Sayabouly's Ethnic Diversity

Visit Khmu, Hmong, and Tai Lue villages throughout the province, or venture to meet more obscure groups such as the Iu Mien, Tong Luang, and Phrai in the steep mountains.

Sayabouly’s Ethnic Diversity


The Khmu migrated to Sayabouly centuries ago, and practice animism and spirit worship. The village entrance, a decorated bamboo gate (taleo), separates the human from the natural worlds. 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).

Sayabouly’s Hmong mostly live in hilltop villages, and are skilled hunters and livestock farmers. They also mix herbal medicines from ingredients found in the forest. Intricate embroidery and 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).

The Tai Lue began migrating to the province from southern China in the 15th century. They live in stilt houses with long sloping roofs, and produce intricate silk and cotton textiles and strong lao khao rice alcohol. 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.  

A few thousand Phrai inhabit the mountains in the province’s Saysathan District. They have no written language, and since metal is taboo, they have mastered bamboo to create almost all their household needs. This matriarchal group transfers family land and wealth to the youngest daughter, who often marries at 14 years. Villages consist of multi-family clans, which may occupy the same house, with families separated by bamboo partitions. The village chief oversees the clans.

Even fewer Tong Luang (Banana Leaf People) carry out their nomadic, subsistence lives in the mountaintops (800-1,200 metres) of Sayabouly’s Nam Phui National Protected Area. They move camp every week to seek food.

A small group of Iu Mien migrated from China during the 20th century, and settled about 30 km south of Sayabouly Town. Most are agriculture and livestock farmers. Though they celebrate some Buddhist holidays, the Iu Mien practice a complex mix of animism, ancestor worship, feng shui, and magic based on Taoism. They speak their own language, and women wear embroidered skirts, turbans, and black blouses decorated with silver coins and ornaments.