>>Lao ethnos' customary laws and practices
Ta Thi Tam
The Lao, a Tay-Thai language group, lives mostly in Laos-bordering areas of Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Son La northern provinces with a population of nearly 15,000. A small section of the group lives in Nghe An central province and Dak Lak central highlands province.
The Lao, also called Thay, Thay Duon, Thay Nhuon, Phu Thay or Phu Lao, consists of two subgroups: Lao Boc (Lao Can) and Lao Noi (Lao Nho).
The group lives on wet rice cultivation, a combination of irrigation techniques, a farming calendar system and farming tools. It also makes swidden cultivation and raises cattle and poultry, including pigs, chickens, ducks and horses, and does fishing as a source of food.
The Lao is good at pottery, weaving, blacksmithing and silver work. The group makes quality ceramic jars and pots with different designs and patterns. Lao women are known for their textile products which can compete with best products made by the Thai. The group barters their products even though trade has not developed professionally.
Lao people live in villages located along streams with mountains at their back. A big village has 40-45 houses. In front of every house is a garden with fruit trees and spice plants.
A Lao stilt house is high and large with a tortoise shell-shaped roof and two gables. Its interior is skillfully carved. When building the house, the main pillar must be first erected next to the stove. Before moving to a new house, a Lao family must live in a temporarily built house called phan. The family chooses in the clan a wealthy man who has a lot of children and holds a high social position to enter the new house first. This man will, on behalf of the family, ask for permission from the house genie for living in the new house. The fire taken from phan must be kept on the stove throughout the first night in the new house.
The Lao has different family names, including Lo, Vi, Luong and Ca. Each clan has its own taboo. In a Lao family, the wife’s clan is respected but has no right to intervene in the family’s affairs. The Lao society barely sees traces of matriarchy.
Each clan consists of big and small families. In a family, the husband has the right to make decisions, especially on external affairs. The wife takes care of the family and does housework. Each family member is assigned certain duties in the family. Sons and daughters are treated equally.
A Lao village is headed by chau ban who represents the community interests and takes charge of the village’s economic affairs and belief and spiritual life.
A Lao woman costume includes a short blouse, which has silver buttons, blue flaps stuck with silver coins and red underarm fringes pinned with lozenge-shaped silver tintinnabula, a long black skirt with embroidered patterns of flower, bird or dragon in its fringe, and a scarf. A single woman wears a chignon in the middle of her head while a married woman has it on the left. Lao women often wear nicely carved silver brooches. They also have tattoos on the back of their hands while men have tattoos on their legs.
The Lao eats sticky rice and likes fish dishes, especially padec, the group’s famous salted fish. They smoke cigarettes and drink ruou can (rice wine drunk out of a jar through straws).
The Lao follows monogamy. After the wedding, the groom must stay at his wife’s family for five years. After this stay, he is given by the bride’s family a buffalo, fabrics and other utensils needed for a small family.
According to Lao custom, marriage between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law is forbidden. A Lao family is patriarchal but women are respected. Adultery and divorce are barely seen in Lao families. Women are carefully taken care of when they are pregnant and give birth, but must observe a strict diet. Babies are given names when they are one month old.
The Lao buries the dead except chau ban who is incinerated. The incineration ritual is conducted by chau hua (Buddhist monk) according to Buddhist formalities which have been adapted to the group’s custom. Lao people do not cry in funerals because they consider death a journey to another world. A son-in-law is not supposed to take charge of his parent-in-law’s funeral. If a parent-in-law dies during the groom’s stay in his wife’s family, the groom will carry the coffin together with his brothers-in-law during the funeral. If he has stayed separately, he will offer the dead a silver coin.
For the Lao, an offering ceremony at a pagoda is like a sacrifice ritual to pray for bumper crops, prosperity and peace, in which flowers are the only offering. In villages which do not have pagodas, village deities are worshiped under big trees.
The Lao worships ancestors with a big ceremony conducted at the beginning of a year. The group takes special care of altars. Ong mon, who treats diseases with belief methods, plays an important role in Lao community. In March or April every year, ong mon holds Kin pang ceremony dedicated to phi mot, the progenitor of his trade. All patients who have been cured by ong mon and acknowledged him as their adoptive father must attend Kin pang. Kin pang offerings include banana, sugarcane, banh tet (cylindrical sticky rice cake filled with green bean paste and pork) and ruou can. During Kin pang, people dance lam vong (circle dance), the typical dance of the Lao.
The Lao owns a rich culture and art treasure with legends, fairy tales and folk songs which are written on palm leaves. Nem con (throwing a ball through a circle) is an indispensable game during Lao festivals.-