The population of Laos has only 4.5 million people (21 per sq km, not very densely populated). While neighbouring Thailand is a reasonably developed country with good infrastructure and large cities, Laos is a country where the rivers are the main routes, and 90% of people are living in remote villages that are accessible only through goat paths. The largest city of Laos is Vientiane, the capital, where 200,000 residents live. Luang Prabang is the third city in the country with 63,000 residents in the region and 16,000 in the city itself, not much bigger than a large village in European terms. Approximately 85% of Laotians clearly belong to ethnic groups. About 20% belongs to the Thai tribes, a quarter belongs to the Malay and Khmer tribes and 20% belongs to the tribes that live in the mountains, mainly belonging to the Hmong and Mien. The Lao themselves are distributed according to a classification that has more to do with how high they live in the mountains. Officially living in Laos are 68 different peoples, each with their own culture.
The tribes of Laos:
Throughout Laos are various hill tribes. Each tribe has its own language, customs, dress and spiritual beliefs. Most tribes are semi-nomadic and over the last 200 years have emigrated from Tibet, Myanmar and China. Other groups have been much longer in Laos. Most of the hill tribes in Laos, their villages have never visited by a tourist. Below is a brief description of some of the different types:
* The Karen (Yang or Kariang) originate from Myanmar. Among those are Karen Buddhists, Christians and animists. There are still the Karen from Myanmar that have gone over the Thai and Laotian borders, fleeing from the regime there. There are four groups of Karen: White Karen, Pwo Karen, Karen Black (Pa-O) and Red Karen (Kayah). These names refer to the dominant colour in their colourful costumes. The Karen are skilled silversmiths, and their weaving and embroidery is stunning quality. They fit the so-called ikat-to work, before the threads are woven into a pattern. The dyes are the secret of the village, and only natural substances used.
* The Yao (Mien) are artists in silver and embroidery. The women wear black jackets and trousers, decorated with embroidery and red 'furry' collars, and on their heads large blue or black turbans. During the festivities they wear Yao silver jewellery. Their settlements are common in mountain springs between 1000 and 1200 m in altitude. The houses are made of bamboo and the roofs reach almost to the ground. The floor, (except in the sleeping area) is left uncovered. They grow rice, maize and opium. Originally, the Yao are from Central China. The Chinese characters are still used in the Yao-language writing. The Yao have a deep ancestral faith; the altar in the house is the place where the ancestors live. Yao believe in ghosts and they are generally very afraid. Medical assistance is not entertained. At birth, illness or death, the witch doctor helps by speaking of magical formulas and performing ritual acts. The Yao are free in their sexual experience. Young people can go openly and freely about their sex businesses, and it is not necessary to marry. Women move around from one an to the next. Illegitimate children are warmly included in the families. Yet there are also traditional weddings taking place, where a dowry is paid by the groom.
* The Hmong (Meo, Miao or Maew) are animists. They were originated from southern China and in number (200,000 members) the largest group in Laos. They usually live in mountainous areas and plateaus above 1000 m and are divided into blue or black, white, red and striped groups. These four groups speak the same language and can get along. The colour is related to the clothes they wear. Their costume consists of simple black jackets and black or indigo baggy pants with striped borders or indigo skirts and silver jewellery. Most women wear their hair in a big bun. The Hmong are known as silversmiths and weavers. Notable are the hollow silver bracelets, they sometimes wear three or more. The Hmong women do the hard work and hunt wild animals in the woods. The men amuse themselves in and around the village and many smoke opium. Polygamy is permitted. Sexual experience is similar to the Yao. Parents should have to give consent to a marriage and the family of the future husband must pay a dowry. The Hmong believe in a spirit that protects their village from evil influences. A Hmong house can only be entered by the invitation of a male occupant. If there are no men in the house, you will not be invited. The Hmong grow rice, maize and opium.
