Nationality: noun: Lao(s) or Laotian(s); adjective: Lao or Laotian; Ethnic groups: Lao: 55 percent; Khmou: 11 percent; Hmong: 8 percent; other (over 100 minor ethnic groups): 26 percent (2005 census). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

People from Laos are called the Laotians (the Lao refers to an ethnic group). With a population of around 6.7 million people (estimated 2012), Laos is one of the least populated and least densely-populated countries in Asia. Thailand has seven times as many people per square mile as Laos. Vietnam 14 times as many. There are almost as many people in Singapore which is one 1000th the size.

Only about 19 percent of all Laotians lives in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the U.S.). The other 81 percent live mostly in small agricultural villages. The population is growing at the high rate of 1.8 percent a the average life expectancy is 61 for men and 65 for women; and about 36 percent of all Laotians are under 15, and 3.7 percent are over 65.

As is the case with Vietnam, Myanmar and southern China, Laos is very ethnically diverse. There are 68 to 119 different ethnic groups found in Laos, depending on who does the counting and how various subgroups are counted. They fall into four broad groupings: 1) The lowland Lao (Lao Lum) make up 50 percent of the population and are based mainly on the Mekong River and other waterways; 2) the midland and highland Lao (Lao Thueng) comprise about 20 percent of the population and generally live at elevations from 300 to 1,200 meters and speak a Mon-Khmer language; 3) and hill tribes (Lao Soung) make up 15 percent of the population and generally live at elevations above 1,000 meters. And 4) Thais make up remaining 15 percent.

Elevation in Laos often defines ethnicity and income levels with the Lao living in the relatively fertile lowlands and the hill tribes and ethnic minorities living in the highlands were the soils tend to be thin and poor. Migration and international conflict have contributed to the present ethnic composition of the country and to the geographic distribution of its ethnic groups.

Many ethnic minorities live mostly in remote, hill areas that are hours from the nearest poor road. The mountains between Laos and its neighbors are sparsely populated by tribal minorities who traditionally have not acknowledged the borders with these countries. Ethnic minority populations of one group are often found on both sides of the frontier. Because of their relative isolation, contact between these groups and lowland Lao has been mostly confined to trading.

The ethnic groups found in Laos are incredibly diverse and for the most part little studied by anthropologists. They include the Khmou (11 percent of the population); Hmong (or Meo, or Miao, 8 percent), Mon-Khmer people (5.4 percent of the population), Sui including Alak (3.2 percent) and other ethnic groups such as the Yao, Thau Dam, Akha and Loven (17 percent). Lao people make up about 55 percent of the population of Laos.

Names for Laos and the People of Laos

Country name: conventional long form: Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Conventional short form and commonly used in general: Laos. Local long form: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao. Local short form: Pathet Lao (unofficial). Lao is used by Lao people (the 's' is dropped in Lao language). [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

The name Laos originated with the French who coined it in the late 19th century as a convenient way to collectively refer to the various Lao kingdoms. The word “Lao” is derived from a Chinese word meaning “great” or civilized.” The ancient kingdom of Laos was known as Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants). The traditional Lao name for the country is Pathet Lao, meaning “the country of the Lao.” U.S. President John F. Kennedy pronounced the name of the country “Louse.” Many Americans pronounce the name “Lay-os.”

On the use of the terms Lao and Laotian: the term Lao refers to people who are ethnic Lao; it is not used to refer to those living in Laos who are members of other ethnic groups, for example, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Hmong. The term Laotian is used to refer to all the people living in Laos, regardless of ethnic identity. *

In “Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire” (1867). Louis de Caene wrote: “ It has been predicted that we should spend some months in Laos—a region of evil name, protected by the rocks with which its river bristles, and still more by the miasma exhaled by the sun’s heat, from the curiosity to ambition of its neighbors.” The Lao writer Mayoury Ngaosyvathn said: “For the Lao people, the invisible link with the nation, the nationhood, is inborn and transmitted from generation to generation.

