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.
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.
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.
Most lowland Lao and some midland groups practice Theravada Buddhism, but also believe in spirits of places or of deceased persons. Upland and most midland ethnic groups are animist, with religious practices oriented toward protective or guardian spirits commonly associated with places or with a family or clan. Shamans or other spirit practitioners are recognized and respected for their divinatory and healing powers among most ethnic groups, whether Buddhist or not.
Education and social services remain rudimentary at best but are improving. In lowland villages traditional education was provided to boys and young men through the Buddhist temples. Although this practice continues in some areas, in general it has been supplanted by a national education system which, unfortunately, is hampered by limited financial resources and a lack of trained teachers. Western medical care is seldom available outside provincial or a few district centers and even then is very limited. Child and infant mortality is high, and life expectancy is the lowest in Southeast Asia; the population, however, is increasing at a rapid rate. Since the end of World War II significant differences in education, health, and demographic conditions have prevailed among the ethnic groups and between rural and urban populations.
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