Art and Culture from Laos
The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow…
The above saying, attributed to the French during colonial times, probably best sums most visitors’ impressions of Lao people and of their differences with their neighbours. Lao people are renowned for their laid-back nature and generally live a much slower paced way of life than those in surrounding countries. In Laos the very relaxed attitude and ‘baw pen nyang’ (no problems – it’ll be ok) approach is enchanting but may also take a little time for some foreigners to adapt to.
In Laos there is said to be between 45 to 140 (or even more – depending on the source) distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and customs. The Lao Government broadly categorizes the different ethnic groups into 3 main categories according to linguistic, ethnic and geographic criteria. Lao Loum (or lowland Lao) is the largest of these groups with approximately 65–70% of the population, followed by Lao Theung (upland Lao) with about 20% of the population and the remaining being designated as Lao Soung (highland Lao) including the H’mong people, who are perhaps the most well known of all the ethnic groups in Laos. Therefore the dominant culture in Laos is that of the Lao Loum who are Theravada Buddhists and speak the official Lao language as their mother tongue.
Theravada Buddhism has a prevailing influence on most aspects of the dominant Lao culture, including the art, architecture, performing arts and literature. Lao classical music, dance and drama owes its origins to the ceremonial performances for the former Laotian Royal Courts and is often based on the Ramayana, however Lao folk music (lam) and folk dance has traditionally been more popular amongst the general population. The national instrument is a type of pipe made of bamboo known as the khaen which is believed to have pre-historic origins and is still commonly used in folk music and even in Laotian pop music today.
Weaving is widely practiced throughout Laos, mostly by women, and there are distinct weaving techniques in the different geographic areas and amongst the different ethnic groups. There are more than 12 identified weaving styles in Laos and common designs include geometric patterns, temple motifs, and sometimes animals. In some ethnic groups the woven designs can depict a story or legend, for example stories of ancestors’ spirits, or stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, with motifs inspired by nature and daily life. Woven items are often used as scarves, traditional skirts (sihn), blankets, and for household decoration and in some ethnic groups the females would traditionally weave items to form their dowry. Other traditional handicrafts include basket weaving, silver and gold smithing, and Saa paper handicrafts.
Family and Religion are of utmost importance to Lao people, with social activities traditionally centering on the extended family and the temple. It is said that for most Laotians a difficult occupation or a stressful life are not desired nor sought after. The majority of Lao citizens live in villages or rural areas, and between 70–80% of the population still rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods – predominantly rice cultivation. As a result rice is the staple food and also has religious and cultural significance amongst the different ethnic groups, including some traditions and rituals related to its cultivation and its consumption.
The Lao people are friendly and receptive to foreigners and will usually welcome you very warmly. There is a healthy curiosity towards foreigners and visitors may find themselves frequently engaged in conversation unexpectedly or at the centre of attention!