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Anthropology: An Introductory Guide to Laos History, Culture, and People

When it comes to South- East Asia, the country of Laos is generally eclipsed by its larger-than-life neighbours. Located between Vietnam and Thailand, with China and Myanmar to the north, Laos tends to be left in the shadows. However, Laos is a country with a rich backstory of exile, battling kingdoms and collapsed colonies. It is a place where slower living is embraced, where exquisite landscapes and long winding rivers are plentiful. It is a country overflowing with different ethnicities, cultures and traditions. In this introductory guide, I hope to shine a light on the unique wonders Laos has to offer.

The Origin of Laos

Laos is a country that is home to a multitude of ethnicities and racial backgrounds. However, the Lao people were originally a tribe from Yunnan, China. They migrated south in the 13th century to the border of the Khmer Empire. The first Lao Kingdom was established in 1353 and named Lan Xang, or in English ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’. It was founded by Fa Ngum, the grandson of the Muang Sua King. He eventually became known as ‘the Conqueror’. Lan Xang endured for over 300 years before it was seized by an enemy regime for its landlocked advantages.

A grey stone statue of a man's face with a tightly wound bun atop his head, with a stern expression and asian style clothing.
A photo of the Fa Ngum statue that stands in the Laos capital of Vientiane. source: tripadvisor

Fa Ngum

Fa Ngum was a member of the royal family of Muang Sua when his grandfather was the reigning king. Shortly after his birth, his father was exiled by the king for failing to perform his royal duties. The family retreated to Angkor, where Fa Ngum was brought up, at the centre of the Khmer Empire. Years later, Fa Ngum battled his way down the Mekong River, to recapture his rightful throne in Muang Sua and create a united Lao Kingdom. To accomplish this goal, he introduced Theravada Buddhism┬áin the hopes of rejoining the numerous ethnic groups. Fa Ngum’s father-in-law, the Khmer King, sent Buddhist scholars and doctrines to aid his attempts. He also sent him a revered golden Buddha called Phra Bang, which was regarded as a symbol of the claim to the Laos throne. This golden effigy was placed in Muang Sua, which became Luang Prabang in its honour.

a small golden buddha statue with both palms facing outwards, on a small altar surrounded by a white lace canopy .
An image of the famous Phra Bang statue. source: alifewithoutborders.org

The Kingdom of Lan Xang

The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang prevailed as a united state from 1353 to 1707. It was one of the biggest kingdoms in South-East Asia at the time. In terms of size, it encompassed all of present day Laos, northeast Thailand and parts of Vietnam within its borders. By the 17th century, its assets were quite substantial, due to the efforts of the Lan Xang army against the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese and Thai. However, in 1694, its dominance began to disintegrate when the King died without an heir. The Kingdom plunged into chaos and eventually split into three separate kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. This division led to constant internal conflict and easy invasion from other countries. By the end of the 18th century,the Siamese ruled the majority of Lan Xang’s three kingdoms, which today account for most of Laos and Cambodia.

French Colonization

Siam eventually surrendered the region of Lan Xang to the French in order to keep their own independence. The French reassembled the three kingdoms into one governable body and named it Laos. This came from ‘les Laos’, the plural name for the Lao people. Under French control, very little occurred in terms of development and change. They dubbed the country ‘the land of the lotus eaters’, and the only palpable commercial enterprise became the export of opium. During World War II, French rule temporarily fell to the Japanese. When Japan yielded in 1945, the Lao Issara movement (‘Free Laos’) announced its independence. However, the French regained their rule when the King sided with them, and would govern until 1953, when they granted autonomy to the Royal Lao Government.

The Mekong River at sunset showing mountains in the distance and a number of boats moored with a large pole with a flag on top.
The Mekong River in Laos. source: wallstreetjournal.com

Laos and the Vietnam War

After the Royal Lao Government came into power in 1953, a by-product of the Lao Issara Movement, named Pathet Laos, initiated a resistance movement endorsed by communist North Vietnam. Led by Prince Souphanouvong, the ‘Red Prince’, they believed the Royal Lao Government were nothing more than a pushover administration. At the second Geneva conference, 1961-1962, Laos stated its neutrality. It hoped to avoid any international conflict. However, due to its geographical and political relationship to Vietnam, it became a part of the Vietnam War regardless. During this time, the Pathet Laos were slowly gaining popularity and would go on to form part of a coalition government with Souphanouvong’s half brother, Souvanna Phouma, reigning as Prime Minister.

