A dominant influence in Lao culture is Theravada Buddhism . It is reflected throughout the country from language to the temple and in art, literature, performing arts. Many elements of Lao culture predate Buddhism, however. For example, Laotian music is dominated by its national instrument, the khaen, a type of bamboo pipe that has prehistoric origins. The khaen traditionally accompanied the singer in lam, the dominant style of folk music. Among the various lam styles, the lam saravane is probably the most popular.
Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 tribal groups. About half of the population are Lao Loum, “lowland Lao” who live in the river plains. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or “upland Lao”, live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong and Mien tribes who live higher up. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities.
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant’s body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long, patterned skirt, although tribal groups often have their own clothing. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear western-style clothing, though the “phaa sin” is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).
Rice is the staple food and has cultural and religious significance. There are many traditions and rituals associated with rice production in different environments, and among many ethnic groups. For example, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant the rice variety Khao Kam in small quantities near the hut in memory of dead parents, or at the edge of the rice field to indicate that parents are still alive.
The languages of Laos and Thailand to the untrained ear may seem similar; however, they are in reality very different. Although most Laotian people will understand spoken and written Thai and even speak Thai, most Thai people outside of Issan (North East Thailand) do not understand Lao. The writing of the two languages is also rather different and in general very few Thai read Lao.
The main similarity in the two languages is that in general many of the nouns are the same – however, most verbs, adjectives etc are different; also Lao does not use male and female ending particles as used in Thai (i.e. Kaa (Female) and Kap (Male))