Yao woman

Laotian hill tribes (Lao Soung) make up 15 percent of the population and generally live at elevations above 1,000 meters. For the most part they live in northern Laos and are the most recent arrivals in Laos. Many only arrived in the last hundred years. Tibeto-Burman groups such as the Lisu, Lahu, Llo. Akha and Phu Noi are sometimes classified as Lao Theung because they live at slightly lower elevations that other Lao Soung tribes. The Phuan are a tribal Thai group. Many are Christians.

Lao Sung (Laotian of the mountain top), include six ethnic groups of which the Hmong, Akha, and Mien (Yao) are the most numerous. As of 1993, the Hmong numbered over 200,000, with settlements throughout the uplands of northern Laos. About the same number of Hmong live in northern Vietnam, and approximately 90,000 live in Thailand; this number does not include the 30,000 Hmong that were living in Thai refugee camps at the end of 1992. Some 60,000 Akha reside for the most part in Louang Namtha, Phôngsali, and Bokeo provinces. The other upland groups are the Phu Noi, found in Phôngsali and northern Louangphrabang provinces, the Mien (in Bokeo and Louang Namtha provinces), and small populations (fewer than 10,000) of Lahu and Kui located in the far northwest. The 1985 census also classified the 6,500 Hô (Haw) — Chinese originally from Yunnan Province — with the Lao Sung. All these groups have significant populations outside Laos, and the bulk of the ethnographic information available is from studies conducted in neighboring countries. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The Lao Sung are the most recent migrants to Laos, having arrived from the north in a series of migrations beginning in the early nineteenth century. Hmong entered northwestern Vietnam from China prior to 1800, and early settlements in northeastern Laos were reported around the turn of the nineteenth century. Pioneering settlements gradually extended westward, crossing the Mekong around 1890 and reaching Tak in northern Thailand around 1930. Mien migrations, in contrast, seem to have come southeast through Burma and Thailand before reaching Laos. All Lao Sung settlements are located in the north, with only Hmong villages found as far south as Vientiane. *

Lao Sung typically live on mountain tops, upland ridges, or hillsides over 1,000 meters in elevation. The name means "the Lao up high." Most groups are considered to be semimigratory; villages are moved to new locations when swidden farming resources in the old locale have been exhausted. Yet some villages have continued for more than 100 years, with individual households moving in or out during this period. Although all Lao Sung traditionally live in the uplands and engage in swidden farming, their housing styles, diet, farming techniques, kinship systems, and social organization vary from one group to another. *

Hill tribes grow dry rice using slash and burn agricultural methods. The government has attempted to reduce deforestation by resettling some hill tribe members to lower elevations near water supplies. Many hill tribes are very dependent on food from the forests to supplement their diets. Many of the women spend their time weaving. There is a far amount of discrimination by the Laotians towards the hill tribes. Many of the insurgency movements in Laos have been run by ethnic rebels who want independence or more autonomy for their people. Lao Soung are often denied education opportunities.

Lao Sung Society


Village stratification is limited but based primarily on clan membership and wealth. Often the clan that founded a village dominates it, either because of numerical majority or because early settlement facilitated access to the better fields. A family's wealth derives primarily from work and good luck. The ability to produce enough rice, or even a little to sell, and a decent opium harvest depend on having enough workers in the family to clear and care for more extensive swidden fields than average. Livestock, particularly buffalo and cattle, are another important source of mobile wealth. This wealth, however, is subject to loss through disease, just as savings of silver, livestock, or cash can be lost almost overnight if the family experiences a serious illness that reduces the workforce at a critical time or that requires the sacrifice of chickens, pigs, or even a buffalo for curing rituals. Proceeds from sales of opium and livestock not immediately consumed are usually converted into silver bars or jewelry for safekeeping. [Source: Library of Congress]

In contrast to the Buddhist wat or the men's common house in Lao Loum, Kammu, and Lamet villages, there is no building or other central point in a Hmong village. Hmong cultural norms are more individualistic, and the household is more important than the village. Despite greater overall village permanence than in former times, individual households may come and go, usually in search of better opportunities but occasionally because of conflict with relatives or neighbors. The decline of migrating villages has been a gradual process since the 1940s. As opportunities for pioneering settlements have disappeared, households often relocate to be near other clan members or less-distant relatives. *

Village governance is usually in the hands of a president and administrative committee, but clan elders have important consultative or advisory roles in all decisions. Interhousehold cooperative relationships occur less often than among the Lao Loum and appear limited to labor exchanges for some farming tasks and assistance at house raisings. Most cooperation takes place among brothers or cousins, and it is primarily close kin who can be relied upon for assistance in the case of family hardship or emergency. Lacking any other resource, Hmong will look for help from any other member of the same clan. *