A black and white picture of four men in various forms of military and formal suits stand in front of a building with stairs and an armed guard to the right.
L-R: Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister, his pro-Communist half brother Souphanouvong and General Singkapo, commander-in-chief of the Pathet Lao Army with armed guard. source:history.com

The US ‘Secret War’ with Laos

The war between the United States and Vietnam was one that the entire world was aware of, but one that took place behind the scenes was the US war with Laos. In 1960, the CIA contacted a major general in the Royal Lao Army, Vang Pao, to lead their secret army in their attempt to destabilise the Pathet Lao. Pao was a member of the Hmong community in Lao, and the CIA Operation Momentum supplied and trained the Hmong to confront the Pathet Lao. A war on the ground with US troops in Laos was never an option due to unfavourable conditions and hostile terrain. Therefore, bombing Laos was seen as a safer option for disabling communist supply lines before they could be used against American forces.

The United States Air Force began bombing Laos in 1964, with planes flying out of Thailand filled with cluster bombs designated for covert missions. The target mission for these bombs was to obstruct the communist supply chains in the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is estimated that over the entirety of the US bombings in Laos, the United States dropped the equivalent of an entire planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. As a result, Laos suffered the heaviest bombing of any country in history, more than two million tons of bombs, which is more than all the bombs discharged during WWII together.

stacks of undetonated rusted bombs piled high on a white tarp cover in a green field.
An assortment of undetonated bombs in Laos after being discovered in nearby fields. source: nwasianweekly.com

Lao Culture

For the most part, the essence of the Lao people is defined by their beliefs in Theravda Buddhism. A key characteristic of Theravada is the ‘calming of human emotions‘, which makes for strong and impassioned emotions to be seen as taboo in Lao society. Kamma (karma), is seen as the determining factor in how one’s life will play out, so people tend to be more relaxed when it comes to their futures. A phrase that is common in Lao society is ‘too much work is bad for you’, and avoiding unnecessary stress is considered a cultural norm. As a result, life in Lao tends to be lived at a slower pace.

a temple building with a triangular layered roof and white pillars at the front in front of the setting sun.
Wat Xieng Thong temple in the cultural capital of Luang Prabang. source:bestpricetravel.com

The Lao Lifestyle

The majority of Lao people tend to be early risers. They usually set about their business day before 6am. This may have something to do with the fact that most establishments close early in Lao, even in the capital of Vientiane. Work generally takes the form of manual labour, as most Lao people live in rural areas. Unlike Vietnam, the Lao only harvest one crop of rice every year. This ensures that while there are busy periods of work, there is plenty of downtime in between. Lao people tend to live with their extended families, with up to three generations sharing the same household. It is traditional for the family to all dine together on mats on the floor, with a number of dishes shared by everyone.

A paddy field of green stalks rises above the muddy waters of a river and a man in red shorts and a white triangular hat bends over to pick crops.
Rice production in Laos. source: Wikipedia

Traditional Clothing in Laos

While the majority of Lao people wear modern clothing in their everyday life, traditional clothing is still worn for ceremonies and certain celebrations. For women, a ‘Sinh’ set is worn, consisting of three separate parts. The ‘sinh’ or ‘phaa sin’ is a wraparound skirt made from silk and cotton and usually decorated with intricate patterns. ‘Suea pat’ is a long sleeved shirt that is split into two parts that cross diagonally across each other at the front and then tied together at the back with strings. The ‘pha biang’ is a type of silk shawl, worn by both men and women, about a foot wide that drapes diagonally across the chest over one shoulder, with one end hanging down the back.

