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Population and Society, Way of Life

polygyny, split bamboo, shared house, opium, Extended families

Rural Lao Lum traditionally live in self-sufficient villages, typically made up of some 40 to 50 households. Houses of timber, thatch, and split bamboo are constructed on wooden piles, with the floor about 2 m (6 ft) above the ground. The agricultural year centers on the cultivation of glutinous (short-grain) rice, the preferred variety among the Lao Lum. Villagers use buffalo for plowing and oxen for pulling carts. Lao Lum form close-knit communities, but families are nuclear—consisting of two parents and their children—not extended. Marriage requires payment of a bride-price (a payment made by the groom to the bride’s family), and the groom normally resides at first with his wife’s parents. When the couple can afford it, they build their own house. Wealthier urban Lao Lum live in spacious villas. In the past, some Lao Lum men took two or more wives, a practice called polygyny, but this practice is now illegal and therefore less common.

Lao Thoeng villages are generally smaller than those of the lowland Lao but are constructed of similar materials. The Lao Thoeng are slash-and-burn farmers, who clear an area of the forest to build a village and plant crops. In 15 to 20 years, when the surrounding forest has been cut and the nutrients in the soil have been depleted, they may move the village to a new area. Lao Thoeng men must choose wives from a clan other than their own. After marriage, a wife resides with her husband’s family until the shared house becomes too crowded and the couple constructs their own. Polygyny is rare among the Lao Thoeng.

Lao Sung villages are similar in size to those of the Lao Thoeng, and like them may be relocated when soils are exhausted. Unlike other Lao, the Lao Sung construct their houses on the ground with a stamped earth floor. They raise numerous pigs and chickens and use hardy mountain ponies for transportation. Their principal cash crop traditionally has been opium, though production is now officially outlawed. Extended families made up of parents, sons and their wives, and grandchildren may number up to 20 people. Polygyny, while formerly widespread, is now illegal.

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