Laos has a rich diversity of cultures, lifestyles and arts.  The country’s 17 provinces stretch 1,162 kilometres from the north to the south, with 6.8 million inhabitants representing 49 officially recognised ethnic groups in four main language families.  The majority Tai Lao people, from where the country gets it name, only make up about 53% of the population.  Almost half the population comprises numerous ethnic minority groups.

These different ethnic groups have different customs, religions and lifestyles.  For example, the Tai Lao traditionally lived in wood houses on stilts along riverbanks, practicing a blend of Buddhism and spirit worship, and farming paddy rice fields. However, the Hmong traditionally lived in wood houses with thatched roofs on the ground, practicing spirit and ancestor worship, and planting dry upland rice.

Even with the many differences between the ethnic groups, trade and interaction between communities has always been common.  For example, the Kmhmu have often lived close to Tai Lue communities, bartering their basketry and metal tools for cloth.

The 50 ethnic groups practice a variety of traditional arts, including silk and cotton weaving, dyeing, embroidery, applique, basket weaving, carving and music.  One of the best ways to appreciate Laos’ cultural diversity is to observe these handicrafts and arts.


Visit the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang to explore the diverse ethnic cultures through exhibitions, events, and craft workshops.


The Akha migrated from China into Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam within the past 200 years.  They still inhabit only the far north of Laos, primarily Phongsaly and Luang Namtha provinces.  The Akha is a name given to a group of many different sub-groups and clans, which have maintained a strong identity and lifestyle.  In the past they were known as the Ko or Iko, but this name is now considered impolite.  Traditionally living in more upland areas, some Akha communities can be very remote.

Akha villages can be easily recognized by their village gates and large village swings.  The gate is considered a marker between the human and spirit worlds, and is believed to protect the village from outlaws, wild animals and disease.  Visitors should never touch it.  The village swing is used during the harvest festival in August or September, a time of fun and celebration.

Akha women are famous for their silver headdresses of different shapes and designs, depending on the Akha group.  The Akha Djepia wear a cone-shaped headdress, while the Akha Pouly headdress is more rounded, with a flat disc at the back.  The Akha also wear indigo-dyed cotton clothing, decorated with embroidery, applique-work and beads.

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The Brao are a people living in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Many now living in Laos moved here from Vietnam during the war.

As in the past, the Brao are primarily an agricultural society. Their villages are built along the roads that traverse the eastern side of Attapeu Province. Behind the houses, extensive farm land is cultivated, and some of the Brao traditions are still practiced there.

The Brao believe in spirits that inhabit the land around them. The Forest Spirit and Mountain and River Spirit are invoked for protection and good harvests. At ceremonies such as Paman and Kamao, animal sacrifices are made for the spirits and food is shared with everyone in the village. At these times, music is played and songs are sung.


Hmong began migrating from the central and southern part of China into Laos in 19th century, and inhabit the northern and central parts of Laos. They have their own spoken and written language, and are also the third largest ethnic group in Laos, about 8% of the population.

Hmong are a proud ethnic group, maintaining their culture and traditions. Hmong people cannot marry within their clan or the same family name.  This means that men and women often have to find a spouse from outside of their village. Traditionally after marriage, a woman will follow her husband and cut relations with her parents.

Hmong celebrate their New Year, called Nor Pe Chao, in December or January, following the lunar calendar.   Celebrations take about 10 days. There are many activities during this event, such as top-spinning games, arrow shooting contests, singing and dancing, and courtship games.  Young men and women will wear colourful traditional clothing, in the hopes of attracting a life partner.

Hmong women are well known for their embroidery skills and batik cloth textiles.  In Hmong batik, hemp cloth is painted with beeswax, then dyed with indigo.  The beeswax is then boiled off revealing a pattern in white.  This cloth would be used to make skirts of the Mong Njua sub-group.  Each group has their own traditional costume. Nowadays, the traditional clothing is worn only on special occasions like wedding ceremonies and New Year.


