1902 Encyclopedia > Laos


LAOS, or LAWA, a large Indo-Chinese nation, occupying the northern and eastern provinces of Siam known as the Laos states, mainly between 15º and 24º N. lat., 98º and 106º,E,long. There are two main divisions—the Lau-pang-kah, or "White Paunch" Laos, and the Lau-pang-dun, or "Black Paunch" Laos, the former between the Deng-Phya-Phai range and the river Mekong, the latter about the middle and upper course of the river Menam, and so called from the habit of tattooing, a black pattern about the navel. The Laos are closely related in physique and speech to the Siamese proper, and are by some writers regarded as the primitive stock of that race. They are an historical people who were formerly constituted in an ancient and powerful kingdom, whose capital Vinh-khianh (Vien-shan) was taken and destroyed by the Siamese about the year 1828. Since then they have been entirely subject to Siam, and are governed partly by khiao, or native hereditary princes, partly by mandarins or governors directly nominated by the Bangkok authorities. The present khiao of the province of Bassak north of Camboja [Cambodia] is the last-surviving descendant of the ancient Lao dynasty. The khiao are invested by means of the gold dish, betel-box, spittoon, and teapot which are sent from Bangkok, and returned at their death or deposition. Of all the khiao the most powerful is the prince of Ubon (15º N., 105º E.), whose jurisdiction extends nearly from Bassak on the Mekong northwards to the great southern bend of that river.

The many contradictory accounts of the Laos that have been published by travellers are due to the fact that quite three-fourths of the race have become mixed with the surrounding Khas or aboriginal inhabitants of the peninsula. The half-castes that have thus sprung from alliances with the Bolovens, Thêhs, Redehs, Sui, and other wild tribes of Caucasic stock present every variety between that type and the Mongolian. But those that have preserved the purity of their blood 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 Tai and other branches of the Mongol family. These are also a semi-civilized people with a knowledge of letters, followers of the Buddhist teachings, settled in small towns and villages, and engaged chiefly in agriculture. They have domesticated the elephant and buffalo, and are peaceful and industrious, being skilled in the production of lacquered wares, and silk and cotton fabrics for local use. Trading relations have also long been established with China, Siam, Burmah, and Camboja [Cambodia], with which countries their ivory, gold dust, tin, gums, lac, benzoin, raw silk, skins, and sapanwood are bartered for cotton cloth, chintzes, silks, opium, hardware, and porcelain. At present a large portion of this trade is in the hands of itinerant Burmese dealers and hawkers, who are met everywhere between the Irawadi and Mekong valleys, organized in small caravans with a headman and porters all well armed, like the Povindahs of Afghanistan.

The civilized Laos have long been addicted to slave hunting, not only with the sanction but even with the co-operation of the authorities. When times are hard and tribute cannot otherwise be raised, "the Lao mandarins organize regular expeditions against the wild tribes. On some slight pretext a favourable camping ground is chosen, whence attacks are made in all directions on villages, which they hope to surround or surprise. The savages live only in small hamlets consisting of a few huts, and they are powerless to resist the attacks of men armed with guns. These razzias are usually made only against the independent savages who reject the authority of the Lao princes and refuse to pay tribute. But I have noticed that the compact by which the savages consent to surrender a part of their independence, in order to preserve their wives, children, and themselves, is far from being always respected; and the unfortunate Gnia-heuns, for example, who dwell within a few leagues of Bassak, are in the greatest terror of the prince, refusing on any consideration to leave their forests or inaccessible villages." (Footnote 295-1) The convoys of slaves, purchased chiefly by Chinese and Malay dealers from Camboja, are forwarded mainly to Bangkok, Korat, and Phnom-penh, the present capital of Camboja [Cambodia]. This organized slave trade is the great curse of the nation, and tends more than all other causes combined to retard the natural development of the Lao country.

The mixed Lao peoples are distinguished from the pure stock chiefly by their more regular features, tall stature, lighter complexion, sub-dolichocephalic crania, and generally lower social condition. Most of them, although nominal Buddhists, are in reality still nature-worshippers, who make offerings of sticks and stones to the local genii, and guard their homes against evil spirits by means of brooms, cotton threads, bunches of herbiage, and other curious devices. Some of them are quite as savage as the wild tribes, and, although acquainted with the use of firearms, still use the characteristic crossbow, a formidable weapon, which in skilled hands will kill a buffalo with a simple bamboo arrow at considerable distances. In some parts the confusion of types and usages is so great that the true Khas can be distinguished from the Laos only by the lobe of the ear, which is pierced for the insertion of large bone, ivory, or wooden ornaments like those worn by many of the Oceanic races.

Apart from the passions associated with the infamous slave trade, encouraged by their rulers, the Laos are an inoffensive, unwarlike, and peace-loving race, fond of music, and living chiefly on a diet of rice, vegetables, fruits, fish, and poultry. Pure and mixed, they number altogether perhaps some 1,500,000.


295-1 Dr Harmand, Tour du Monde, July 5, 1879.

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