Bokeo's Ethnic Diversity

Meet the people of Bokeo, home to the rarely visited Lahu and other distinct tribes.

Bokeo Ethnic Diversity


The Akha live in Bokeo’s mountains, and follow a cultural code called Akha Zang, the “Akha Way”. This defines traditions and laws, as well as how Akha farm, hunt, treat illnesses, and relate to each other and outsiders. Women wear black cotton miniskirts, tight-fitting bodices, embroidered jackets, and intricate head-dresses. Villages feature tall swings and gates marking the boundary between the human and natural worlds.

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).

The Lahu (“Tiger Breeder”) moved into Laos from China, and practice a distinct form of ancestor and spirit worship related to natural phenomena, the forest, houses, and livestock. Rituals and celebrations revolve around the agricultural cycle, marriage, and building houses.

The Lanten migrated from China, bringing cultural practices and beliefs based on Taoism mixed with ancestor and spirit worship. They mostly live along streams and rivers, and wear pink-trimmed indigo-dyed cotton clothes. Lanten produce cotton cloth, ceremonial masks, and bamboo paper, on which men record religious texts with ancient Chinese characters. 

Other ethnic groups you may meet include the Hmong, who mostly live in hilltop villages, and are skilled at hunting, mixing herbal medicines, and raising animals, particularly horses. Intricate embroidery and heavy silver jewellery adorn their clothes, and some villages create batik designs using beeswax and indigo dyes. The Hmong New Year in December/January features top-spinning competitions and courting couples tossing mak kone (small fabric balls).

Ancestors of Bokeo’s Tai Dam migrated to the Nam Tha Valley from north-western Vietnam in the late 19th century. Unlike Buddhist Tai groups, Tai Dam worship phi (spirits) and their ancestors. Women wear colourful head-scarves and tight-fitting shirts with silver buttons. They make potent lao khao rice alcohol, and produce fine silk and cotton textiles.

The Tai Lue began migrating from southern China in the 15th century, and are known for their multi-stilt houses with long sloping roofs, strong lao khao liquor, and intricate silk and cotton textiles. Tai Lue practice a mix of animism and Buddhism, and most villages have a temple and monks, as well as a sacred pillar where they hold rituals for natural spirits. 

The Yao, also known as the Mien, are highland people, who originated in China. Their houses are made of durable hardwood, and known to be large and sturdy. They grow rice and corn, and gather wild jungle products such as resin and honey. Young men study Chinese characters to express Yao concepts. Yao men wear earrings and embroidered tunics, while women dress in elaborate costumes with bright red wool collars. The Yao are influenced by their ancestors, as well as their animistic and Tao beliefs.