Lao Sung Agriculture, Trade and Economic Activity

Hmong and other Lao Sung groups have traditionally lived in villages distant from Lao Loum or Lao Theung settlements, although trade in rice, forest products, and other market goods has stimulated contact between the groups. As the population of both Lao Sung and Lao Loum groups increased after the war, Lao Sung expansion of swidden fields had an impact on the watersheds of Lao Loum rice paddies. Northern Lao Loum who cannot produce enough rice on limited paddy fields have also begun to clear swiddens in the middle elevations. For the most part, there has been no overt conflict, and trade and casual contact have continued, but long- standing ethnic prejudice continued to color interethnic relations in these regions of closer contact and competition for land in the early 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]


At the same time that roads in remote provinces were being improved and international trade opened in the late 1980s, the Thai government imposed a ban on logging and timber exports following extensive deforestation and catastrophic floods. Thai logging companies quickly turned to Laos as an alternate source of tropical hardwoods. This suddenly increased demand for tropical timber has stimulated additional competition for hitherto unvalued forestland and provoked increased criticism of upland swidden farming groups. Although traditional levels of swidden farming did not cause the same level of land and forest damage as have recent logging activities, government statements increasingly have attributed rapid deforestation to swidden clearing and have envisioned the abolition of all upland swidden cultivation soon after the year 2000. Thus, in the 1990s, there may be more pressure on arable land in the uplands than previously. However, other analysts have noted the great impact of legal and illegal logging, as well as the encroachment of lowland Lao farmers into the uplands since the end of the Second Indochina War. A continuing low-level insurgency against the government, substantially led by Hmong refugees who formerly fought for the RLG, is a further source of official mistrust directed at some Hmong and other minority groups. Government efforts to resettle Hmong and other swidden farming communities in lowland sites are motivated by security concerns — as was the case under the RLG in the 1960s and 1970s — and by competition for timber, but may lead to increased disaffection of the minorities affected. *


The Hmong are the largest hill tribe group in Laos. There are between 200,000 and 400,000 of them. They live mostly in northern and central Laos. There are four main subgroups in Laos: the White Hmong, Striped Hmong, Red Hmong and Black Hmong, defined by certain details on their clothing. In the early 1970s there were about 350,000 Hmong in Laos, roughly 10 percent of the population. Many left after the Vietnam War and their proportion of the general population is much smaller now. The Hmong that have remained in Laos have been denied education opportunities and discriminated against in other ways.

Hmong people are part of the Lao Soung, the "High Lao". They came to the area of now Lao PDR around 150 years ago after they lived several thousand years in the region of Southern China. Today, around 450,000 Hmongs are located in the mountainous areas of Northern Laos. They generate their income mainly through dry-rice cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques. Their traditional beliefs are strongly related to Animism and Shamanism. In Oudomxay they are the second biggest ethnic group after Khamu people.

The Hmong make up more than two-thirds of the Lao Sung. Hmong villages in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand have traditionally been found on mountain or ridge tops, with sites selected according to principles of geomancy. Before the 1970s, villages seldom consisted of more than twenty or thirty households. Hmong rely on swidden farming to produce rice, corn, and other crops, but tend to plant a field until the soil was exhausted, rather than only for a year or two before allowing it to lie fallow. Consequently, the fields farmed by a village would gradually become too distant for easy walking, and the village would relocate to another site. The new site might be nearby or might be many kilometers distant. [Source: Library of Congress]



The Akha are one of the smallest, poorest and least developed ethnic minorities hill tribe groups in Southeast Asia, but they are also among of the best known to tourists. Akha women are famous for their beautiful, elaborate and distinctive traditional costumes. The Akha called a hill tribe in Thailand. They have traditionally been a highland group dominated by lowland groups such as the Dai in China and the Lao in Laos.

The Akha have been classified by the Chinese government as part of the Hani, an official national minority in China. The Akha are closely related to the Hani, but consider themselves to be a distinct group and often resist being grouped with the Hani. In Thailand, they are classified as one of the six hill tribes found there. The Akha ethnic groups are made up of several ethnic sub-groups and other associated groups with clans and lineages. The different ethnic sub-groups within the main Akha group do not mix amongst villages and the languages differ considerably amongst them. Among the many ethnic sub -groups living in Laos are the Iko Mutchi, the Iko Eupa and the Iko Loma. [Source: Wikipedia]

Alak and Other Mon-Khmer Tribes

Mon-Khmer minorities found in southern Laos include Alak, Chieng, Inthi, Kaseng, Kate, Katu, Kien, Chali, Bru, Kaleing, Katang, Lavai, Laven, Nge, Nyaheun, Oung,Salao, Mangtong, Pako, Tahang. Ta-oy and Suay.

The Alak are an ethnic group that lives in the central uplands of southern Laos. There are only around 5,000 or so of them. The speak a Mon-Khmer language, embrace animist beliefs and practice slash-and-born agriculture. Some tattoo their faces. Animal sacrifices and predictions by village sorcerers are important. Another group in southern Laos calls themselves and their language Alak. They are a different group.

