Culture and identity
Laos’s population is ethnically diverse, consisting of approximately 131 groups. More than half the country’s people are Lao who are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southwards from China in the first millennium CE. They live mainly along the river valleys and are the politically and culturally dominant group. Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai cultural influences can be seen in Laotian language, arts and cuisine.
The Laotian people greet each other with a prayer-like gesture called a nop. The higher the hands are in front of the chest, the greater the sign of respect to people of higher status and age. The gesture is also used as an expression of thanks, regret or saying goodbye.
Laotians have a variety of folk arts, including cotton and silk weaving, bamboo basket making, wood and ivory carving, and silver and gold engraving and sculpturing.
The town of Luang Prabang is Laos’s first World Heritage listed site. It is famous for its blend of traditional Lao and 19th and 20th century colonial European architecture that represents the merging of the two cultures.
Health indicators are poor but improving. About 70% of the population have access to safe water and 61% have access to sanitation facilities, although people living in rural areas have less access. Communicable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections are the main causes of children’s death. Life expectancy at birth is 63 years and the infant mortality rate is 55 deaths per 1,000 live births. About a third of children under five years are underweight. HIV/AIDS prevalence is currently very low, but a range of risk factors is present.
Religion and beliefs
Most of the lowland Laotian practise Theravada Buddhism, which emphasises the potential of the individual to attain nirvana or enlightenment through prayer, meditation and leading a good life.
Animistic beliefs prevail among groups living in the mountainous areas of Laos. They believe in the protective powers of guardian spirits and the divine and curing powers of the shamans and spirit healers.
Food and shelter
Rice is the staple food for Laotians. Fresh vegetables, freshwater fish, poultry, duck, pork, beef or water buffalo are included in a variety of dishes, which may be flavoured with lime juice, lemon grass, coriander, hot chillies, garlic, mint, ground peanuts, tamarind juice, ginger and coconut milk.
Rural homes are generally the traditional Lao home, built on stilts with wooden planks for flooring, bamboo walls and grass or shingles for the roof. The house consists of a large open space where people sit on low seats or cushions to eat and relax. The kitchen and a small room for washing and bathing are attached. City homes may be villas or apartment buildings.