Laos Culture and Religion

Laos Monks flag the temple

Laotian society is very heterogeneous. About two thirds of the Laotians belong to the so-called lowland Laotians who dominate administration, economics and politics and are largely Buddhist. There are also 49 other ethnic groups, around 80 spoken languages and various animistic customs. Belief in spirits is also widespread.

Culture

According to ethnicityology, Laos experts like to rename the “PDR Laos” (People’s Democratic Republic) to the “Please don’t rush” society. In Laos the clocks tick differently, which incidentally also becomes clear in the Laotian favorite slogan: “Bo pen njang – it doesn’t matter – if not today, then tomorrow!” Every Laotian has time, and harmony, expressed in gentleness and smiles, is the highest principle of the Laotian network of relationships and everyday life. Merit for future rebirths can only be gained in a state of no conflict.

The basic principle of behavior, especially of the Buddhist Laotians, is “Het Bun – dai Bun” (Do good and good will happen to you). However, this also gives rise to behavioral patterns that can lead to intercultural misunderstanding. Laotian society is an inhomogeneous society shaped by pre- and trans-Buddhist customs and an extremely locally influenced Theravada Buddhism.

In the list of the UNESCO world cultural heritage, Laos has been represented since 1995 with the former royal city of Luang Prabang and since 2001 with Wat Phou in southern Laos.

Narrative culture and literature

Laos has a rich tradition of oral transmission of tales, legends, sagas, proverbs, poems and fables that is still very popular.

The oldest written works in the form of palm leaf manuscripts – Bai Laan go back to the 15th century, which are kept in the libraries of around 2,800 Buddhist monasteries (Vat) in the country.

The written records include:

  • Phra Vetsandon (Vessantara-Jataka)
  • Phralak Phralam (Ramayana)
  • and the heroic epics Sang Sinxay, Chanthakhat, Thao Hung Thao Chueang
  • and the picaresque cycle Siang Miang.

The beginnings of more recent literature in Laos date back to the French colonial period (1893-1954).

Religion

Religious freedom exists by law in terms of what beliefs someone belongs to. In the 2015 census, religion was defined as “a spiritual order with written beliefs”. According to this definition, four religions are identified in Laos: Buddhism (64.7%), Christianity (approx. 1.7%), Islam and Baha’i. Irritatingly, other practiced beliefs and religions such as Hinduism, Taoism or Confucianism are grouped together in the “other” category, which also includes animistic beliefs. This category makes up a total of 31%.

From the outside, Laos appears to be a thoroughly Buddhist country. From 1353 to 1975 Buddhism was the state religion and more than 90% of the Lao Loum also refer to themselves as Buddhists. On closer inspection, however, the massive influence of ancestral cult, animism and, above all, belief in spirits becomes apparent, so that one should speak of an extremely specific form of Laotian Buddhism.

The Laotian Buddhism is permeated through and through with the belief in ghosts (Phi). Through benevolent behavior, the Laotians can regulate their relationship with the individual spirits in daily life. Laotian spirits actively intervene in the everyday life of the Laotians!

Buddhism conveys moral and civilizational values that guide Laotian society. There is currently talk of a renaissance of Buddhism in Laos, although this is documented less in the spiritual and moral area than in the prosperity of the pagodas. Almost every Laotian enters the monastery in the course of his life – often only for a few days.

Despite legal freedom of religion, many religious activities are restricted by other laws, e.g. a decree issued in 2016 that puts religious activities at the service of national development and forbids division of the population. The Ministry of the Interior and the Lao Front for National Construction (NFNC) are responsible for religious matters. All groups have to register there. For some years now, more and more religiously motivated attacks against Christians have been registered, especially in rural areas. Muslims and the Baha’i community in Laos seem to be able to carry out their religious activities relatively undisturbed.

Laos Monks flag the temple