Multi-Ethnic Laos

Laos is ethnically diverse; the population includes more than forty ethnic groups, which are classified within three general families of Lao Sung (upland Lao), Lao Theung (midland Lao), and Lao Loum (lowland Lao). The country is officially a multiethnic nation, with Lao as the official language, but relationships among the different groups have sometimes been characterized by misunderstandings and competition over natural resources. The different ethnic groups have substantially different residential patterns, agricultural practices, forms of village governance, and religious beliefs. [Source: Library of Congress]

The population of Laos embraces of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic groups: 1) The Lao-Tai Family includes eight ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua. 2) The Mon-Khmer Family includes 32 ethnic groups: Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamed, Samtao, Katang, Makong, Try, Trieng, Ta-oi, Yeh, Brao, Harak, Katou, Oi, Krieng, Yrou, Souai, Gnaheune, Lavy, Kabkae, Khmer, Toum, Ngouane, Meuang and Kri. 3) The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes seven ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor. 4) The Hmong-Loumien category has two main tribes: Hmong and Loumien (Yao).These multi-ethnic people are scattered across the country each with their own unique traditions, culture and language.

The ethnic groups found in Laos are incredibly diverse and for the most part little studied by anthropologists. They include the Khmou (11 percent of the population); Hmong (or Meo, or Miao, 8 percent), Mon-Khmer people (5.4 percent of the population), Sui including Alak (3.2 percent) and other ethnic groups such as the Yao, Thau Dam, Akha and Loven (17 percent). Lao people make up about 55 percent of the population of Laos.

See Minorities


The Lao are a lowlands people who speak the Lao language and live in Laos and parts of northeast Thailand. Also known as the Lao Loum, Lao Meui, Lao Neua, Lao Phuan and Lao Yuan, they are predominately Buddhists but also respect animist spirits. Physically the resemble Thais: slight with light-brown skin and dark hair.

The Lao live primarily in the valleys of the Mekong River and its lower tributaries, at elevations below 1,000 meters. Northeast Thailand is the home of more Lao than are found in Laos. The Thai Lao are called Lao Isan after the Thai name for the region.

The Lao are members of the Thai-Kadai and Austro-Thai peoples. They have traditionally cultivated wet land rice and converted from animism to Theravada Buddhism in the middle of the A.D. 1st millennium. The distinction between Lao and Thai is a fairly recent invention and is still is kind of fuzzy. About 80 percent of ethnic Lao live in northeast Thailand and many Lao living in Laos have Thai is their name (the Thai Luang Prabang from Luang Prabang, the Thai Pakse from Pakse, the Thai Tai from southern Laos and the Thai Neua from northern Laos)

Lao Isan (Tha-Lao)—Lao People in Northeast Thailand

The Tai-speaking peoples of Northeast Thailand and the Khorat Plateau are known as the Thai-Lao, Isan, Issan, Lao Isan or Northeastern Thai. Essentially Laotians of Thai origin, they speak Isan, which is extremely close to the standard language of Laos, located across the Mekong River from Northeast Thailand. The northeastern region is also called Isan in the Thai language and sometimes spelled Isaan.

According to Lonely Planet the 19 northeast provinces that make up Isaan are Thailand’s forgotten backyard. The guidebook states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.” Padung told the Star that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region. “And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said. The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields. The region is also know for the ghost masks from the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments. [Ibid]

Poverty in Northeast Thailand

The Northeast is the most populated and poorest of Thailand’s four regions. It is home to a third of Thailand’s 67 million people. The culture and language are strongly influenced by their Khmer and Lao counterparts, Most of its people are Isan (Lao) speakers. The Isan have their own styles of music and are regarded as the best silk weavers in Thailands. Many are subsistence farmers or poor workers for sugar growers, who are either heavily in debt or barely get by. Many have been forced into debt by corrupt village headman, working in cahoots with wealthy landowners, using unscrupulous methods.

About 80 percent of Isaan people farmers or farm workers. Many are employed by sugar cane barons and motorbike is regarded as a symbol of wealth. Incomes, education levels and health standards are lower than elsewhere in the country. Thais from outside the region tend to regard those from the Northeast as slow, backward and ignorant. It has traditionally been ignored by national-level politics. Many of the migrants to Bangkok are Northeasterners who have come there in search of opportunities. With wages in Bangkok being 12 times higher than those in the Northeast it is no surprise that one out of every six Thais works there is from the Northeast. Many are young people, both men and women that engage in menial or physical labor-related jobs and send money back home. “Most Isaan people have very little education, so they get the dirty jobs (housemaid and construction work) that no one else wants to do. They’ve become the driving force that keeps things moving,” the Isan cartoonist Padung Kraisri told The Star.

