HOMES, VILLAGES AND RURAL AND URBAN LIFE IN LAOS

TOWNS AND VILLAGES IN LAOS

Laos has one of the lowest population densities in Asia and villages tend to be scattered, remote and cut-off from essential services. Individual villages in Laos tend to be home to a particular ethnic group. Although some groups may live side by side in the towns, in rural areas they tend to set up new villages made up of members of their own group rather than joining a village of a different group.

Most Lao live in villages with ten to several hundred families. In most villages houses are clustered together but in some cases they extend in a rectangular or linear pattern along a central road, river, stream or strip of public land, with rice fields surrounding the village. Few Lao villages contain families from other ethnic groups.

Towns have traditionally grown up at market, trading and administrative centers, often at the site of old muang capitals. Many towns still serve as a meeting area and market center for surrounding villages rather than places people live. Few have more than 5,000 people. Most have a diverse ethnic populations but are dominated by the Lao.

Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) have traditionally lived in stable independent villages situated near lowland rivers or streams. At higher elevations, villages are located in valley areas that give as much access as possible to land suitable for paddy rice cultivation. Villages are self-contained and range from around twenty to over 200 households, although they typically contain forty or fifty houses and 200 to 300 people. Usually, villages are separated by rice fields or unused land. In rural areas, there might be five kilometers or more between villages, whereas in more densely populated areas only one kilometer or less separates the settlements. Most villages have grown in population over time, and if good land becomes scarce in the vicinity, it is not uncommon for some families to migrate to another area, either individually or as a group. Individual households usually move to another village where the family has kin or friends, but larger groups have often migrated to unsettled areas. Such village fission or relocation continued into the early 1990s, although migrants had to obtain permission from the district administration before settling in a new site. [Source: Library of Congress]

See Wats (Vats) Under Buddhism

Village Life in Laos

The lowland Lao village economy is centered on paddy rice cultivation, and most village activities and daily life revolve around rice production. Glutinous, or sticky rice is the staple food; because it has a high starch content, sticky rice must be steamed rather than boiled. It is eaten with the fingers and dipped in soup or a vegetable or meat dish. Most Lao Loum villages are self-sufficient in rice production, although the production of individual households within a village varies. Household work centers on paddy production from the beginning of the rains in May through December when all the rice has been brought to storage. Periods of intense work occur at the time of transplanting and harvesting, and cooperative work groups are often organized among several families to help get the tasks completed in a timely manner. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Where level terrain is inadequate, lowland Lao also practice swidden rice farming. This method is less efficient than paddy rice cultivation, which provides higher and more stable yields for less work. In certain villages, swidden rice is grown only in some years as a supplement to paddy rice production, whereas in others it is planted regularly in small quantities. Some Lao Loum villages have no land suitable for rice paddies and are completely dependent on swidden rice production. Newly established villages may first clear fields and plant swidden rice for a year or two before plowing and bunding the fields to convert them to paddies. *

In addition to paddy rice, most households also have a small vegetable garden and some fruit trees, either in the house compound or near a stream or other water source. Other crops include cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane, but they are usually planted only in small quantities for personal use. Villagers also raise chickens, ducks, and pigs, as well as a buffalo or two for plowing the fields and perhaps a pair of cattle for pulling a cart. In general, rural households are largely self-sufficient, growing their own food, making their own tools and clothes, and trading any surplus for soap, kerosene, medicines, and kitchen or household goods. *

Hunting, fishing, and gathering traditionally play an important role in the household economy, although as the population has increased and wild areas have been degraded, access to these resources has gradually deteriorated. Homemade rifles are used to hunt small deer, wild pigs, and small game such as squirrels and birds; fish are caught with a variety of nets, traps, or hooks. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fruit, medicinal or culinary roots, and leaves are gathered in the forest according to the season. Men hunt and fish with throw nets and hooks, while women fish with dip nets and baskets and collect roots and wild vegetables. *

