Last Updated: Monday, 23 May 2016, 07:53 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Laos : Tai and other hill peoples

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Laos : Tai and other hill peoples, 2008, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Tribal Lao Tai live in the higher valleys and on the middle slopes of the mountains in northern Laos (and in adjacent areas of south-west China, north Thailand and north-west Vietnam). Largely self-sufficient, they cultivate rice on irrigated terraces as well as corn, wheat and beans and also engage in swidden agriculture. They are mainly animist and speak a number of interrelated Thai-Kadai languages, which means they can communicate with lowland Lao and Thai peoples.

Some Tai have an alphabet based on the same Sanskrit alphabet as the Lao and Thai, but their literacy rates are low. Tai tribes are usually categorized according to their traditional costumes: Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Khao (White Tai), Tai Deng (Red Tai). Other Tai tribes such as Tai Neua, Tai Phong, Phou Tai, Lue Tai, Yuan and Phuan, have been characterized by location or other characteristics, such as speaking distinct languages which are nevertheless closely related. Tai are regarded as inferior by lowland Lao, and Tai, in turn, look down on lowland Lao for having failed to maintain Tai tradition and culture. The Tai Dam is the largest of these minorities and has a caste system involving a nobility, commoners and priests.

Historical context

The Lao Tai, along with the Lao Loum, started migrating into today's Laos in small groups from about the eighth century, from southern China or northern Vietnam, tending to establish themselves along river valleys, displacing the Lao Theung already present. Another major migration wave occurred in the thirteenth century as the Mongols consolidated their grip in China, and Tai dominance was by then spreading throughout much of the region, despite resistance from still strong Lao Theung groups.

Current issues

As with other traditional groups, the Tai Dam and other Lao Tai groups are feeling increasing pressure to modernize, with modernization linked to the adoption of the lifestyles, practices and language of the dominant Lao Loum. Some Lao Tai villages are also being displaced as Laos moves ahead with the controversial Nam Theun 2 Dam project which will flood more than 600 sq km: it is thought it will displace at least 7,000 when completed, and affect many more.

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