Introduction / History
The Lao (or Laotian Tai) live in the lowland regions of Laos. They are located in the Mekong River valley and the surrounding cities, moving southward from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border. Their language, also called Lao, is a Lao-Phutai dialect of the Tai language family.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Centuries ago, the Lao lived in China. However, relentless pressure by the Chinese gradually forced them southward, and many settled along the Mekong River in the eighth or ninth century. When the Lao Kingdom was replaced by a Communist administration during World War II, many Lao fled to Burma, Thailand, and Laos.
For years, Laos was the battle field for the conflicts of other nations, as well as the object of political competition between Russia, China, and Vietnam. After years of invasions, a series of bloody land wars, and possession by the French, Laos entered into good relations with its neighbors.
Most of the Loa are wet-rice farmers. They also raise cotton, mulberry bushes (for silk worms), coco palms, and various fruits. Cultivation is done with wooden equipment drawn by buffalo. Some of the farmers are also blacksmiths, carpenters, or miners. Iron and tin are exploited, as well as some gold along the Mekong River. Certain villages specialize in crafts such as pottery, or in the production of goods such as tobacco or charcoal. A number of the Lao are also fishermen.
The Lao avoid living in the mountains, choosing instead to dwell in the plains. They live in villages alongside rivers or near roads that give them access to Chinese merchants. Their villages range in size from ten to several hundred families. Lao houses are typically made of wood or bamboo, and are built high on stilts. Family livestock, which includes poultry, pigs, and goats, is allowed to run freely underneath the houses. Nearly every family raises cattle and buffaloes, in order to trade the leather and hides.
The Buddhist Wat, or temple, is the center of village life. Village leadership is usually divided; the chief has authority in secular matters, while the Buddhist monk has authority in religious issues. Lao society no longer has rigid social classes. Consequently, there is no longer a hereditary elite class. Their social structure is based on family units, with no widespread lineages or clans. Sexual promiscuity before marriage is relatively common.
The elite Lao live in concentrated areas, which include the civil capital of Vientiane, the royal capital of Luang Praband, and a few towns along the Mekong. The Lao elite tend to lead westernized lifestyles, and manufactured clothing is gradually replacing all but the traditional woman's skirt, called a pha sin.
The Lao have a variety of folk arts, which include weaving, basket making, wood and ivory carving, and working with silver and gold. They have a variety of musical instruments, of which a bamboo wind instrument called the khene is the most widely known.
The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group, which began migrating southward from China in the first millennium after Christ, and which now politically and culturally dominate other Laotian groups.
What Are Their Beliefs?
More than half of the Lao are Buddhists. Traditionally, young men enter village monasteries for about three months to study Buddhism. The Lao Buddhists believe that right thinking, ritual sacrifices, and self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana (a state of eternal bliss) at death. They live in fear of their gods and constantly strive to appease them with religious chants, rituals, and sacrifices. They also believe that existence is a continuing cycle of death and rebirth, a process known as reincarnation.
What Are Their Needs?
One third of the Lao are ethnic religionists, combining folk animism (belief that non-living objects have spirits) with Buddhism. They seek help through various supernatural beings and objects. Of major importance to them are the territorial deities.
The Lao have been greatly affected by the fighting and bloodshed of the past. They are in desperate need of inner healing and true spiritual hope. Only the blood of Jesus Christ has the power to break through the barriers that are keeping them bound.
Ask the Lord to call people who are willing to go to Laos and share Christ with the Lao.
Pray that the Lord will give missions agencies new strategies for effectively evangelizing the Lao.
Ask God to use Lao believers to share the love of Jesus with their own people.
Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Lao towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
Pray that God will open the hearts of Laotian governmental leaders to the Gospel.
Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among the Lao.
Scripture Prayers for the Lao in Laos.
Bethany World Prayer Center