Philip Golingai wrote in The Star, “The people's poverty is also compounded by a high birth rate. And their plight gets more difficult with each generation, as a family owns only one or two rai (1,600 sq m) of rice field to distribute among numerous children, explained Padung. So, like Noo Hin, when the children get older they have to migrate to bigger towns, especially Bangkok, to earn money. And in general, Bangkokians have a negative perception of northeasterners such as most bargirls are from Isaan. [Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, March 24, 2007]

Children were discovered in the Northeastern village of Baan Bor that subsisted almost entirely on two types of dirt: baked clay and in luang, soft layers of earth that are produced by termite-infested wood. There are also stories about families in the Northeast who are proud their daughters working as prostitutes in Bangkok because of material possessions such as televisions, DVD players and refrigerators, plus new concrete houses, that there money has allowed them to buy.

History of Northeast Thailand

The Northeast has long history. Farming has been practiced for around 5,000 years. The world’s first Bronze Age culture was found here. The region is freckled with ancient burial grounds, tanks and weirs. In the A.D. first millennium powerful civilizations with advanced irrigation methods occupied the area but were gone by the early second millennium, when it was dominated by the Angkor-based Khmers. In the 14th century it was part of a Lao kingdom, which partly explains why so many Lao live here now, and was fought over by Lao and Thai dynasties. By the 19th century much of what is now Laos was a Siamese tributary state. The Siamese ceded that area to the France in 1862.

The Thai government began a program of assimilation in the early 1900s that downplayed the region's distinct identity in schools and government administration. Music became a way for northeasterners to assert this identity. Until the mid-20th century, the Isan people felt they belonged to the Lao ethnic group. Isan writer Kamsingh Srinok told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "We have been looked down upon and controlled by the central government throughout our history."

In the 20th century people from the northeast were involved in uprisings against the central government . Some were “men of merit” rebellions led political-religious leaders who claimed they had magical powers. Ho Chi Minh lived in Khorat and Udon Thani in the late 1920s and a number of Indochinese Communist Party leaders fled to Isan from laos in the 1940s giving a boost to Communist Party of Thailand . In the 1960s, Communists who fought against the Thai government had a lot of support here. The northeast also has a long tradition of gangsters and thugs enforcing the will of corrupt politicians an businessmen. At the same, the northeast is also known for its meditation centers for monks.

The Northeast's economy started to improve somewhat in the 1970s because of irrigation and energy projects, such as the construction of the Khuan Ubon Ratana (Nam Phong Dam). Moreover, because the Northeast was the location of several United States military bases during the Second Indochina War (1954-75), the region had one of the best transportation systems in Asia, which facilitated internal migration as well as communication with Bangkok. Historically, this area relied heavily on border trade with Laos and Cambodia; in 1987 the Thai government permitted increased Laotian border commerce and lifted a ban on the export of all but 61 of 273 "strategic" items previously barred from leaving Thailand. Also, traditional handicrafts, e.g., silk weavings and mats, increasingly were being sold outside the region to produce extra income. Still, approximately 82 percent of the region's labor force was involved in agriculture.

Things in Isan changed even more dramatically in 2001, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power. Tetsuya Tsuruhara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Thaksin launched unprecedented measures to aid the poverty-stricken Isan people, including the introduction of an inexpensive medical service system that requires patients to pay only 30 baht (about 92 cents), an easy-to-borrow system of agricultural funds and promotion of a "one village, one product" campaign. Thaksin declared in 2004 that an Isan household with a monthly income of 3,000 to 4,000 baht would see its income increase to 10,000 baht within five years. These initiatives were motivated by populist politics to gather votes with minimal fiscal outlay. But the Isan people found "hope" instead of "fate [in the face of poverty]." One leading intellectual was shocked when a farmer he met in Isan said, "I revere Thaksin more than [Thai] King Bhumibol [Adulyadej]. Thaksin gave us money." [Source: Tetsuya Tsuruhara, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 6, 2007]

Northeasterners also formed the core of the Red Shirt movement that were behind violent protests in Bangkok in 2010. Dustin Roasa wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When red-shirt activists began pouring into Bangkok in the spring of 2010 to demonstrate against the government of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, they defiantly blasted luk thung and mor lam from massive speakers.The leaders also held massive fundraising concerts that poured money into the movement. "During these concerts, red shirt leaders would sing old songs but would change the lyrics to be political," said James Mitchell, a researcher at Macquarie University in Australia who studies Thai popular music. Isan identity and the red-shirt movement are now nearly indistinguishable, Mitchell said. But as a wave of cultural pride and political consciousness has swept the northeast, resentment toward the red-shirt movement has grown in Bangkok in the wake of the death and destruction caused by the riots. [Source:Dustin Roasa, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2012]

Luk Thung and Mor Lam Music

Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. It has traditionally been regarded as rural, peasant music while “luk grung” has traditionally been regarded as urban, rich people music. Luk thung means “child of the field.” It is often the music you hear blaring from tinny speakers in taxis in Thailand. It recent years luk thung has been embraced by a wide audience and is particularly popular among the middle class. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

Luk thung features thumping drums and pulsating organ riffs. It developed in the 1940s as a fusion of “pleng chiwat” (“songs of life”) folk music, Hollywood and Broadway show music, and Malay pop music and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Over the years luk thung has been influenced by mambo and Latin music, yodeling-style American country-western, Japanese enka, and electronic music.