A line of five women with their hands held up palm to plam wearing traditional shirts, skirts and scrafs in coulours of red, blue, green, yellow and orange.
Traditional Lao clothing for women, the sinh set. Source:vietvisiontravel.com

For men, traditional costume usually consists of ‘salong’, which are large pants that come in various colours. They are often paired with knee-high white socks, a shirt and a pha biang, and are worn for most ceremonies and important events. However, Laos is home to many ethnicities, and as a result, many different types of traditional clothing. One such example of this is the Flower Hmong, who are known for their colourful clothing with beaded fringed trim and large headwraps of colourful tartan.

A young woman wearing a brightly coloured beaded headdress and top in pinks, blues, oranges, white and black
An example of the Flower Hmong traditional dress. source:allpointseast.com

Laos and Religion

Whilst Laos is a multicultural country, there are two main religions that dominate. The first is one that I have already mentioned; Theravada Buddhism. It is the biggest religion in Laos and is followed by over 65% of the population. Theravada Buddhism, in essence, boils down to three main concepts: Dharma, Karma and Sangha. Dharma can be viewed as a guide to the right action and faith. Karma details how a person’s actions can determine or change their fate. Sangha relates to how a person can improve their actions. A common sight to see in Laos is the daily procession of robed monks who accept food offerings from their local worshipping villagers. Buddhist monks do not believe in owning earthly possessions and followers believe that the offering of food provides good karma.

A procession of shaven headed monks in orange robes with yellow wraps around the middle hold wooden bowls and recieve offerings of food from local people on the street.
A daily procession of Buddhist monks receiving offerings of food in a Laos village. source:bananatree.co.uk.

Another popular religion in Laos is Animism. The foundation of Animism is the belief in ‘Phi’ or spirits. The presence of these spirits is believed to be the cause of everything that happens around us. Animists believe that people originated from the four basic elements of the universe: earth, water, wind and fire; and that the body is protected by 32 spirits or ‘khwan’. These ‘khwan’ live in harmony within the body and when a person falls sick a spiritual imbalance is believed to have occurred. Laotian animists believe that shamans have a special connection with the spiritual world. They are usually called upon if a person is believed to be lost to the spirit world and needs to be brought back.

A group of people sit around a large white offering of food and flowers in formal dress
Photo of an Animist ceremony being performed. source:golaos.tours

Traditional Celebrations and Festivities

The Lao custom of never working too hard also means that festivals and celebratory occasions are rarely missed. There are numerous holidays and festivals that are celebrated throughout the year. One of the most popular is Pi Mai or Lao New Year. Officially, this festival is three days long. However, it is not uncommon for it to run on for at least a week. A key feature of the revelry includes large scale water fights. People tend to get soaked by strangers with water and flour. The cities also host parades which showcase Lao history and folklore through traditional costumes and masks. The temples are washed and cleaned and prepared to receive offerings from practicing followers.

Young men spray passers by with a large hose as they drive down the streets in a parade
Crowds of people getting sprayed with water at Lao New Year. source:rove.me

Boun Bang Fai

Another Lao festival that is extremely popular is Boun Bung Fai, or the Lao Rocket Festival. Traditionally, this is a ceremony that is held to bring rain so that the planting of rice can begin. Celebrations usually take place over the course of two or three days and include music and dancing, float processions and conclude on the final day with the launching of home-made rockets. Those who own the rockets that fly the highest and burn the brightest are considered the winners, with losers being thrown in the mud. Spectators at this festival can watch the performances, listen to the judging of the rockets and take in the festive atmosphere.

A group of people sit on the ground watching a home made rocket launching in a cloud of white smoke.
Spectators at Boun Bang Fai – Laos’ Rocket Festival. source:worldnomads.com

Conclusion

To sum up, Laos is a multicultural hub, where diverse ethnicities and customs thrive side by side. It is a country that has seen the rise and fall of kingdoms, survived infiltration and war, and emerged harmonious on the other side. Laos and its people embrace the steady pace of slow living. They believe life is something to be enjoyed and stress should be avoided at all costs. With its untamed scenic beauty and relaxed atmosphere, Laos is the perfect destination for the travelling adventurer.

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