Laotian literature is predominantly religious and linked to the Buddhist tradition. There is also a secular literary tradition based on themes of the Hindu epic poems, which have been transmuted into popular language.
Laotians have a variety of folk arts, including weaving, basketmaking, wood and ivory carving, and silverwork and goldwork. Professional dance troupes draw upon themes from the Indian epics.
Laos has four major ethno-linguistic groups. The Lao-Lum, or valley Lao, speak Laotian Tai and live in the lowlands and cities and along the Mekong River. The Lao-Lum comprise about two-thirds of the country’s total population. The Lao-Tai, or tribal Tai, include the Black Tai and Red Tai (so-called in reference to the colour of their women’s dress), who live throughout the country, especially at higher elevations. The Lao-Theung (Mon-Khmer) are thought to be descendants of the earliest populations of the region; they live throughout Laos and in neighbouring countries. The Lao-Soung group, including the Hmong (Meo, or Miao) and the Man (Yao), probably migrated from southern China to Laos in the late 18th century. Chinese and Vietnamese minorities generally live in the cities.
About three-fifths of the population adheres to Theravada Buddhism. Animism is practiced among the Lao-Theung, and a small percentage of the population is Christian. Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism are observed by Chinese and Vietnamese minorities. Lao is the official language; English, Vietnamese, and French are spoken by the elite in cities.
Since 1975 and the flight of about one-tenth of the total population into neighbouring Thailand, the government has been trying to expand Laos’s population. The birth rate has remained substantial; more than two-fifths of the total population is less than 15 years of age. The formerly high death rate decreased significantly in the 1980s.
About half the population lives in the lowlands and is engaged in rice cultivation. Only one-fifth of the population live in urban areas. The country’s four largest cities, including Louangphrabang (formerly the royal capital, Luang Prabang) and Vientiane (the nation’s largest city and chief commercial centre), are located on the Mekong River.
Rice is the basic item for all Lao meals, and almost all dishes are cooked with fresh ingredients such as vegetables, freshwater fish, poultry, duck, pork, beef or water buffalo. Lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander give the food its characteristic tang, and various fermented fish concoctions are used to salt the food. Hot chillies, garlic, mint, ground peanuts, tamarind juice, ginger and coconut milk are other seasonings. Dishes are often served with an accompanying plate of lettuce, mint, coriander, mung-bean sprouts, lime wedges or basil – diners then create their own lettuce-wrapped titbits.
Lao Festivals are usually linked to agricultural seasons or historical Buddhist holidays. The Lunar new year begins in mid-April and the entire country stops and celebrates. Houses are cleaned, offerings are made in wats and everyone gets dowsed by water. Bun Bang Fai (the rocket festival) takes place in May. It’s a great pre-Buddhist celebration with plenty of processions, music and dancing, accompanied by the firing of bamboo rockets to prompt the heavens to send rain. The week-long That Luang Festival in Vientiane in November has the whole repertoire of fireworks, music and parades.
Lao Cuisine – The Raw and the Cooked
Written By Grant Evans
Sitting down to the bowl of chopped raw meat, a chicken’s head, a salad made of free and shrub leaves, and sticky rice interspersed with rounds of fiery home-made rice whisky is not the normal traveller’s idea of a mouth-watering exotic meal.
But the occasional visitor to Laos is unlikely to experience such really distinctive Lao food. That is, the Lao taste for things raw rather than cooked. This preference tells you many things about Lao culture and society: for instance, the proximity of most Lao to the “wild” forest where food is still hunted or gathered. A deer shot in the mountains is carried back to the village where it is chopped up into many bowls for laap and the family’s neighbours and friends come and feast and drink. The whole deer is consumed immediately because there are no refrigerators in the villages to keep the meat fresh. Even in the ‘civilised’ cooked haute cuisine of Laos the presence of ingredients from the “wild” forest makes it different from Thai food.
For the travellers coming from Bangkok. the most immediate difference they will notice between Thai and Lao food is the use of sticky, or glutinous rice (klao niaw) at every meal. At a Lao meal it is usually served during the meal and each person takes a small handful of the rice which they knead into a ball and either dip it into one of the dishes of condiments or eat it plain. When Lao go off to work in the fields or elsewhere you will often see hanging at their side a small version of these round woven baskets in which they carry a supply of sticky rice and perhaps a small amount of fish or meat which will serve as a mid-day meal. Lao believe that most foreigners do not like to eat sticky rice and prefer ordinary rice (klao chao) so you may have to ask for it especially.
Along with klao niaw there is another essential ingredient in a Lao meal, and one which the Lao tend to use as an ethnic marker. This is pa daek, a highly pungent fermented fish sauce. On the back verandah of every Lao peasant’s house you will find an earthenware jar of pa daek. Books and tourist brochures are often likely to refer to Laos as the Land of a Million Elephants”, but ordinary Lao are more likely to call it the land of khao niaw and pa daek.
The second distinctive dish of the Lao is laap. It is made with fish, chicken, duck, pork, beef, buffalo or with game. The meat and innards are finely chopped and spiced with onion, chillies. and other herbs such as mint. The Lao prefer laap seua, or “Tiger laap”, that is raw chopped meat. But most often you will be served laap of cooked meat, especially in restaurants.
At other times you are likely to be offered a rice vermicelli, or klao poun. This is served cold with a variety of raw chopped vegetables, on which one pours coconut milk sauce flavoured with meat and chillies. It is a favourable dish at wedding and other celebrations, and a favourite with foreigners.
A lovely regional dish is the Or lam from Luang Prabang. This is about as close as the Lao get to something like European stew. Lemon grass, dried buffalo meat and skin, chillies and eggplant along with some pa daek are basic ingredients, but the really distinctive feature is the addition of crisp-fried pork skin and sweet basil.
Soup is also essential at any Lao meal, though one will not find the lovely seafood soups from which Thai cuisine is famous. Try keng no may, a bamboo shoot soup, or keng het bot made with mushrooms.
Interestingly, one of the most popular ordinary meals eaten by the Lao is a dish of Vietnamese origin, feu. This is an economical combination of vermicelli in hot soup filled with meatballs. It is served with a dish of vegetable leaves which you tear up and stir into your feu according to taste. A Lao will pour in a large helping of fish sauce, chilli sauce and sprinkle it with sugar. But all of this is according to personal taste. If you are on the road and stop at a wayside eatery, this is usually all that will be available.
There are many fish dishes in Laos, but one, unhappily, has disappeared from the table. Pa boek was an extremely large fish which could once be found in the Mekong river and was highly prized. Through over-fishing and other changes to the Mekong river, it is now virtually extinct. Such ecological depredations have led to changes in Thai cuisine as well which once would have been much closer to the Lao. One reads with fascination old travellers tales of central Thailand where rhinoceros and tigers were a major hazard, along with stories of exotic birds and other wild life.
These have now disappeared and therefore disappeared from Thai tables. Unfortunately, something similar will probably happen in Laos too as it moves from the “civilised” raw to the “civilised” cooked. Most Lao food, it is fair to say, is poor peasant food. But what there is of haute cuisine can be found in one restaurant, and the recipes of the Phia sing, the old Master of ceremonies and Chef at the Lao court of Luang Prabang, have been published in English and in Lao as Traditional Recipes of Laos (Prospect Books, 1981).