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times in 2007, “Khamphao and his neighbors all have $100 Chinese-made television sets connected to Chinese-made satellite dishes and decoders, causing both joy and occasional tension among family members sitting on the bare concrete or dirt floors of their living rooms. "I like watching the news," Khamphao said. "My children love to watch movies." A two-hour interview with Khamphao was interrupted twice: once when his buffalo in the adjoining field gave birth to a healthy calf and a second time when a movie channel was showing "Lost in Translation," and the actor Bill Murray sang an off-key rendition of Brian Ferry's "More Than This." Khamphao's children, whose daily lives are almost exclusively confined to the mountain village, have picked up the Thai language from television and sing along to commercials broadcast from neighboring Thailand. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 26, 2007 ==]

Traditional Lao Homes

Traditional Lao houses are made of wood or bamboo and are built on stilts above the ground. People live on the first floor of houses raised on timber stilts. Traditionally the houses had steep thatched roofs and verandas. Under the house the family often keep animals, craft equipment such as a loom and simple food processing machines like large wooden mortars and pestles. In the grounds around the house were often a rice granary, family livestock and poultry, vehicles, fruit trees, a kitchen garden and maybe a kitchen shack. The quality and type of homes changes with elevation. The lowland Lao generally live in better quality housing than the poorer highland tribes.

Lao Loum houses are built on wooden piles with the floor from one to two-and one-half meters above the ground. This style keeps the living area above the mud of the rainy season, provides a shady area under the house to work or rest during the day, and allows the house to catch breezes for natural cooling. Depending on the wealth and resources of the family, the walls and floor may be made of woven split bamboo or sawn wood; the roof is constructed from grass thatch, bamboo, wood shingles, or corrugated steel roofing sheet. Some older houses in well-off villages are roofed with clay tiles, but this style was no longer common in the early 1990s. A separate rice granary is built in the house compound, also on posts using similar construction. Livestock is sometimes kept under the house. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Houses commonly range from five by seven meters to eight by twelve meters, with the smallest size typical of a newly established household or a family that has recently moved. Most houses are built with a porch on the long side that is used for visiting and as a public area. The interior is divided into one or two sleeping rooms, a common room for visiting and eating, and a separate kitchen area or side porch. Household furnishings are simple: mats or mattresses and blankets for sleeping on the floor, a low woven bamboo and rattan table for eating, and a few pots and dishes for cooking and eating. Lao Loum sit on the floor and eat from common bowls of soup or other dishes. Steamed rice is distributed among two or three common baskets placed around the edge of the table. *

Houses are typically built by hand using local materials, and once the householder has collected enough wood, bamboo, and/or thatching grass, he will ask his neighbors and relatives to assist in the house raising. It usually takes twenty people a day or two to assemble the frame and raise the heavy timbers. Once the heavy work is completed, the owners finish construction over the ensuing weeks. In this work as well as farm labor exchange, the host family provides a meal to all those coming to help. For common farmwork, the meal is relatively simple and usually includes a chicken or duck and a bottle of local rice liquor. For a house raising, the meal is more elaborate--a pig or small ox and considerably more liquor after the task is done. Illness, death, or other household emergencies also elicit help from one's neighbors. *

Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Centuries of migration from nearby Laos have helped shape the architecture of Thailand’s northeast, known as Isaan. Unfortunately, the region has chronically been hit by economic hardships resulting from drought, poor soil and a less developed education infrastructure in the rural areas. Thus, its architecture is simpler and less elaborate than elsewhere in Thailand. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Northeastern-style houses are similar to central Thai houses. They are built of wood on stilts, but their roofs feature a gentler slope since there is less rain to cope with. Thatch and corrugated iron roofs are more common in Isaan than other regions. Walls are perpendicular, not slanted, and often made of simple wooden planks rather than the prefabricated panels used in other regions. Homes are built in a compound structure, starting with a main cabin; a second cabin may be added as the family grows.

