LAOS, or Laotions, an important division of the widespread Thai or Shan race found throughout Indo-China from 28° N. and the sources of the Irrawaddy as far as Cambodia and 7° N. in the Malay Peninsula. This Thai family includes the Shans proper, and the Siamese. The name Lao, which appears to mean simply “man,” is the collective Siamese term for all the Thai peoples subject to Siam, while Shan, said to be of Chinese origin, is the collective Burmese term for those subject to Burma. Lao is therefore rather a political than an ethnical title, and the people cordially dislike the name, insisting on their right to be called Thai. Owing to the different circumstances which have attended their migrations, the Thai peoples have attained to varying degrees of civilization. The Lao, who descended from the mountain districts of Yunnan, Szechuen and Kweichow to the highland plains of upper Indo-China, and drove the wilder Kha peoples whom they found in possession into the hills, mostly adopted Buddhism, and formed small settled communities or states in which laws were easy, taxes light and a very fair degree of comfort was attained. There are two main divisions, the Lao Pong Dam (“Black Paunch Laos”), so-called from their habit of tattooing the body from the waist to the knees, and the Lao Pong Kao (“White Paunch Laos”) who do not tattoo. Lao tattooing is of a most elaborate kind. The Lao Pong Dam now form the western branch of the Lao family, inhabiting the Siamese Lao states of Chieng Mai Lapaun, ‘Tern Pre and Nan, and reaching as far south as 17° N. Various influences have contributed to making the Lao the pleasant, easy-going, idle fellow that he is. The result is that practically all the trade of these states is in the hands of Bangkok Chinese firms, of a certain number of European houses and others, while most of the manual labour connected with the teak industry is done by Ka Mus, who migrate in large numbers from the left bank of the Mekong. The Lao Pong Kao, or eastern branch, appear to have migrated southwards by the more easterly route of the Nam-u and the Mekong valley. In contradistinction to the Lao Pong Dam, who have derived their written language from the Burmese character, the eastern race has retained what appears to be the early form of the present Siamese writing, from which it differs little. They formed important settlements at various points on the Mekong, notably Luang Prabang, Wieng Chan (Vien-Tiane) Ubon and Bassac; and, heading inland as far as Korat on the one side and the Annamite watershed in the east, they drove out the less civilized Kha peoples, and even the Cambodians, as the Lao Pong Dam did on the west. Vien-Tiane during the 18th century was the most powerful of the Lao principalities, and was feared and respected throughout Indo-China. It was destroyed by the Siamese in 1828. The inhabitants, in accordance with the Indo-Chinese custom of the day, were transported to Lower Siam. The Lao Pong Kao below 18° N. are a less merry and less vivacious people, and are for the most part shorter and more thick-set than those of Luang Prabang and the north. If possible, they are as a race lazier than the western Lao, as they are certainly more musical. The “khen,” or mouth organ, which is universal among them, is the sweetest-toned of eastern instruments.
After 1828 the Laos became entirely subject to Siam, and were governed partly by khiao, or native hereditary princes, partly by mandarins directly nominated by the Bangkok authorities. The khiao were invested by a gold dish, betel-box, spittoon and teapot, which were sent from Bangkok and returned at their death or deposition. Of all the khiao the most powerful was the prince of Ubon (15° N., 105° E.), whose jurisdiction extended nearly from Bassac on the Mekong northwards to the great southern bend of that river. Nearly all the Laos country is now divided between France and Siam, and only a few tribes retain a nominal independence.
The many contradictory accounts of the Laos are due to the fact that the race has become much mixed with the aboriginal inhabitants. The half-castes sprung from alliances with the wild tribes of Caucasic stock present every variety between that type and the Mongolian. But the pure Laos are still distinguished by the high cheek-bones, small flat nose, oblique eyes, wide mouth, black lank hair, sparse beard, and yellow complexion of the Thai and other branches of the Mongol family. In disposition the Laos are an apathetic, peace-loving, pleasant-mannered race. Though the women have to work, they are free and well treated, and polygamy is rare. The Laos are very superstitious, believe in wer-wolves, and that all diseases are caused by evil spirits. Their chief food is rice and fish. Men, women and children all smoke tobacco. The civilized Laos were long addicted to slave-hunting, not only with the sanction but even with the co-operation of their rulers, the Lao mandarins heading regular expeditions against the wilder tribes.
Closely allied with the Lao are a number of tribes found throughout the hill regions of the upper Mekong, between Yunnan and Kwangsi in China and the upper waters of the Menam in Siam. They have all within recent times been partakers in the general movement towards the south-west from the highland districts of southern China, which has produced so many recruits for the peopling of the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Of this group of people, among whom may be named the Yao, Yao Yin, Lanten, Meo, Musur (or Muhso) and Kaw, perhaps the best known and most like the Lao are the Lu—both names meaning originally “man”—who have in many cases adopted a form of Buddhism (flavoured strongly by their natural respect for local spirits as well as tattooing) and other relatively civilized customs, and have forsaken their wandering life among the hills for a more settled village existence. Hardy, simple and industrious, fond of music, kind-hearted, and with a strangely artistic taste in dress, these people possess in a wonderful degree the secret of cheerful contentment.
Authorities.—M. J. F. Garnier, Voyage d’exploration en Indo-Chine; A. H. Mouhot, Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China, Cambodia and Laos (1864); Holt S. Hallett, A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States (1890); A. R. Colquhoun, Amongst the Shâns (1885); Lord Lamington, Proc. R.G.S. vol. xiii. No. 12; Archer, Report on a Journey in the Mekong Valley; Prince Henri d’Orléans, Around Tonkin and Siam (1894); M‘Carthy, Report on a Survey in Siam (1894); Bulletins, Paris Geographical Society: H. Warington Smyth, Notes of a Journey on the Upper Mekong (1895); Five Years in Siam (1898); Harmand, Le Laos et les populations sauvages de l’Indo-Chine (1880). See also bibliography to preceding article.