Laos has a rich diversity of cultures, lifestyles and arts, and Luang Prabang is home to many of them.
The country’s 17 provinces and 1 capital stretch 1,162 kilometres from the north to the south, with 7 million inhabitants representing 49 officially recognised ethnic groups in four main language families. The majority Tai Lao people, from whom the country takes it name, only make up about 55% of the population. Almost half the population comprises numerous ethnic minority groups.
A simple classification invented in the 1950s divides the country’s people into three categories based on where they traditionally live: Lao Loum (lowland Lao), Lao Theung (Lao of the mountain slopes), and Lao Soung: (highland Lao). This system is no longer official, and is an oversimplification of the country’s ethnic makeup. However, the terms are still popular and regularly heard today. It is more culturally sensitive to use specific names of ethnic groups, such as Hmong, Akha, or Kmhmu.
These 49 different ethnic groups have different customs, religions and lifestyles. For example, the Tai Lao traditionally lived in wood houses on stilts along riverbanks, practising a blend of Buddhism and spirit worship, and farming paddy rice fields. However, the Hmong traditionally lived in wood houses with thatched roofs on the ground, practising spirit and ancestor worship, and planting dry upland rice.
In Luang Prabang Province you will find many ethnic groups including:
Khmu–often this is spelled Khmu–are the largest ethnic group in Luang Prabang Province. They are recognized for their knowledge of the forest, collecting wild plants and mushrooms for food and medicine, and using bamboo, rattan, and jungle vine to make baskets, bags, and other household goods. Traditionally, they have a strong belief in animistic spirits, and weave bamboo talismans to hang in front of houses and fields to keep evil spirits at bay.
Hmong are well-known for their detailed embroidery and applique work, handwoven hemp cloth, and intricate batik designs, which they often sell in the Luang Prabang Night Market. Hmong New Year celebrations take place in December or January, lasting for a week to 10 days, and is traditionally an important time of courtship for young people. Traditional Hmong houses are built of wood with thatched roofs.
The Tai includes the Tai Lao people – the majority group in Laos. Traditionally Tai lived in wood houses on stilts along riverbanks and cultivated paddy rice fields of sticky rice. Many Tai people practice a blend of Theravada Buddhism and spirit worship. The Tai group includes Tai Dam and Tai Deng people.
Iu Mien (also, Yao Mien)
The Iu Mien migrated into Laos from China over 200 years ago, bringing their practice of Taoism and a written Chinese script. Iu Mien women embroider trousers, sashes, bags, and hats with minute, colourful motifs representing animal footprints and plants. Traditional Iu Mien women’s clothing includes a turban and a jacket with a red ruff collar.
The temple is the heart of the village for the devoutly Buddhist Tai Lue people. Tai Lue women are well known for their handwoven cotton and silk textiles, and most stilted homes will have at least one loom underneath for producing fabric. Ban Phanom, a Lue village on the outskirts of Luang Prabang was the old royal weaving village, and is still a major supplier of handwoven textile to the town’s market and boutiques.
The Phunoi are part of the Mon-Khmer ethnic language family, and are most numerous in Phongsaly Province in the far north of Laos. They practice upland rice farming, and are traditionally animist. Traditional Phunoi clothing is dark indigo handwoven cotton decorated with bright red pom-poms.