Lao Theung people of Laos

The Lao Theung are the second largest ethnic group in Laos, comprising around 25% of the country’s population. They are also generally considered the poorest of the three ethnic groupings in Laos.

About the Lao Theung ethnic group


Depending upon which classification system you refer to, Laos has between 49 and 160 ethnic groups. This multitude of ethnicities is divided into three groupings: the Lao Lum (lowland Lao), the Lao Thueng (upland Lao), and Lao Soung (highland Lao). This classification of tribe into groups on the basis of the elevation at which tend to live disguises a lot of cultural differences. The Lao Theung is generally considered to encompass at least 32 distinct ethnic groups, the most numerous of which is the Khamu (comprising around 11% of the population of Laos), also referred to as the Khmu or the Khmou. Some of these 32 different groups speak languages which other Lao Theung people can understand, others don’t. These also have different traditions. There are, however, some shared characteristic other than the elevation at which they live which make the definition useful:

  • A sense of shared history.
  • Similar agricultural methods.
  • Similar family and village structures.
Boys in the traditional dress of the Lao Theung people of Laos
Boys in the traditional dress of the Lao Theung people of Laos

The Lao Theung are believed to have been the original residents of what is modern day Laos and to have founded the city of Luang Prabang. At some point in time, most likely the 13th Century, the Lao Theung are believed to have been displaced by the Lao Lum who emigrated from Southern China. Lao Sung tribes, including the Hmong and the Akha, are believed to have come to Laos centuries later although that point is open to debate and this is a narrative pushed by some people from the Lao Lum ethnic group to justify persecution of Lao Sung groups. Forced out from the more fertile lowlands, the Laos Theung took the next best land which is on slopes from around 300 to 900 metres above sea level, principally near the banks of the Mekong River. Unlike the Lao Lum, the Lao Theung have not generally adopted modern codified religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, in favour of animist beliefs and spirit worship belief systems known collectively in Laos as Satsana Phi.

Lao Theung in Modern Day Laos


The Lao Theung appear to have had something of a raw deal in Laos right from the outset, having been displaced from the best land by newcomers nearly a thousand years ago. This raw deal has continued to worsen over the years. The French colonial authorities, in their attempts to try to modernise Laos, favoured the Lao Lum language and culture in an attempt to try to rationalise the country’s administrative and educational systems. The highland Lao weren’t that much affected as they were and remain on the far periphery of Laos society. The Lao Theung, however, were faced with the choice of either assimilating into Lao Lum culture or being pushed further out from mainstream society.

The situation for the Lao Theung group didn’t get much better under the new communist regime which was introduced in 1975. The Lao Prathet came into power with wide support from the Lao Theung, and initially, as a reward, their representation in formal governmental structures increased. However, increasingly the Lao Theung have been at odds with the communists government’s attempts to reform the country. The Lao Theung practice a form of slash and burn agriculture, which means they are semi-nomadic. They also traditionally hunt rather than farm animals, eating wide range of foods such as insects, frogs and snakes. This kind of lifestyle isn’t what the current government of Lao is trying to promote and this is making it difficult for them to maintain their traditional lifestyles.

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