Lao Theung

The Lao Theung comprise about 20 percent to 24 percent of the population of Laos and generally live at elevations from 300 to 1,200 meters. Also known as the Khmu, Khama, Kmhmu, Khamu, Kho, Mu, Kammu, Kha, Kha and Chem Xa Ca. They are regarded as Laos’s largest minority. Around 30,000 live in Thailand, 3,000 live in China and 2,000 live in Vietnam. They are sometimes called the derogatory term “khaa”, which means “slave” or “servant,” and is reference to historical times when they sometimes served as indentured servants to other ethnic groups and still work as laborers for the Lao Sung.

Lao Theung (the midland and highland Lao)are generally regarded as the poorest of the main groups in Laos. Much of their economic life with other Lao groups still involves barter and some groups — namely the Khmu, Htin and Lamet — rely on wood, bamboo and stone tools rather than metal ones. The Lao Theung have traditionally lived in tropical rain forest and slash and burn farm land at low elevations of mountains along the Mekong and some oft tributaries. They are very similar to the Lao and Thai, who in some cases are regarded as older brothers. They have also absorbed members of smaller minorities.

The Lao Theung speak their own Mon-Khmer language in the Austroasiatic family as well as the language or languages of the people they live around. Although some Lao Theung languages are closely related, such as Khmu, Lamet, and Sam Tao, others are mutually incomprehensible. None of the languages has developed a written script.

Lao Theung Groups

Lao Theung consist of at least thirty-seven different ethnic groups ranging in population from 700,000 in Laos— the Khmu — to fewer than 100 — the Numbri. Many of the groups have additional members in Thailand or Vietnam. Lao Theung subgroups include the Khmu (the largest group), followed by the Htin (Lawa), Lamet and smaller numbers of Laven, Katu, Katang, Alak and mother Mon-Khmer groups in the south.

Of the three main ethnic classifications, the differences among the Lao Theung groups are greater than among the Lao Loum or Lao Sung. Little is known about many of these groups, and reasonably complete ethnographic accounts are available only for a few. Most Lao Theung groups reside in a relatively limited geographic area; for example, the Nyaheun, Sedang, and Lavae mostly live in the far southern provinces of Attapu and Saravan (Salavan), whereas the Lamet reside near the border between Bokeo, Oudômxai, and Louang Namtha provinces.The Khmu live scattered throughout the north, from Xiangkhoang to Bokeo. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Htin live principally n the Sainyabuli Province. They are primarily substance farmers who also hunt game and raise domestic animals. They have a taboo about using metal and ths they are very adept at using grass to make a wide assortment of material and tools. They are known for making baskets and mates with intricate geometric patterns made from black grass woven into bamboo stin stris of bamboo.


The Khmu are the largest Lao Theung Group. They form the biggest ethnic group in Oudomxay province. They are considered as the 'guardians of the land' and have settled in all Northern provinces of Laos. Living in the mountains, dry-rice cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques characterize their traditional economic system.

There are around 800,000 Khmu, with 708,412 in Laos (2015), 90,612 in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand and 7,000 in China. There are also some in the United States, France, and Canada. and a few other countries. Most of those in the United States arrived after 1975. The Khmu are also known as Kammu, Khamu, Kmhmu, Kho' Mu, Khmu', Lao Theung; also Kha, Kha Che, Xa Cau, which are pejorative [Source: Wikipedia; Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

The Provincial Tourism Department (PTD) gives tourists the opportunity to visit Khmu villages on trekking tours including home stay in the villages. With these tour programs the villages Ban Tanongpo, Ban Phavi and Ban Chom Ong are also part of the PTD’s development program.

History of the Lao Theung

The Lao Theung (Laotian of the mountain slopes) are indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos, arriving prior to the southwestward migrations of Tai-speaking peoples. They are believed to have founded Luang Prabang and dominated the regions until they were driven out by the Lao in the 13th century and now live primarily in Laos in border regions of Thailand, China and Vietnam. They have expanded within the last two centuries to bordering areas of Thailand, China, and Vietnam.

Lao Theung history has been marked by periods where the subjugated by Lao and Thai overlords, punctuated by period of rebellion. After World War II they were at the forefront of the Lao independence movement and made up the largest part of the Pathet Lao military forces.

