Khammouane Ethnic Diversity
The province’s Phouthai often mix with the similar Tai people, and are usually considered a separate group. Though many practice Buddhism, they cling to their traditional animist beliefs. Each Phouthai village has one or more female shamans, called moi yau, who mediate between the people and spiritual worlds by going into a trance. Their most sacred festival is Pi Tian (Spirit of Heaven), in which the community offers sacrifices and prayers to the spirit that they believe resides in paradise above.
Khammouane’s Bru live the province’s far eastern area, and are descendants of the Khmer Empire. “Bru” means “Mountain” which refers to their highland location. Villages are situated in valleys along rivers and streams, and their houses are built in a circle around a communal centre. Most are rice farmers, and apply both terraced and slash-and-burn techniques. They also hunt and fish. The Bru practice their own traditional religion, based mostly on ancestor worship.
The Lao Phuan migrated from south-western China in the 13th century and settled in fertile valleys to cultivate rice, often using irrigation and terrace farming. The Lao Phuan are organized into small village fiefdoms limited to a single valley under the control of a chao muang, or prince. Within the villages, the wealthier Lao Phuan live in sturdy, teak or mahogany panelled houses. Others live in low-pitched, bamboo-framed houses with thatched roofs and earthen floors. Nearly all of the Lao Phuan in Khammouane practice their traditional religion and worship spirits.
The Khmu migrated to Laos thousands of years ago, and practice animism and spirit worship. They rely on the forest for growing rice, hunting and gathering, and producing woven rattan and bamboo basketry, tools, and net-bags. When visiting a Khmu village, taste their famous lao hai (jar alcohol).
Khammouane’s remote eastern Bouarapha District is home to the country’s Kri, which number less than 1,000 people. Little is known about the Kri, who once lived in trees and caves. They claim to have migrated from Ta-Oy in Salavan, living on fruit and forest food, and moving every three to five days in search of food. They finally settled in Khammouane, and still forage in the forest as they don’t practice agriculture.
Though most of the 20,000-plus Nguan live in north western Lao, some have migrated to the eastern mountains in Khammouane, and are often confused with ethnic Khmu. The Nguan live in houses on stilts carved with images. Houses are arranged in a circle facing a central communal house. There are two Nguan clans named after birds they hold sacred.
The Ta Oy mostly live high in the mountains near the Vietnam border, and are known for their complex funeral ritual. Dead Ta Oy women are often buried in their traditional clothing, with ornaments made of copper, silver, ivory, or glass. Several years after the burial, the remains are dug up, washed, decorated, and placed in a funeral house near their home.
The Katang are best known for their extended families dwelling in longhouses up to 100-metres-long. Whenever a family member marries, the house is lengthened to accommodate the new family. The Katang are Laos’ sixth largest ethnic group and live in isolated northern areas of Khammouane. Both men and women once stretched their earlobes with large bamboo tubes for decoration, but this practice is now rare.