Early luk thung celebrated romantic love in a rural setting and focused on the lives of ordinary country people and their poverty and hard lives. The lyrics often tell the hard-luck stories of peasant farmers, prostitutes, truck drivers, railway workers, day laborers and street vendors. The words and singing style in luk thung are often very sexually suggestive.

Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's northeastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen, also known as khene.

Mor Lam develop out of all-night festival music that features singing battles between men and women. Similar to music from Laos, it played by small groups of musicians singing and playing the “khaen” (bambo mouth organ), “chin” (temple-style bells) and “phin” (2-4 string guitar). Popular mor lam artists include Banyen Rakgan, Jintara Poonlarp and Chalerphol Malaikahm.

Tai peoples

Tai peoples refers to the population of descendants of speakers of a common Proto-Tai language, including sub-populations which no longer speak a Tai language. Today, Tai peoples live in many countries, leading to different names for them. In China, Tai peoples (excluding Rauz peoples) are called Dai people, and in Burma they're similarly given the name Shan people, in Vietnam Tay, and Laos Lao, and Thailand Thai people. Some 8 million to 10 million people in Northeastern India (mostly in but not limited to Assam) claim descent from Ahomese, but may have intermarried with others and now speak Assamese. Additional tens of thousands in India speak Tai languages (mostly in Arunachal Pradesh). Aside from India, where language has eroded, Tai peoples can generally be identified through their language. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In a paper published in 2004, Linguist Laurent Sagart hypothesized that the proto-Tai–Kadai language originated as an Austronesian languages that migrants carried from Taiwan to mainland China. Afterwards, the language was then heavily influenced by local languages from Sino-Tibetan, Hmong–Mien, or other families, borrowing much vocabulary and converging typologically. Much closer to the present, some peoples speaking Tai languages migrated southward over the mountains into Southeast Asia, perhaps prompted by the coming of the Han Chinese to south China. +

Linguistic heritage is not synonymous with genetic heritage, because of language shift where populations learn new languages. Tai people tend to have very high frequencies of Y-DNA haplogroup O2a with moderate frequencies of Y-DNA haplogroups O2a1 and O1. However, it is believed that the O1 Y-DNA haplogroup is associated with both the Austronesian people and the Tai. The prevalence of Y-DNA haplogroup O1 among Austronesian and Tai peoples also suggests a common ancestry with speakers of the Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, and Hmong–Mien languages some 30,000 years ago in China. Y-DNA haplogroup O2a is found at high frequency among most Tai peoples, which is a trait that they share with the neighboring ethnic Austroasiatic peoples of Yunnan in southern China. Y-DNA haplogroups O1 and O2a are subclades of O Y-DNA haplogroup, which itself is a subclade of Y-DNA haplogroup K, a genetic mutation that is believed to have originated 40,000 years ago, somewhere between Iran and Central China. +

Recent studies suggest that while modern speakers of Tai languages are largely genetic descendants of the progenitor of the O2a haplogroup, the Proto-Tai language (along with the Proto-Austronesian language) may be distantly related to the Ongan languages of the Andaman Islands, and together with Austronesian and Ongan languages, the Tai-Kadai languages may be a relic of the language(s) spoken by descendants of the progenitor of Y-DNA haplogroup D (Blevins 2007). +

See History, Thailand, Tai-Kadai language.

Population of Laos

Population: 6,695,166 (July 2013 est.), country comparison to the world: 102. Laos is the least populated country in Southeast Asia. With 8.5 million people, Ho Chi Minh City alone in Vietnam has more people than Laos. The population in the southern Laos is relatively sparse, whilst the upper regions claim 80 percent of the inhabitants. Around two thirds of the population live in rural and mountainous areas relying on subsistence rice farming. fishing and natural resources. 99.6 percent of the Laos population holds Lao citizenship, 0.2 percent is Vietnamese and the rest are other citizens (2005 Census).