See Architecture

Fixing Up Traditional Lao Houses in Vientiane

Julie Makinen wrote in the New York Times, “For Allison Brown, it was a simple question that changed her life in 2002: “Would you like to rent the house?” The 90-year-old, waddle-and-daub home, a traditional structure in Laos, had first caught her eye in the early 1990s, when she came here to the country’s capital on an agriculture- consulting job. Years had passed since she had become friends with a member of the family that owned the property and discussed her fondness for it. Now, the keys to 110 Vat Chan Street were dangling before her. It didn’t matter that its clay-tile roof leaked, the garden routinely flooded and one bathtub was a hideous shade of green. [Source: Julie Makinen. New York Times, December 8, 2009 \^\]

“She negotiated a seven-year lease, starting at $100 a month. Her plan was to renovate the 2,800-square-foot property, live in it for a while and then sublet it at a higher rate. Barely three months later, though, the owner of the property next door, another traditional Lao home, asked the same question: “Would you like to rent my house, too?” “We negotiated the rent, signed the lease and then I said, ‘Where am I going to get the money to do this?’” Ms. Brown recalled. She decided to create a business dedicated to preserving and restoring traditional Lao buildings. \^\

“Together with the owners of the first house she rented, and working with a Danish cabinetmaker, local craftsmen and support staff, Ms. Brown’s company Unique Lao Properties has now renovated six structures in Vientiane, with a total of nine units. Her company leases all the properties from their owners, restores them and then sublets the residences mostly to westerners working for foreign-aid organizations, although sherecently leased one to the Asia Foundation to serve as its new office in Laos. Since the banking system in Laos and its laws on property ownership are difficult to navigate, Ms. Brown had to develop a different business model based on long-term rentals and subletting. “You don’t start seeing profits until the fourth, fifth and sixth years,” said Ms. Brown, who contributed most of the capital and spent the equivalent of $25,000 to $30,000 oneach renovation. “It’s profitable, but the returns are slow in coming and it’s a lot of cash up front.” \^\

“In renovating her first property, the biggest challenges were finding old tiles to redo the roof. She got some from a building being torn down in her housekeeper’s village. She also had to figure out how to direct rain runoff away from the building. An elaborate drainage system, disguised beneath a fish pond and the garden in the front yard, now carries the water to the street. When possible, Ms. Brown and her team used traditional construction methods. Butreplicating the original technique for wall plaster — boiling buffalo hides and feet tomake glue, then mixing it with lime and rice straw — proved impractical. “Nobody boilsbuffalo hide anymore,” she said. “We put in wall board and cement.” Inside, Ms. Brown made a few concessions to modern convenience. For instance, she reconfigured the two bathrooms, adding modern tile and lighting. She also opened up the place, tearing down several walls to convert four small bedrooms into two larger ones. The kitchen now has a skylight and a microwave.Over all, the feel of the home remains deeply traditional, with its uneven dark wood floors smoothed by generations of feet and many of its furnishings left by the previousresidents — from an old radio to the black-and-white family portraits on the living room. \^\

Urban Life in Laos

Urbanization: urban population: 33 percent of total population (2010); Rate of urbanization: 4.9 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.). Major cities: Vientiane (capital); population: 799,000 (2009); 250,000 in 1985.

Only the national capital of Vientiane and a few other provincial capitals can be considered urban. These small cities are market and administrative centers that attract trading and communications activity, but they have developed very little manufacturing or industrial capacity. Daily and seasonal life in all sectors of the society is affected by the monsoon. Rice production determines periods of heavy and slack work, which are mirrored in school vacations, religious festivals, and government activity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Everywhere, the basic village character of society is evident. Even in Vientiane, a substantial number of the inhabitants are paddy rice farmers, either as their main occupation or as important supplemental work. Government officials' salaries are inadequate to support a family, and many officials rely on family members to secure their basic rice supply by farming. Cities and towns are also important markets for vegetables and fruit produced in the nearby villages; the trade volume remains small outside of Vientiane but has stimulated the gradually increasing market orientation of rural producers. *

Traditional festivals and religious ceremonies are observed in towns much as in villages and are often organized on the basis of a neighborhood, which is typically defined by the boundaries of a formerly separate village. Family life-cycle ceremonies frequently draw guests from outside the neighborhood but rely on close neighbors and relatives to help with food and other preparations, as in a village. *