The geographer Christian Taillard has suggested that the Lao Theung were originally paddy rice farmers displaced by Tai migrants into the hills and mountains and forced to turn to swidden rice production. However, Karl Gustav Izikowitz's ethnography of the Lamet reports that historically they had been swidden farmers and did not cultivate paddy rice even in areas where suitable land was available. Certainly within the last two centuries, all the Lao Theung have been characterized as swidden farmers and as semimigratory because they have occasionally relocated their villages as swidden areas were exhausted. The Khmu and Lamet, who are found in northern Laos, have different social organization and agricultural ecology than the ethnic groups in southern Laos. *

Lao Theung are socially, economically, and politically the most marginal group of the three ethnic classes. During the Second Indochina War, many Lao Theung supported the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front — LPF), the political party of the Pathet Lao — or actively fought with the Pathet Lao. Ethnic differences and resentments against lowland Lao dominance likely stimulated some of this support, as did effective Pathet Lao recruitment activities in the remote eastern areas populated principally by Lao Theung groups. During the years immediately after 1975, Lao Theung cadre gained numerous mid-level positions in the new government, but later many were replaced by lowland Lao with greater technical training and experience. Provincial and district officials are more likely to be Lao Theung in provinces with pronounced minority populations, and geographical isolation and poor education are still barriers to the integration of all Lao minorities in national affairs. The traditional subsistence swidden agricultural societies of the Lao Theung, which involved little trade with other groups, led to a marginal economic existence for many villages in the 1990s. Numerous individual Lao Theung have adopted lowland behavioral patterns and successfully pass as lowland Lao, but prejudicial attitudes attributed to many lowland Lao continue to affect social and economic opportunities for many Lao Theung villages. *

Lao Theung Spiritual Beliefs

Both Khmu and Lamet villages have a ritual leader (lkuun in Khmu, xemia in Lamet) who officiates at important spirit rituals that affect the entire village. This position is hereditary in the male line. Khmu and Lamet, as most Lao Theung, are animists and are respected by their lowland neighbors as being especially proficient in protecting against or propitiating spirits that may cause illness or accidents. Ancestral spirits are an important aspect of household religious and safety rituals, but above the grandparents' generation they are generalized, and the spirits of specific persons are not worshiped. Khmu and Lamet revere rather than fear the spirits of their ancestors, who protect the household and village against harm as long as they are respected and are offered sacrifices. Rituals are also performed at the start of any important undertaking, for example, at the beginning of rice planting or building a house. Taboos restrict certain activities; for example, Lamet cannot make or repair tools inside the family house but do this work in the communal men's house. *

Traditional religion is based on a belief in a pantheon spirits, call “hoori,”with 30 to 300 with in body of an individual and numerous others associated with rice. The mso 5hoori are associated with with watching over individual houses and villages. Many Lao Theung are Buddhists. Some are Christians.

There are special ceremonies to hire the spirits that an be performed by most anyone. A particularly important ritual — “suu khwan khao” — is an annual ceremony for rice. Shaman are called on mainly for healing rituals. Funerals features long narrative songs that to hep send the deceased to next world

Lao Theung Life

The Lao Theung have traditionally lived in mountain villages with 100 to 1,000 people. Most are located along a river or stream and are surrounded by rice paddies or slash-and-burn fields. As a rule, the large a village is the more prosperous it is. Some houses built on piles or stilt. Other have dirt floors and Hmong-style cross beams. The homes of the poor have bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Those with ore can afford metal roofs and wood walls and floors. In the old days a men’s house was situated at the center of the house. Now the chief’s house is usually located there,

The Lao Theung have traditionally been slash-and-burn rice farmers, In recent years they government has encouraged them to settle down and grow wet rice to prevent deforestation, erosion and degradation of the land. Among the other crops they grow are maize, beans, gourds, yams, squash, tar, chili peppers, eggplants and herbs. Pigs, water buffalo, goats, chicken and ducks are rased for meat. To earn money the did a little trading and produced a few simple products.

Lao Theung poetic songs have a complex structure and are often sung to the music of flutes, reed flutes, moth organs, Jew’s harp and bamboo percussion instruments. They also have a rich collection of myths, folk tales, horic stores and riddles. Bronze drum are prized possession and are used in important ceremonies.

Khmu village

Lao Theung Society

Lao Theung villages are not high stratified. Status is based more on merit than heredity. Elders, good singers and herbals specialist are accorded extra respect. Villages are led by headmen. Social control is exerted through gossip and disputes are settled through meetings of elders. Agricultural land is generally regarded as belonging to the village. The division is not strictly practiced. Men and women perform a lot of the same tasks. Before they are married young men send some time living in the men’s house of living away from the village.