* The Lahu (Musoe or Musor) originate from Tibet and the Chinese province of Yunnan. Their bamboo houses are simple and consist of only one room. Six to nine poles bear the walls and roof. In the middle is a fire which is used for cooking. Unlike the Meo and Yao men work long days in the fields. They grow the same products as the Meo. The women are helping in the fields, but are mainly concerned with the children. They are also very skilled in weaving and embroidery. Young girls are expected to make their own wedding dress and the groom make theirs'. The men are very skilled in making agricultural implements and utensils. They also make beautiful jewellery. The women of the Lahu wear black and red jackets and tight skirts. The males have bright green or blue-green baggy pants. The Lahu have different groups, referring to the dominant costume colour (red, white, yellow, black). They are also known to tourists for their beautiful richly coloured shoulder bags. Lahu are animists and Christians. They believe in a ghost town, with several lesser spirits are directly responsible for good or evil. Lahu are constantly wary of evil spirits and any behaviour that does not fit the traditional pattern is seen as an influence by an evil spirit, and must be expelled by a village spiritual leader or shaman.
* The Akha (I-Kaw, Kaw, Iko or Igor) come from the Chinese province of Yunnan and now live in houses on stilts across Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Southern China. Their houses are often found high on a hill.The houses of the Akha are constructed the same way as the Meo and Yao, only they have a platform above the ground floor. There is a separate section in the house for the men and a separate area for women. Akha are identified by the inseparable pipe, a kind of pointed headdress and a kind of jacket that is worn over the naked body. The necklaces of the Akha are flat and solid. The Akha are good weavers. Women and girls are almost constantly busy spinning cotton, even on the way to market or the field they still appear with a spindle in hand. Akha traditions are deeply rooted and are not linked to any existing religion, like Buddhism or Christianity. They are animists, worshipping their ancestors and spirits. For each Akha village a gate is flanked by wooden dolls (one man and one woman) who serve to keep the spirits outside the village. Each year the gates are renovated and rededicated. The old ports remain, so that there is sometimes a sort of tunnel. The altar has a very important role, there are three baskets filled with rice as an offering of food to the ancestors. The Akha worship the dog and it is therefore important you do not feel anxious or behave aggressively towards these animals. For major events, a dog is sacrificed. If you are invited to enter a house, you can not refuse. Sometimes they give you something to eat or drink. The national delicacy of the Akha is mouse. When you are offered dog soup, you are very much appreciated. Most Akha can neither read nor write and it seems they are not interested.
* The Lenten are closely related to the Yao (Mien). They live only in the lower river valleys of Laos, and are therefore called the "Lao of the river. The Lenten are found mainly in the provinces of Bokeo and Luang Namtha (Muang Sing area). They live from the rice cultivated in irrigated fields. They cultivate opium for personal use only. With the whole family, they live in large bamboo houses with thatched roofs. The name 'Lenten' owe it to the colour of their clothes, both men and women wear cotton clothing that is painted blue with indigo. The women are identified by a silver coin in their hair and by their lack of eyebrows, plucked at the onset of puberty.
* The Lisu (Lisaw) in Laos is a small but proud group of people. They are originally from Tibet. Lisu build houses on hilltops that are surrounded by other hills, so that their "enemies" can be seen and shelter is provided. The Lisu villages have an impressive system of bamboo pipes that carry watrer to the village from springs that can be miles away. The Lisu grow rice and maize, but also large quantities of poppies. The Lisu men however, use much less opium than the Meo. The women wear long multicoloured tunics over their trousers and sometimes black turbans. Heavy silver jewellery complete the costume. The men do not in terms of clothing compete with the women, their clothes are colorful and they wear jewelry. Some men wear an earring. The women do not have it easy in a Lisu community, because they are often treated as slaves. The wedding is celebrated but after that, the fun ends. The women are expected to work hard, not to interfere and not to complain. Premarital sex is common, as is the freedom in choosing a marriage partner. Ancestor worship plays an important role in the Lisu. The Lisu do not greet people, as they come nor as they go. That can be very confusing and has nothing to do with anger.