Between 1975 and 1990, urban amenities such as hotels, restaurants, and cinemas were virtually absent outside of Vientiane, Savannakhét, and Louangphrabang. A few towns had government-operated guest houses for official travelers and one or two restaurants with a limited menu. Travelers in most district centers and even some provincial capitals could find a meal only by making arrangements with a family or the caretaker assigned to the guest house. Town markets are also limited in size and number. After the economic reforms of the late 1980s, however, private restaurants and hotels opened in most provincial centers and larger districts. Official travel increased, and more important, Laotian merchants, foreign delegations, and tourists again began to travel within the country. *

Sanitation services and utilities are not widespread. As of mid-1994, only a few of the larger towns had municipal water systems, and none had sewerage services. Electrification is a limited but important feature of urban life. Outside of the Vientiane area, Thakhek, Louangphrabang, and Savannakhét, most district centers did not have electricity in the early 1990s. Even in towns, electric power is limited to a few hours a day. Automobile batteries and voltage inverters are widely used as a power source to watch television or listen to a stereo cassette player. *

Urban Life in Vientiane

The presence of a foreign diplomatic and aid community has had a significant effect on the economy of Vientiane, both in terms of direct aid and through employment of Laotians by the missions and as domestic help. In response, Vientiane merchants stock imported consumer goods such as electronics, clothing, and food, items purchased by Laotians much more than by foreigners. A once dormant service sector of automobile and truck repair, tailors, barbers, and hairdressers has begun to revive. Patrons at restaurants and the six disco establishments are also predominantly Laotians, reflecting the increased income available to private-sector businessmen and employees of foreign organizations. Foreign assistance in Vientiane during the early years of the LPDR helped to develop several upper-secondary schools and technical-training schools and improve the two main hospitals. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Peter Lloyd of ABC News wrote: “Vientiane is a capital with more bowling allies than nightclubs, and in a city with precious little to offer in the way of after hours entertainment, this is a pastime that has captivated locals. The fact that the bowling alley bar does a roaring trade in whiskey helps keep the crowed enthusiastic, if not precise.” One Vientiane resident told Lloyd: “I have nothing to do, so I start playing the bowling in Vientiane.” When asked why people bowl, the resident said, “ I think they have nothing to do at nighttime.” [Source: Peter Lloyd, ABC, November 28, 2004]

See Vientiane

History of Urban Life in Laos

Vientiane is the only city of any size in Laos. In 1985, three provincial capitals had populations of more than 20,000—Louangphrabang with 20,000, Savannakhét with 109,000, and Pakxé with 50,000. The 1985 census classified 15 percent of the population as "urbanized," but this figure includes the populations of all district centers, most of which are little more than large villages of 2,000 to 3,000 persons. The expanded marketing and commercial opportunities resulting from economic liberalization in 1986 have somewhat stimulated urban growth. Vientiane planners anticipate an annual population expansion of 5.4 percent through the year 2000, and many of the more rural provincial capitals also are growing at a significant rate in the early 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Urban centers, for the most part, have developed from villages that expanded or grew together around an administrative or trading center. Louangphrabang is the historical capital of the kingdom of Lan Xang, and Vientiane and Pakxé are also centers of earlier kingdoms. Migration of the Lao Loum into the region resulted in the establishment of muang, semi-independent principalities, which sometimes formed a larger state entity but which always preserved a certain autonomy as a result of transportation and communication difficulties. Many of the original districts, have since become district centers, and the word itself is used for this political division. Although district centers rarely had more than a few thousand people as the mid-1990s approached, they serve as secondary administrative posts and marketing centers for the surrounding villages and are the location of the medical clinic and lowersecondary school--grades six through eight--for the vast majority of the rural population. *

Population displacement during the Second Indochina War caused growth in some cities--Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the main lower Mekong Valley towns--but depopulation of centers in the eastern liberated zones. Xiangkhoang was destroyed by bombing in 1969, and Xam Nua and Phôngsali were virtually depopulated. These provincial capitals have been revived since 1975, but their geographic isolation inhibits rapid growth. The capital of Xiangkhoang was relocated twenty kilometers north to the village of Phônsavan. Administrative centers of several districts were also relocated after 1975 in order to make them more central to all villages in the district. *