Virtually all Lao Theung groups are patrilineal. Khmu and Lamet households average between six and seven persons but may be as large as twelve or fourteen persons. The ideal household consists of parents and children, wives of married sons, and grandchildren. Married sons eventually establish separate households, but a family might be temporarily augmented by a son- in-law who must live and work with the bride's parents for several years in partial payment of the bride-price. The Khmu and Lamet have eight and seven totemic clans, respectively, which provide a basis for social organization and the regulation of marriage. For the Lamet, the clans are exogamous, and each village contains at least two clans, thus providing the possibility of marriage exchanges. Khmu group the clans according to three categories — quadruped, bird, or plant — depending on the clan's totem. The totem is a plant or animal that was instrumental in either saving or killing the legendary clan ancestor. One must marry someone from another clan, and more particularly, men should marry real or classificatory mother's brothers' daughters. Each group of clans (for example, quadruped) always gives brides to one of the others (for example, bird) and receives brides from the third (for example, plants) in a circular relationship. Thus a village must have all three clan categories represented for marriage exchanges to proceed. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Lamet clans help in establishing relationships between persons both inside and outside a village. In the village, members of the same clan are likely to develop cooperative relationships in farming, and a man traveling outside his village might seek out fellow clan members when arriving in another village. For the Khmu, however, clan membership appears relevant only for facilitating interhousehold cooperation and for regulating marriage relationships within a village. Should a family move to another village, they may change their clan membership in order to fit into the three-group marriage exchange circle. *

Lao Theung Marriage and Genger Roles

Marriage choices are made by the groom and bride. Once a couple agrees to marry, their parents negotiate a bride-price. Among the Lamet, the bride's family also sends a dowry. Because there are few opportunities to acquire significant wealth in villages, Khmu and Lamet young men have frequently migrated to towns or to Thailand since the 1920s to work for several years until they acquire the funds needed for a bride-price. Among the Lamet, unmarried adolescent males sleep in the communal men's house, although they work with their families during the day. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Lao Theung

Polygyny traditionally has been allowed, but it is rare, because few men can afford a second wife. Whereas a Lamet man may marry two sisters, this practice is prohibited among the Khmu; a widow may marry her husband's brother in either culture. If he chooses not to marry her, however, the brother is still responsible for her support. Initial residence after marriage is usually patrilocal, but if the groom is unable to pay the full agreed-upon bride-price, he may be obligated to live and work in his in-laws's household for several years in lieu of the bride-price. Upon the parents' death, the sons divide items of value and, according to Damrong, rights to swidden fields and fallows. Material possessions are generally limited and include — not much more than livestock, farm and household equipment, or perhaps a few silver coins — used in traditional dress — or ingots. Wooden and bronze drums were important symbols of Lamet and Khmu household wealth in the past, but most appear to have been lost or sold during the Indochina wars. *

Gender role differentiation in both farming and household activities is considerably greater among the Lao Theung than among the Lao Loum. Men are primarily responsible for clearing and burning swidden fields, although women may assist in clearing the smaller brush. Men punch holes for seed and the women follow, dropping and covering the seed with topsoil. Both sexes weed the fields, but the women are primarily responsible for this time- consuming task. Harvest is a joint activity. In the house, women cook, care for children, husk rice, cut firewood, and haul water. Women also gather roots, shoots, and other wild vegetative products. Men weave baskets, repair farm tools, and hunt small game. Men are also more likely than women to manage household finances and engage in trade, typically selling livestock and collected forest products or scrap metal from the war in exchange for rice. Women may sell vegetables, chickens, or occasionally handicrafts locally but do not have the important market role of lowland Lao women. Where villages have access to primary schools, both boys and girls attend for a few years, but girls are much more likely to drop out before boys. *

Young people generally have a fair amount of freedom in choosing a marriage partners as log as they have approval form their parents and abide by customs regarded the kinship system. Adolescent girls can accept night time visits by suitors, who serenade them with a Jew’s harp. If they girl is receptive she answers back with a song from a flute, Premarital sex is accepted as long as doesn’t lead to pregnancy. Marriages are often negotiated by a go-between and require the groom’s family to pay a bride price. If they can’t come up with sum they groom may be required to indenture himself to his father-in-law as a bride service.

Lao Theung Villages and Houses

Most Lao Theung villages (based primarily on descriptions of the Khmu) are located on mountain slopes but not at the peaks or ridges — the name Lao Theung means roughly "the Lao up there." Since the 1950s, however, a growing number of villages have been established at lower elevations near rivers or roads, which occurred as roads were beginning to be rebuilt and expanded. Sometimes these villages were founded by people fleeing the war, and sometimes they arose out of a desire to be closer to transportation, markets, and social services. After 1975 many Hmong and some Khmu were driven out by the Pathet Lao and the Lao People's Army.