The Alak and Katu are perhaps the most famous of the Mon-Khmer ethnic groups. They live in palm-and-thatch houses arranged in a circle and known for their water buffalo sacrifices (usually performed on a full moon in March). Typically one to four buffalo are killed in a ritual that climax with advance by men with wooden masks who surround the animals and spear them to death. The meat is divided among the villagers and each household puts some meat in a basket, fastened t a pole, as an offering to the local guardian spirits.

Alak, Laven and Katu women have traditionally worn facial tattoos. The customs is discouraged by the Lao and is dying out. The Katu make wooden caskets long before they are needed and store beneath a rice shed until they are needed. The Suay practice animism and shamanism and are famous for their elephant handling skills. The Katang are famous for their weaving and 100-meter-long, 30 family longhouses.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Southern Laos

Chine-Tibetan language distribution

The Loven is a group with about 35,000 members that live on the Boloven Plateau area of southern Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao culture. Their traditional animist beliefs have largely been replaced by Buddhism. They have traditionally grown dry rice, maize, peppers and yams for food and potatoes and coffee as cash crops.

The Kasseng is a group of 7,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers that live on the Boloven plateau region in southern Laos. The Kattang consist of 13,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers and wet-rice cultivators that live on the Muong Nong area of southern Laos.

The Negh is a group with about 5,000 members that live on the Muong Phine-Bung Sai area of southern Laos. They speak a language in the Mon-Khmer group and have traditionally been wet rice cultivators. They live in enclosed villages with houses arranged in a circle, Some have long houses built on pilings.

The Oy is a group with about 15,000 members that live on the slopes of the Boloven Plateau in Attopeu southern Laos. Their traditional animist beliefs have largely been replaced by Buddhism and Catholicism. The Sou has about 1,000 or so members that live in Attopeu Province in southern Laos. They are probably almost totally absorbed into Lao society.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Northern Laos

The Mien (also called Lu Mien, Yao and Man) are the second largest hill tribe group in Laos. In China they are known as the Yao. There are maybe 30,000 to 50,000 of them and live mainly in the north. They speak a language similar to Hmong and have many other similarities. They are predominately animist and have traditionally cultivated opium. The Man or Mien in Laos are regarded as expert craftsmen and silversmiths. They place great importance on making offerings to spirits. They observe a highly ritualistic form of Taosim and have large altars in their homes often packed with tributes to family members and ancestors.

The P’u Noi is a group with about 40,000 members that live in the uplands of northern Laos. The are Buddhists who practice slash-and-burn agriculture and raise rice and vir, Each village has a headman and each group of villages has a leader.

The Sork or Sok is a group with about 2,000 or so members that live in Attopeu Province in southern Laos.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Laos and Vietnam

Hmong-Yao language distribution

The Katu is a group of 40,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers and cassava and maize cultivators that live along the Laos-Vietnam border, Katu means “savage,” a name given to them by outsiders. They share some of the unusual customs of the Toraja in South Sulawesi — -buffalo sacrifice, ritual masks and above-ground burial of the dead.

The Khua is a group with 5,000 members that lives in northern Vietnam and east-central Laos. The Pacoh is a group with 15,000 members that live in the highlands of Thien province in Vietnam and bordering Laos. The Duane live in central Vietnam and Laos. Little is known about them.

The Brao are an ethnic group that lives in mostly in Vietnam, with a small number in Laos. There were about 50,000 of them in 1985, with around 40,000 of the them in Vietnam. They are culturally similar to the Kao and some anthropologists feel they are best classified as a Kalo subgroup. The Tai (Ta Hoi) is a group with perhaps 40,000 members that live in Saravane Province in Laos and in bordering areas in Vietnam. They practice both slash-and-burn dry-rice agriculture and fish.

The Halang Doan is a group of about 2,000 slash-and-burn farmers that lives in Attopeu Province in Laos and Dac Lac Province in Vietnam. Many consider them to be a subgroup of the Jeh.

Jeh, See Vietnam

Ethnic Groups That Live in Laos and Thailand

The Yuan are a Tai-speaking group that dominates the Chiang Mai region of northern Thailand. There are about 6 million of them. There also a few thousand in Laos. Also known as the Lanatai, Lao and Youanne, Youon and Yun, they have traditionally had more in common with the Lao — -their northern Pali-language, their Buddhist customs, their script, their polite terms and temple architecture — -than the Thais.

The Yuan have largely been assimilated into Thai society but still maintain string connections with the Mekong regions and the Lao. The Yuan differ from the Lao of northeastern Thailand in that they tattoo their abdomens and their dialect is different.

The Sek Noi is a group with about 30,000 members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society. The So is a group with about 160,000 or so members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society.

The Kui is a group with about 100,000 members that lives in east-central Thailand, northeast Cambodia and Laos. They are closely related to the Chaobon, Chomg, Pear and similar groups and are believed to be have lived in the region before the Lao and Thais. They practice wet rice agriculture and have largely been assimilated by local groups.

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, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, 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 October 2022

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