDR. Vientiane: United Nations Development Program, 1999.

Enfield, N.J. "Lao as a National Language." In Laos: Culture and Society, ed. Grant Evans, 258-290. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1999.

Lao People's Democratic Republic. Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1993.

Lao People's Democratic Republic: Education Sector Development Plan Report. Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2000.

Mayouri, Ngaosyvathn. Lao Women: Yesterday and Today. Vientiane: Ministry of Culture, 1995.

. The Lao in Australia: Perspectives on Settlement Experiences. Nathan, Queensland: Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations, Faculty of Asian and International Studies, Griffith University, 1993.

National University of Laos (NUOL), 2001. Available from

Savada, Andrea Matlas, ed. Laos: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1995.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. A History of Laos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gerald W. Fry

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lao." World Education Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lao." World Education Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"Lao." World Education Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


Laoallow, avow, Bilbao, Bissau, bough, bow, bow-wow, brow, cacao, chow, ciao, cow, dhow, Dow, endow, Foochow, Frau, Hangzhou, Hough, how, Howe, kowtow, Lao, Liao, Macao, Macau, miaow, Mindanao, mow, now, ow, Palau, plough (US plow), pow, prow, row, scow, Slough, sough, sow, Tao, thou, vow, wow, Yangshao

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lao." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lao." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 15, 2017).

"Lao." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


LAO international vehicle registration for Laos
• Licentiate in the Art of Obstetrics

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"LAO." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"LAO." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . (December 15, 2017).

"LAO." The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from