The Katu are swidden cultivators and skilled hunters living in the Annam Mountains in southern Laos and central Vietnam. The total population, which amounts to approximately 300,000 peoples, is roughly evenly divided between the two countries.

Due to their remote and inaccessible habitat, the Katu have kept many of their cultural traditions. They believe in nature spirits, and they also have a concept of a powerful (female) Creator Spirit inhabiting the Sky.  Katu communities feature a community house (rong) that symbolizes the unity and identity of the village and the guardian spirit of the village.

However, these rich cultural practices and rituals of the Katu are not widely known, and as a people practicing a more traditional, subsistence agricultural life, are generally depicted as being very poor and even primitive.  Contributing to that assumption is that the largest numbers of Katu live in Xekong province, Laos’ newest and poorest province.

Katu women weave textiles on a backstrap loom – an ancient technique for creating cloth.  Cloth is often decorated with beads, and will be sewn into simple skirts and tunics for wear.


The Lanten are the indigo masters of Laos; in fact their name Lanten means ‘those that dye cloth’ in Chinese. They migrated from China around one hundred years ago. There are only eleven Lanten villages in Laos. With a population of around 6,500, they are one of the smallest of all the ethnic groups in the country.

Their handicraft is characterized by finely spun and tightly woven organic cotton, expertly dyed with indigo. The Lanten traditional dress features dark blue almost black trousers and long tunics. This outfit is highly distinctive and is accented by long pink silk yarns that drape from the collar.

Credit: Ock Pop Tok – Discover Laos through Textiles

Tai Lao

The Lao are the majority ethnic group in Laos, comprising about 55% of the population, and from where the country derives its name.  They Lao primarily live in lowland areas and along riverbanks, farming paddy rice.  They eat sticky rice (khao niaow) which is distinctive to the country.  The Lao language is the official language of Lao PDR.

The Lao practice Theravada Buddhism and combine it with animism, a strong belief in spirits.  A common ceremony is the baci ceremony, led by a village elder, to bestow blessings on a person or people.  Another name for this ceremony, soukhwan, means “calling of the souls” referencing the belief that people are made of 32 spirits or vital forces, that must be gathered for optimum health and harmony.  Every Lao village has a temple, which acts as the centre of education, accommodation, meetings, and religious rituals. Traditionally, every man of 12 years or older has to enter a monkhood at a temple for a period of time.

Traditional Lao homes are built 2.5m to 3m above the ground with a big balcony where people can rest or meet visitors. Underneath the houses, families usually set up a loom, or keep farming equipment or livestock.

Tai Lao are well known for their skilled silk and cotton weaving, which can be seen in markets and the traditional clothing worn by locals.  The women wear a tube skirt called a sin and a blouse with a shoulder scarf, and traditionally men would wear a sarong and jacket.  However, western clothing is the norm for everyday wear nowadays.

Yao Mien

The Yao Mien have roots in China, and migrated from Hunan province to northern Vietnam, Thailand, and northern Laos starting in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The Yao Mien also have a large diaspora overseas, particularly in the United States.  The Yao Mien are also known as the Iu Mien, Mien, or Yao.

The Mien practice Taoism, a philosophy and religion they adopted in China and brought with them when they migrated southward.  Traditionally, all men should be ordained as a Taoist priest to be recognized as part of his family’s ancestors and by the spirits.  This would require learning the Chinese script, the basic tenets of Taoism, and undergoing an intensive three-day, three-night ceremony.

Yao Mien women are expert embroiderers, spending many hours from the time they are young to learn the three different stitching techniques and create colourful and complex combinations of motifs.  The Mien say that a woman’s abilities as a wife and mother can be judged by her embroidery – a dexterous, patient embroider will make a hardworking, dedicated woman.  Mien women wear trousers full of this embroidery, and a black jacket with a red ruff around the collar.

Read the personal account of a visit to a Yao community and the good news story of the crippled boy who has become an international success story – here.

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