Historically, towns were located along major rivers or in upland valleys and were primarily populated by Lao Loum and small populations of Vietnamese merchants, artisans, and civil servants (imported by the French), as well as by Chinese and Indian traders. Migration of refugees during the Second Indochina War brought an increased minority population, which grew even faster after 1975 because officials of the new regime, many of whom were Lao Theung and Lao Sung, moved into administrative posts in Mekong towns. So many Chinese and Indian merchants left Laos during the war that these groups accounted for only a small portion of the urban population in 1994. Many Vietnamese who were sympathetic to the RLG also fled, although an unknown number of advisers from North Vietnam were posted to Vientiane and other major centers. The Vietnamese population was nevertheless unlikely to exceed a few thousand in any towns other than Vientiane and Savannakhét. *

All provincial capitals were centers of marketing, administration, education, and health care, but not of manufacturing because there was virtually no industrial production outside the Vientiane area. As of mid-1994, each capital had at least one upper-secondary school-- often the only one in the province--along with specialized technical schools for agriculture, teacher training, or public health. Almost every province capital also had a hospital, but the quality of care and the availability of medicines--although greater than that in villages--were frequently limited. *

However, Laotian cities failed to attract the rural population, as cities do in other countries, because they offer little obvious economic opportunity and because the rural areas offer the possibility of making a decent living within communities that had not been socially or economically fragmented by the forces of modernization. Further, the government initially had explicitly anti-urban policies. Other towns had experienced less in-migration than Vientiane; this pattern is likely to change if economic opportunities arise in secondary towns or if competition for land and forest resources--or restrictions on access--increase to the point of reducing the rural standard of living. Nevertheless, even if a town does not dominate the region, it has an impact on the lives of people living in the surrounding area. The larger the population of a town, the greater the town's impact on the region. For example, farmers within about fifteen kilometers of Louangphrabang grow vegetables for sale in the town market. In Vientiane, this radius expands to forty kilometers; some village residents commute up to thirty kilometers each way to government or private jobs in the capital. Through these contacts, new ideas and material goods filter into rural areas. *

Rural-Urban Distribution in Laos

In the early 1990s, over 85 percent of the Laotian population was rural, typically living in villages ranging from ten to 200 households, or up to about 1,200 persons. Towns grew during the Second Indochina War as villagers fled to escape United States bombing. After 1975 many rural migrants returned to farming. Most of the sixteen province capitals or centers can be considered towns, although a few, such as Phôngsali, Attapu, and Xiangkhoang, are not much more than market centers with populations well under 5,000 surrounded by a somewhat denser network of neighboring villages. In 1985 Vientiane had a population estimated at about 250,000, with municipal water and electricity systems, a variety of housing, and more developed educational and health facilities than were available elsewhere in the country. [Source: Library of Congress]

The major provincial centers are Louangphrabang--the former royal capital--Savannakhét, and Pakxé, with populations ranging from 20,000 to 109,000 and a range of services and urban amenities. The other provincial capitals are distinguished by several government buildings, a regular market--although not always daily-- at least one hotel and restaurant, and occasional air service. Towns are primarily administrative and market centers, with little or no industrial manufacturing outside of Vientiane. Aside from Vientiane and a few other provincial towns, growth was limited, and the general pattern of existence held over many generations. Most of the 121 district centers were little more than large villages with the addition of a middle school and a few score officials. *

Rural Life in Laos

Rural population: 67 percent.

For Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Sung, the rhythm of life is strongly tied to the changing seasons and the requirements of farming. For swidden farming villages, the work year begins in January or February when new fields are cleared. This time of the year is also good for hunting and for moving to a new village. Opium farmers harvest the resin between January and March, depending on location and variety of poppy, but otherwise there are few agricultural activities. Swidden fields are burned around March and must be planted in May or June, just before the first rains. From the time the seeds sprout until August, work revolves around the never-ending task of weeding. Hunting and fishing continue, and with the coming of the rains, the forest begins to yield new varieties of wild foods. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

For paddy farmers, the agricultural year begins with the first rains, when a small seedbed is plowed and planted. The seedlings grow for a month or so while the remaining fields are plowed and harrowed in preparation for transplanting. Transplanting requires steady work from every able-bodied person over a period of about a month and is one of the main periods of labor exchange in lowland villages. *

Swidden farmers begin the corn harvest as early as September, and short-season rice varieties mature soon after the corn. Paddy rice seldom ripens before October, however, and the harvest may continue through early December in some areas, although midNovember is more usual. Even late swidden rice is finished by early November. Harvesting and threshing the rice are the principal activities during the second period of intense work in the farm year. Dry-season rice farmers repeat the same cycle, but vegetables, tobacco, or other cash crops require a more even labor input over the season. *

Food availability parallels the seasons. Wild foods and fish are abundant during the rainy season, although the months just before the corn ripens may be difficult if the previous year's harvest was inadequate. Fruit is available during the rainy and cool dry seasons, but becomes scarce, as do most vegetables, from March through May. Hmong and Mien celebrate their new year in December or January, when the harvest is complete but before the time to clear new fields. Lowland Lao celebrate their new year on April 15, also shortly before the start of the farming year. The harvest is marked by the That Luang festival, on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, which falls in late November or early December. *

Because most roads are in poor condition, travel in the rainy season is generally difficult, and villagers tend to stay close to home, because of farmwork as well as the ever-present mud. The dry season brings easier land travel and the free time it allows. Since the late 1980s, a few rural villagers have begun to travel to regional population centers in search of temporary wage employment, often in construction. *

See Agriculture

Rural Society in Laos

Laos is a rural country whose relatively low population density has allowed the continuation of a village society reliant on subsistence agriculture. The lack of a national government infrastructure and effective transportation networks has also contributed to the relative independence and autonomy of most villages. Residence in a village thus has been an important aspect of social identity, particularly for lowland Lao ethnic groups. For many upland ethnic groups, clan membership is a more important point of social identification. For all groups, the village community has a kinship nexus, although structures differ. Rice is the staple food for all Laotians, and most families and villages are able to produce enough or nearly enough each year for their own consumption. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Laotian society is above all else characterized by semiindependent rural villages engaged in subsistence agricultural production. Ethnic, geographic, and ecological differences create variations in the pattern of village life from one part of the country to another, but the common threads of village selfreliance , limited regional trade and communication, and identification with one's village and ethnic group persist regardless of the setting. Rural trade networks, however, have been a part of life since the 1950s. Except near the larger towns and in the rich agricultural plains of Vientiane and Savannakhét, villages are spaced at least several kilometers apart and the intervening land variously developed as rice paddy and swidden fields or maintained as buffer forest for gathering wild plants and animals, fuelwood, and occasional timber harvest. *

Ethnicity differentiates the villages but is usually not a source of conflict or antagonism. Nearly all villages are ethnically homogeneous, although a few include two or more distinct groups. Ethnic mixing often has resulted from different groups migrating to a new settlement site at about the same time, or a larger village at a crossroads or river transit point developing into a minor trading center. Ethnic identity is never absolutely immutable. Some minority Laotian individuals have adopted lowland Lao behavior and dress patterns, or intermarried with lowland Lao, and have effectively acculturated to lowland society. In some units, military service has also brought together Laotians of different ethnic groups, both before and after 1975. *

Only since 1975 has there been any sense of national unity among most rural villagers. Precolonial governments depended more on a system of control at the district level with the chao muang (district chief) maintaining his own allegiance and tribute to the state. Administrative practices under the French and during the post-World War II period was confined primarily to provincial and a few district centers. The government was able to extract taxes with some facility but had little impact on the daily lives or thoughts of most villagers. However, since 1975, the government has expended considerable energy and resources on national unification, so that even isolated villages recognize the role of local government and consider themselves at some level to be part of a Laotian state. *