Laos has a very young population, with a median age of 21.6 years (male: 21.4 years; female: 21.9 years. 2013 est.). Age structure: 0-14 years: 35.5 percent (male 1,198,288/female 1,178,180); 15-24 years: 21.3 percent (male 706,679/female 716,368); 25-54 years: 34.6 percent (male 1,143,265/female 1,174,102); 55-64 years: 4.9 percent (male 160,650/female 166,605); 65 years and over: 3.7 percent (male 113,301/female 137,728) (2013 est.). Median age: total: [Source: CIA World Factbook ++]

The first comprehensive national population census of Laos was taken in 1985; it recorded a population of 3.57 million. Annual population growth was estimated at between 2.6 and 3.0 percent, and the 1991 population was estimated at 4.25 million. The national crude birth rate was estimated at about forty-five per 1,000, while the crude death rate was about sixteen per 1,000. The overall population density was only eighteen persons per square kilometer, and in many districts, the density was fewer than ten persons per square kilometer. Population density per cultivated hectare was considerably higher, however, ranging from 3.3 to 7.8 persons per hectare. [Source: Library of Congress]

Population Density of Laos

The population density of Laos is very low: about 27 people per square kilometer, compared with 253 persons per square kilometer in Viet Nam, 122 in Thailand and 78 in Cambodia. Laos’s 6.7 million are spread over an area of 236,800square kilometer and has a population of 6.52 million. The most densely populated area is Vientiane capital which is around 153 people per square kilometer and all the other provinces have below 40 people per square kilometer. Among the least densely populated provinces (less than 10 people per square kilometer) are Xaysomboun, Sekong, Attapeu and Phongsaly. Savannakhet province has the largest population, but is not the most densely populated because the province is large. Although the average population density has increased from 22 people per square kilometer in 2001 (UN NHDR), it is still the lowest in Southeast Asia.

The Laos population is dispersed unevenly through out the country. More than half of the country’s population lives in the tropical lowland and floodplain along the Mekong River and its tributaries, including the plains of Vientiane, Borikhamxay, Khammouan, Savannakhet, Champasack, Saravane, and Attapeu Provinces.

Population Growth, Fertility and Birth Control in Laos

Population growth rate: 1.63 percent (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 74; Birth rate: 25.23 births/1,000 population (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 57; Death rate: 7.86 deaths/1,000 population (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 107; Net migration rate: -1.12 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 148. [Source: CIA World Factbook ++]

Sex ratio: at birth: 1.04 male(s)/female; 0-14 years: 1.02 male(s)/female; 15-24 years: 0.99 male(s)/female; 25-54 years: 0.98 male(s)/female; 55-64 years: 0.96 male(s)/female; 65 years and over: 0.82 male(s)/female; total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2013 est.) ++

Total fertility rate: 2.98 children born/woman (2013 est.); country comparison to the world: 60. The total fertility rate in the Laos is one of the highest in South East Asia, on average 3.5 children per woman (2005-2010). In rural areas the total fertility rate has been close to 5 and in urban areas it’s around 3 children per woman, but this has recently begun to decrease.

Birth control techniques were not generally available to the population before the late 1980s, although there was limited use of oral contraceptives from the late 1960s through 1975. The government took a pronatalist stance, believing that the country was underpopulated. In the 1990s fertility rates were consistently high from ages twenty through forty, reflecting a lack of contraceptive use. Each woman bore an average of 6.8 children.

Couples and individuals had the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, and had the information and means to do so free from discrimination. Access to information on contraception was generally available; however, contraception was not widely available in rural areas and was often financially out of reach. The UN Population Fund estimated the maternal mortality ratio to be 660 deaths per 100,000 live births. Deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth were the number one cause of death for women of reproductive age. Very few women had access to skilled birth attendants and very few medical centers were equipped to deal with complicated births, especially in small, nomadic, and ethnic villages. Antenatal care remained low. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011]

Because high fertility and poor nutrition contributed to the poor health of women and high infant and child mortality, the Federation of Women's Union since the late 1980s has advocated a policy of birth spacing to improve the health of women and their children. Official prohibitions on contraceptive technology were relaxed, but use of contraception was still low as of mid-1994 and virtually nonexistent in villages distant from provincial capitals or the Thai border. Regional differences in birth rates as of late 1988 — forty per 1,000 in Vientiane and Bolikhamxai provinces versus forty-eight per 1,000 in other provinces — reflected uneven access to contraception. [Source: Library of Congress]

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, 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.

Last updated May 2014

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