Salavan Ethnic Diversity
Many of Southern Laos’ 17,000-plus Alak live in Salavan, having migrated from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Their palm and thatch houses encircle communal spirit houses on stilts. Several clans – named after animals considered sacred – comprise the Alak’s matriarchal society, in which women once tattooed their faces. They hold annual buffalo sacrifices and festivals to honour spirits protecting their villages.
Laos’ sixth largest ethnicity, the Katang, are spread throughout the country’s south. Extended families live in braided-leaf longhouses, reaching 100 metres in length, as newlyweds add rooms for their families. Salavan’s Katang mostly live in Toumlan Municipality, and are known for intricate weaving. Though the tradition is fading, Katang once pierced their ears and inserted bamboo tubes.
A few thousand Katu inhabit Salavan’s forests, and live in long rectangular houses. They often share villages with the Alak, Ngae, and Ta Oy. Like the Alak, Katu women once tattooed their faces, and though most families are monogamous, some men have more than one wife. However, they must pay a dowry equal to 15 buffaloes, or live with their wives’ families to work off the debt. The Katu sacrifice buffaloes to the spirits, which protect their villages, and employ shamans who are paid with chickens or silver.
The 9th-13th-century Khmer Empire spawned today’s Lavene, who mostly live in the Bolaven Plateau. They practice modern agriculture, cultivating rice, maize, peppers, yams, vegetables, cardamom, and cinnamon. The Lavene excel in woodworking, but do not weave. They reside in thatch and wooden/bamboo stilt houses, and each has its own vegetable-and-herb garden. The Lavene practice a mix of Buddhism, ancestor worship, and animism.
Originally mountain people, the Ngae have migrated to river valleys in recent years, and share villages with the Suay, Lao, Alak, and Ta Oy. Some live around the Tad Lo area. Ngae infants cannot leave their houses until after a buffalo sacrifice, and the youngest child must live with his or her parents for life. Shamans perform sacrifices in the communal/spirit houses and oversee spirit world contact.
The Pako dwell in Salavan’s mountainous Samouay District near Vietnam, and mostly subsist by slash-and-burn farming. They do not weave, and mostly speak their unique language. Many have adapted metal war relics into useful tools through their blacksmithing skills. The Pako reside in stilted-house clusters of 10, and each village has a communal house. They are animists and construct spirit houses in the village outskirts.
The province’s Phouthai frequently mix with the similar Tai people, and are often considered a single 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. In their most sacred festival, Pi Tian (Spirit of Heaven), the community offers sacrifices and prayers to the spirit that they believe resides in paradise above.
The Suay have their own language and are among Salavan’s earliest inhabitants. Though never part of the Khmer civilization, they wear Khmer khamas (chequered cotton fabric). Once known as skilled blacksmiths, most are now rice farmers, who also raise livestock and gather forest products. The Suay live in bamboo and thatched houses on stilts in villages away from their fields. They believe in a mix of animism and Buddhism.
The Ta Oy mostly inhabit the eastern mountainous district sharing the same name, though many are migrating to the Bolaven Plateau. They practice animism and shamanism, and perform sacrificial rituals. One custom entails burying the dead in their best clothes and jewellery, and after several years, exhume, wash, decorate, and place the remains in funeral houses outside their former homes.
Salavan’s Tong live in northern Salavan and Vapi Districts. They are animists, and as one missionary said some 100 years ago, “They acknowledge no god, but gods many, both good and bad, more numerous and varied than those of the ancient Greeks.” They blame any unusual occurrence, even if it can be explained, on upsetting evil spirits.