Lowland Lao Village Organization

Occupational specialization in the village is low; virtually everyone is a rice farmer first. Some villagers may have special skills in weaving, blacksmithing, or religious knowledge, but these skills are supplementary to the fundamental task of growing enough rice and vegetables for the family. Social and economic stratification tends to be low within any one village, although villages may differ substantially one from another. Status accrues to age, wealth, skill in specific tasks, and religious knowledge. Factions based on kinship or political alliance may exist in a village but usually do not obstruct overall village cooperation and governance. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Traditionally, lowland Lao villages are led by a village chief (pho ban or nai ban) and one or two assistants who are elected by the villagers, although district or province officials sometimes use their positions to influence the results. Respected elders, including women, form an advisory group that deliberates intravillage disputes. Since 1975 villages have been governed by an administrative committee headed by a village president (pathan ban) and several other persons with responsibilities for such specific areas as economic and population records, self-defense militia, agriculture, women's affairs, and youth affairs. All members are in principle elected by popular vote, although for about a decade after 1975, party cadres at the village level were supposed to have taken an active role to ensure that acceptable candidates were selected. *

Even under the present political system, however, village leaders have little or no formal authority and govern through consensus and the use of social pressure to ensure conformity. Village meetings are held infrequently but are usually well attended with different viewpoints on issues expressed openly. If a consensus on an issue is not reached, leaders will delay decisions to allow further discussion outside the meeting with all members of the community. Typical issues might include whether to build or expand a village school or dig a community well, or how to organize the annual ceremony for the village protective spirit. Historically, religious and ceremonial activities and ties with the Buddhist temple or monastery (wat) have been very important in village life and a focus of considerable time and expenditure. *

Each family contributes equal amounts of labor, material, and money to village projects. Once a decision is made to undertake a project, a committee is appointed to manage the details and keep track of the contributions to ensure that everyone does his or her share. Systems of rotating labor groups for village projects are common; for example, groups of ten households may supply one worker per household every three to seven days, depending on the number of groups, until the project is finished. Some large projects, such as building a school, may continue for several years, with work taking place during the dry season when farming tasks are not heavy or when funds are available to purchase materials. *

Households also cooperate informally, especially in agricultural work. Labor exchange occurs for almost every task associated with rice farming, although it is most common for transplanting, harvesting, and threshing. There are two different patterns of farm exchange. In central and southern Laos, villagers call on many other households, sometimes the entire village, for one day's help to complete a specific task such as transplanting. No specific repayment is required, but the family is obligated to help others in the village if they are unable to finish work in time. In northern villages, mutual assistance is organized on the basis of exchanges between families that should even out over the year; a day's work transplanting may be repaid by a day's work threshing. The contributions of men, women, and children over sixteen are considered equal, regardless of the task. *

Everyday Rural Life in Laos

Everyday rural scenes in Laos include, women crushing rice with large mortar and pestles, men cutting logs by hand into planks, women and children bathing and washing clothes in the river, and villagers preparing deep blue indigo dyes used in traditional textiles. So few foreigners visit some places in Laos, children run away in fear. In other places loud speakers still wake people up at 6:00am and announce the day's work assignments. People mainly eat the crops they grow, forest products they gather and wildlife and fish they catch. Girls carry bundles of firewood and collect grubs for eating. Hunter kill birds with rifles and slingshots and capture game with snares.

Few villages have electricity. Some people have televisions and videos run by car batteries. Along the Mekong and other rivers you can see women bathing themselves while wrapped in their sarongs; fishermen casting their nets; children splashing in the water and slender boats guided by old men cruise up and down.

In traditional Lao society, certain tasks are associated with members of each sex but the division of labor is not rigid. Women and girls are usually responsible for cooking, carrying water, maintaining the household and taking care of small domestic animals. Men are in charge if caring for buffalo and oxen, hunting, plowing paddy fields and clearing slash and burn fields. Both men and women plant, harvest, thresh, carry rice and work in gardens. Most small time Lao traders are women.

