Laos is an astonishingly diverse country. The Lao Front for National Construction recent revised their list of ethnic groups living within the country’s border. There are 160 ethnic groups consisting of 49 completely different ethnicities in this beautiful Southeast Asia country. There speak an incredible 82 distinct different languages. They are grouped into main categories. The Mon’Khmer for example have 45 ethnic groups under their umbrella. Some like the Phong and the Makong have numbers so small that the exact population is not known. Whereas others like Katang have numbers exceeding 100,000.
The Palaungic group consists of just four ethnicities: the Bit, population 1500, Con 1,000, Samtao 2350 and the Lamet 16,700. That all these groups throughout the country live in each other’s shadow without serious conflict is a remarkable testament to the peaceful nature of these friendly people.
By far the largest group is the ethnic Lao, these live mainly on the north of The Mekong on the plains and valleys. Lao is a distinct ethnic group, whereas when people speak of Laotian people, they are referring to citizens of the country, regardless of ethnicity.
All this diversity of course gives rise to much cultural changes as one moves through the country. Different groups wear slightly different traditional dress. The food is certainly varied and delicious. Whilst some dishes are popular throughout the country, others remain within specific areas. Meals observe strict codes of etiquette. The are two important concepts about this. “Piep” and “Lieng”. Piep is prestige and lieng means nourishment. At a family dinner the first mouthfuls are taken by the father and the mother, then the children in descending age order. After the first mouthfuls are eaten it then is more open, thought strict rules still apply. No-one takes from a plate at the same time as anyone else and no-one should go before a person of higher rank. That would cause them to lose piep.
Food as in many other countries is inextricably linked to religion. The Laotian people are Buddhists in the main. When ever a formal dinner, or Baci, is prepared it is done so with certain principal symbolic foods. Eggs are always included as is rice. The meal will have Buddhist or spirit worship at its heart. The center piece will be a tree made from banana leaves. The dinner will be presided over by either a monk or a “magic-man” who says prayers in keeping with the occasion, a wedding, a birthday or some other important event. The guest of honor will have the first portion of food placed in his hand and cotton strings will be tied around his wrist, first by the monk or magic-man and then by other guests in turn who intone their own special prayers. The strings are kept on, for three days minimum, though in some cases a lot longer.
These kind of adherences to ritual go on all over the country. The may vary, but in many ways they always are of a similar nature. Travelers coming to Laos for the first time will observe these practises, especially in the mountainous areas.