Lao Theung tribal home

Since the 1980s, the government has encouraged upland swidden farming minorities to relocate to lowland areas in order to reduce upland swidden farming and forest clearing. Khmu and Lamet villages, as well as those of some other midland groups, are relatively permanent, some remaining over fifty years in a location. Traditionally, villages managed the rotation of swidden fields in such a way as to sustain agricultural production over long periods. Individual households might move from a village to another location, or villages might merge with a second village being established a short distance away; however, the usual pattern was sedentary. Midland groups inhabiting central Laos generally have been more mobile, with villages relocated after a decade or so. However, it is not clear whether this is a long- standing pattern or a response to the unsettled conditions during the Second Indochina War. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Lao Theung villages are usually somewhat smaller than most Lao Loum villages, commonly ranging between twenty and thirty households, but sites with fifty households and 300 or more inhabitants have been reported. Houses in Lamet and Khmu villages are clustered without apparent organization or orientation, but individual sites are selected with the advice of a village spirit practitioner. Lamet villages are commonly divided into two segments by the men's common house located in the middle of the village, but a similar practice has not been recorded for the Khmu. Traditionally, in Khmu households, there is a separate common house for adolescent boys and strangers, but this practice has not been continued in many new settlements established after 1975. *

The houses are built on wooden or bamboo piles between one and two meters above the ground and are at least five by seven meters in size. Usually they are larger. Construction materials include woven bamboo or sawn lumber for floors and walls and grass thatch or bamboo shingle roofing. A kitchen hearth is located inside the house, and an open porch is built on at least one end of the house. A separate rice barn, also built on piles, may be located in the village near the house (Khmu) or on the edge of the village (Lamet). Villages are commonly built near a small stream to provide drinking and washing water, which is often diverted through a bamboo aqueduct to facilitate filling buckets and bathing. *

As in all villages in Laos, village governance is managed by an elected administrative committee consisting of a president and several other members in charge of economic affairs, self-defense, agriculture, and so on. Traditionally, the village has a chief who is the intermediary between the village and the national government. Important decisions are made by elders, who in the absence of a written script memorize agreements among village members. *

Lao Theung Farming and Hunting

Virtually all Lao Theung groups rely on swidden rice cultivation as the basis of their household economy. Lamet and Khmu prefer glutinous rice, but some other groups prefer to eat ordinary rice. A small field house is almost always built in the fields, and all or part of the family may sleep there for days during the farming season rather than walk back to the village every day. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Swidden rice seldom yields as much as paddy fields, and the labor needed to keep weeds under control is the major constraint to expanding the area farmed. Corn, cassava, and wild tubers are thus important components of the diet to supplement a frequently inadequate rice supply. As a consequence of low rice yields, Lao Theung are generally considered to be the poorest of the three ethnic groupings in Laos. Men often come to towns to work as coolies. *

In addition to farming, Lao Theung engage in hunting and gathering in the forests surrounding the village. Men shoot or trap small game and occasionally a wild pig or deer. Both women and men regularly collect bamboo and rattan sprouts, wild vegetables, mushrooms, tubers, and medicinal plants, the latter marketed by women. Fishing is common for some groups but seldom practiced by others, perhaps as a consequence of living in an upland environment distant from large streams. *

Damrong Tayanin, an anthropologist of Khmu origin, has described a pattern of land tenure for the Khmu in which households own a large number of separate fields that are farmed over a twelve- to fifteen-year rotation; other households recognize these ownership rights. The claimed fields are divided among the offspring of each generation. However, no other studies mention any Lao Theung group respecting permanent rights to swidden fields. In all cases, fields that are cleared and farmed are allowed to revert to fallow after a year or two. Depending on the population-to-land balance, these fields might be allowed to lie fallow for three to over fifteen years before being cleared again. After each harvest, individual households select the fields they will clear and farm the following year. Sometimes this choice is an individual decision, but sometimes a group of households cooperates to clear and fence a single large area, which is then divided. Or a village decides which area to clear and divide among all the families in the village. Once a field is abandoned, anyone may clear it and farm. Fallow periods shorter than five to seven years lead to gradual degeneration of the swidden system, however, because they do not allow adequate regrowth of vegetation to restore the soil fertility. *

Izikowitz reports a significant trade of surplus rice by the Lamet and Khmu to neighboring lowland Lao villages in exchange for salt and metal implements in the 1920s and 1930s but notes rice sales were declining because of competition from other producers. Since at least the 1970s, few Lao Theung produce any surplus rice. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, National Geographic, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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