One of the lowest population densities in Asia, at 19 persons per square km, and an estimated population of only 5.4 million people, belies the fact that Laos is home to 68 different ethnic groups. These fall into three groupings, based upon language, culture and traditions. The fertile Mekong River valley and lowland plains are where 68% of the total population live and this group is classified as the Lao Loam. The mountainous slopes of Laos are inhabited by the Lao Thing, who make up 22% of the country’s population. The Lao Soung (Mountain Lao), including Hmong (or Meo) and Yao (or Mien) tribes peoples make up a further 9% of the Laos population, while the remaining 1% are ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese.
A member of the Tai Kadai (or just Kadai) language group, Lao is tonal, very similar to its Thai cousin. In fact there are more Lao speakers in Thailand’s northeastern border lands of Isaan than there are in Laos. The two languages are so similar that Thai television and radio have become very popular among the Lao people.
First introduced by Mon Buddhist monks, Buddhism became widely popular in the fourteenth century when the Theravada form was promoted by Fa Ngoum with the arrival of the country’s palladium – the golden Pra Bang Buddha image. Today, Buddhism is the religion of 90% of the country’s 5.4 million people, and its overall influence upon the daily lives of the Lao people has been little altered by the strictures of the Communist government. In fact, the Lao government has never opposed observance of the religion and has used many of its teachings to support its political goals. With the political and economic reforms of the mid-80s, Buddhism is once again flourishing. The Vientiane-based That Luang festival – reduced to a three-day religious observance during the first decade of Communist control – has expanded into a full week’s celebration with a huge fair, concerts, and sound and light shows.
The Lao people greet each other with a prayer-like gesture called a nop. A younger person or a person of lower status will nop their elder or social superior. The western custom of shaking hands has become more common in recent years – though a smile and a slight bow of the head is still considered polite. Backslapping, public displays of affection, shouting, and wild gesticulation are all considered impolite. The head is considered the highest part of the body, while the feet are considered the lowest, both literally and figuratively. Touching someone’s head or pointing at people or things with the feet are, therefore, considered extremely rude. As with entering temples, shoes are removed before entering somebody’s home.