Demographics and Religion
Laos has about 6.5 milion inhabitants (2015 census). Per square kilometer this means about 27 people. It’s one of the least populated countries of Asia especially compared to its big neighbors Vietnam, China and Thailand.
The population Growth Rate is about 2.2% according the the Lao Statistics Bureau in 2005) and the median age of Lao people is 21 years. The population projection to the year 2020 is almost 8 milion people.
Most Lao people are living in villages and towns and only about 27% of the Lao people live in cities. The life expectancy of Lao people is 63 years for females and 59 years for men according to Lao Statistics Bureau numbers of 2012.
73% of the persons aged 15 years and older can read and write in the country and for males this percentage is 83%, for females 20% lower, only 63%.
In 2013 the percentage of people living below the poverty line was 25%. With this percentage the country comes within the 50 Least Developed Countries of the world.
About 50% of the Lao people use a toilet.
Ethnic groups of Laos
The ‘ethnic breakdown’ of the country is like this: Lao 55%, Khmou (sometimes spelled Khmu) 11%, Hmong 11% and other 26%.
Laos has many different ethnic groups. Officially there are 49 ethnicities in the country but some estimates are much higher. The official number of ethnicities (49) consists of over 160 ethnic groups. These 160 ethnic groups speak a staggering total of 82 distinct living languages.
The groups range in size from hundred of thousands (the Khmou/ Khmu people for example) and even milions (the Lao people) to only 24 people (Mlabri).
Three official groups
The Lao government is dividing the population into 3 main groups (Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Soung). This is a simplification of something that is not very simple but it makes sense in some ways.
The Lao Loum people are the ethnic Lao people and in fact the only ‘real Lao’ if you look at ethnicity. They are living in the low (Loum means low) areas of the country on the islands of Si Phan Don, in the river valleys and in other lowlands.
The Lao Theung (upper Lao) live in the hills and the Lao Soung (high Lao) populate the mountain peaks.
Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Soung might all be very different from each other but share one thing: they are living within the borders of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic that makes all of them Lao in one sense.
Minorities in Laos
Like in (almost) all countries Lao also has minorities. The two largest minority groups in Laos are the Chinese and Vietnamese. Especially in the cities and larger towns a lot of ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese people can be found. Many of them marry with Lao Loum people and things get more ‘mixed up’. The ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese will many times still speak their own languages and learn about their own culture as well but will also speak Lao and ‘blend in’. The more recently arrived Chinese and Vietnamese might be different from the others who are already in Laos for a long period. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese are found in many shops and in many markets all over Laos and it seems like a lot of them have a strong ‘business instinct’. In (mainly) Vientiane several westerners can also be found living in the country. Many of them are involved in business, work as teachers or work for an embassy or NGO. Vientiane hosts several embassies (India, Vietnam, China, UK, USA, Cuba, North Korea, South Korea, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan etc.) and staff of these embassies also stay in Laos.
Religion in Laos
Religion plays an important role in Lao society. Most people are Buddhist but there is a large diversity of religion in Laos as well. Officially there is freedom of religion in Laos and people are free to believe or not to believe according to the Lao constitution. On this page some information about the different religions in Laos.
This is the largest religion in Laos. About 67% (some sources say about 60%) of the Lao citizens is Buddhist. Most people are followers of the Theravada way of Buddhism. There are an estimated 5,000 Buddhist temples in Laos and about 22,000 people are Buddhist (male) monks. About 450 females are also Buddhist ‘sisters’. Buddhism plays an important role in the lives of many Lao people, especially in the lowlands close to the Mekong. Many young men and boys enter the temple as a novice for at least a week. Buddhist festivals are still very actively celebrated and the Lao (Buddhist) New Year in April is the biggest festival (and party) of the year for many Lao people. According to the sources Theravada Buddhism is believed to have first reached the parts now named Laos during the 7th – 8th Centuries CE. Monks from Thailand visit Laos and Lao monks visit Thailand as well. They both follow Theravada Buddhism and the monks of both countries are well respected in both countries, with the same respect and status as well.
Laotian folk religion – Animism
Between 30 and 40% of the people in Laos believe in Laotian folk religion (animism). Many of the hill tribes believe in these religions but many Buddhists also believe in parts of it. In some areas of the country the majority of the people believe in Laotians folk religion. In Lao language they call the people believing in the Laotians folk religion (sometimes also named ‘animism’) sasana phi.
Laos has some groups of Roman Catholics and Protestants. There are some churches in the country (Savannakhet, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Pakse, Champasak area, Thakhek, Bolaven Plateau etc.). Three Churches are officially recognized by the government of Laos: the Roman Catholic Church, Lao Evangelical Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Approximately 45,000 to 75,000 people (many of them ethnic Vietnamese) in Laos are member of the Roman Catholic Church and the rest members of the two other recognized Churches. There are also some Christian denominations that are not recognized by the government with some people following them. About 1.5% of the population of Laos is Christian, or maybe a bit more.
There are two mosques in Vientiane and one in Oudomxai. One for (and build by) Cambodian (Cham) Muslims who fled the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s and one for people with Arab and Indian roots. These Arabs and Indians came to do business several centuries ago. There are also small numbers of Muslims in the far north of the country in areas bordering China. Muslims constitute about 0,01% of the population of Laos.
Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Taoism and Bahá’í
Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities. Although Hinduism was a religion quite common in the history of Laos (Wat Phu and Wat Tomo are some reminders of this period) it’s almost invisible now as a religion followed by Lao people. Some Hindu statues remain in Buddhist temples in the country. Some Jews (expats) and Bahá’i can also be found in the country in small numbers.