Both sexes cut and carry firewood. Women and children traditionally carry water for household use and to cultivate kitchen gardens. Women do most of the cooking, household cleaning, and washing and serve as primary caretakers for small children. They are the main marketers of surplus household food and other petty production, and women are usually the commercial marketers for vegetables, fruit, fish, poultry, and basic household dry goods. Men typically market cattle, buffalo, or pigs and are responsible for the purchase of any mechanical items. Intrafamily decision making usually requires discussions between husband and wife, but the husband usually acts as the family representative in village meetings or other official functions. In farming work, men traditionally plow and harrow the rice fields, while women uproot the seedlings before transplanting them. Both sexes transplant, harvest, thresh, and carry rice. [Source: Library of Congress]

In some places people still use Chinese-style shoulder poles to carry things over a long distance. But things are changing. One elderly man told the New York Times that as a child, he also used such a pole in his daily work, especially when helping his parents to carry water and other heavy things. “Nowadays, young people are ignorant of this way of life. They live comfortably and most of them have never experienced the hardships that older people grew up with. “They don’t need to use a pole to carry things because they’ve got a car or a motorbike.”

see Agriculture.

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Cheap Chinese Motorcycles Change Life in Laos

Reportedly Long Lao Gao in Laos in 2007, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The pineapple that grows here on the steep hills above the Mekong River is especially sweet, the red and orange chilies unusually spicy, and the spring onions and watercress retain the freshness of the mountain dew. For years, getting this prized produce to market meant carrying a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails that cut through the jungle. That is now changing, thanks in large part to China. Villagers ride their cheap Chinese motorcycles, which sell for as little as $440, down a badly rutted dirt road to the markets of Luang Prabang. "No one had a motorcycle before," said Khamphao Janphasid, 43, a teacher in the local school whose extended family now has three of them. "The only motorcycles that used to be available were Japanese and poor people couldn't afford them." [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 26, 2007 ==]

“The motor scooters, which typically have small but adequate 110cc engines, literally save lives, says Saidoa Wu, the 43-year-old village headman of Long Lao Mai, a village nestled in a valley at the end of the dirt road, adjacent to Long Lao Gao. "Now when we have a sick person we can get to the hospital in time," Wu said. The improvised bamboo stretchers that villagers here used as recently as a decade ago to carry gravely ill family members and neighbors down the mountain on foot are history. In a village of 150 families, Wu counts a total of 44 Chinese motorcycles, up from zero five years ago. ==

“About seven years ago, residents here say they, Chinese salesmen began arriving with suitcases filled with smuggled watches, tools and small radios, closing up and moving on when the police arrived. More recently Chinese merchants, who speak only passable Lao, received permission to open permanent stalls in the towns and small cities across Indochina. In Laos, these are known as "talad jin," or Chinese markets. ==

“The enthusiasm for Chinese goods here is tempered by one commonly heard complaint: maintenance problems. "The quality of the Japanese brands is much better," said Gu Silibapaan, a 31-year-old motorcycle mechanic in Luang Prabang. People with money, he said, buy Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki motorcycles. (People with lots of money buy cars.) ==

Gu claims he can tell a Japanese brand, manufactured in Thailand, just by listening to the engine. "It sounds more firm and the engine noise is softer," he said. Some Thai-made Japanese motorcycles can go 10 years without an engine overhaul. Chinese bikes, he said, usually need major repairs within 3 to 4 years. "I want a motorcycle from Thailand but I don't have the money," said Kon Panlachit, a police officer who brought his Jinlong 110cc motorcycle to Gu's shop for repairs on a recent weekend. "When I ride it, it makes a noise - dap, dap dap," Kon complained. "It's the second time I've brought it here for this problem." ==

The cheapest Thai-made Honda goes for 55,000 baht, about $1,670 - four times the price of the cheapest Chinese bikes, which are sold under many brand names, including Yinxiang, Dashan, Yincin, Zongshen and Honshun. The influx of Chinese motorcycles is keeping mechanics busy in Luang Prabang. A decade ago there were only two or three repair shops in the city, says Gu. Now he counts 20. Gu does not worry about maintenance for his own motorcycle. "I have a Honda," the mechanic said. ==

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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