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Ethnic groups encountered

The Indochinese peninsula is characterised by incredible diversity. It is probably the most complex region in the world from the linguistic and ethnographical point of view. This complexity is partially explained by the physical configuration of the peninsula. There is a contrast between the mountainous regions, where the minority ethnic groups, "the mountain dwellers", are established and the deltas of the great rivers, the plains and the valleys. Burma, Laos and Vietnam are the countries with the largest number of minority groups in comparison with Thailand and Cambodia, which are covered in plains and plateaux. There are officially 48 ethnic groups in Laos.

Four large groups can be identified, corresponding to the various phases during which Laos was populated:

The Austro-Asiatics or Mon-Khmers: they were present over the whole territory before the arrival of other populations. They are numerous in both the north and south. The explorers and colonial administrators named them Moi in Vietnam, Kha in Laos, and Phnong in Cambodia. These terms mean savages. More scientifically and respectfully, Georges Condominas spoke of the "Proto-Indochinese". The Tai-Lao: they came from southern China and started arriving from the 7-9th century. Essentially they are Laos and Tais and mainly inhabit the plains and valleys. The Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao): they came from southern China and arrived at the end of the 19th century. They are found from the north of Laos to Vientiane. The Tibeto-Burmans mainly came from Yunnan and arrived during the 19th century. They are in northern Laos. The first ethno-linguistic maps date from the time of colonisation. Indeed, it was important for the administration to identify its contacts. However, the only real distinction was between the Tai language populations and the Khas. For the most part names came from translations by the interpreters, often pure fantasy. Sometimes distinctions were a little more precise, like those of Cupet, de Malglaive, and Massie, all companions of Pavie, Colonel Diguet and later Henri Maître. Even though the various ethnic groups are better identified today, reading the words of Pavie provides some marvellous descriptions of the men and women, and of some surprising encounters.

The Thais. Physical description.

"In general the Pou-Thais are tall for Asiatics (our measurements show an average of 1.56 metres for 100 Pou-Thais with the shortest being 1.47 and the tallest 1.64). They are very muscular, very well proportioned, the waist is more distinct than that of the Annamites, they walk steadily without swaying, the foot is arched, the expression is open, eyes generally black and not slanted, the forehead is uncovered, the head is slightly lengthened from front to back, ears are small and straight, the nose is straight with well-formed cartilages, nostrils are averagely upturned, the mouth is of average size, the lips are a little thick, teeth are well implanted without prognathism, and the chin is a little short. They wear their hair long and tied back, the beard is sparse and late in arriving, skin is white where it is covered and bronzed where it is exposed to the sun, clothing consists of loose trousers to the ankle, a long Annamite shirt in blue cotton that is woven and dyed in the country, a turban of the same colour is wound around the head and holds the hair. They do not have tattoos. They can be sub-divided into the Caôs Pou-Thais or white Pou-Thais, Deng Pou-Thais or red Pou-Thais and Dam Pou-Thais or black Pou-Thais. The Caôs Pou-Thais live in the Upper Black River area, the Dam Pou-Thais in the region from Son-La to Theng and the Deng Pou-Thais in the section neighbouring the Nam Het, the upper tributary of the Song Ma. The Pou-Thais from Lai must be added to these three tribes. They may be distinguished by a greater infiltration of the Chinese civilisation [...]. As everywhere else, the women are smaller than men, and have the same physical characteristics in a softer form. The tribes are differentiated by their costumes and the way they wear their hair. The Caôs wear their hair knotted behind their head like the men but they do not wear a turban. Their costume is a small jacket with black frogs fastened with metal clips, silver for the rich and copper for the poor, a skirt knotted at the waist on the right and a gandoura with narrow sleeves, the top of which is patterned with bright materials placed so that they make a pretty belt between the skirt and the jacket. The Dam Pou-Thai women wear their hair on the top of the head; their small jackets are made in white cotton fabric or silk without metal clips. The Deng Pou-Thais wear their hair up and pulled to the side." (Massie)

The Thais. Physical description.

"All the inhabitants of the region are Thai-Phongs. Their costume is in local dark indigo cotton fabric, tailored on the Annamite model and narrowed for the people. The important people have adopted the sampot in brightly-coloured native silk or English cotton fabric with, I think, flowers and spots. They all wear the Laotian toupet. The women wrap the chignon on the top of their heads with multi-coloured pha-quits. They wear dark blue patterned or multi-coloured silk dresses of their own making. For grand occasions they squeeze into a minuscule dark jacket. Daytime rest periods are rocked with complaints about their work and at night by the rhythm of their pestles, and the lilting chants that the children at the Buddhist monks' school sing like our litanies. The general type is strong particularly in the chalky region. The facial features almost always intelligent, the eyes hardly or not at all slanting, an open facial angle, the forehead is often rounded, the nose is very short, sometimes flat and sometimes verging on the aquiline, strong lips and jaws, the lower jaw having an opening angle such that it is possible to differentiate their type from all the other Indochinese I know. The welcome received everywhere was perfect ; they are very attentive and neither servile nor familiar like the Annamites." (de Malglaive)

"The white Thais are taller than their neighbours and also have a more handsome type, the face is less rough and the nose less flattened. Their attitude is also prouder which they must get from their custom of being served by the neighbouring peoples [...]" (Edouard Diguet)

The Khas. Physical description.

"Khas are generally of average height, with a dark complexion, and depressed, receding skull. They have thick, smooth black hair, average-sized ears with the concha directed forward and a very developed lobe. Their noses are small with a narrow bridge and wide base with upturned nostrils. They have straight deep-set black eyes, the superciliary arch is well defined, and the eyebrows formed. Cheekbones are semi-prominent, the mouth is wide and the lips thick, jaws have no distinct prognathism. The beard is quite full in some tribes such as the Doe Kha and the Bit Kha. Facial appearance is gentle and fearful, with a fixed stare. As everywhere, the women are the same type as the men but in a softer form. They are a little smaller and a little less strong." (Massie)

"For all the Khas the costume is uniform in its composition. That of the men is a dark blue loincloth rolled around the belt, passed several times between the thighs with both fringed ends hanging down the front. The elegant prefer them long (about 3.50 metres) so that they can leave one of the folds a little loose on a rear section and on one thigh. The two ends are decorated with red, white and yellow patterns, fringed with little tubes in ivory and pewter on each strand of the fringes [...]. The women cover up more. Their knotted loincloths hanging down the front, but not sewn, are longer and form a skirt which comes down and hides the knees. Also with a dark blue background, it is either plain or with vertical or horizontal stripes in red, white or yellow […]. Both sexes wear their hair long knotted in a bun on the back of the neck. The bun is decorated with brass pins, with a fine bird feather going through it horizontally. Both sexes like jewellery. However, all the jewellery is in glassware, brass and pewter." (de Coulgeans)

The Khas. Physical description.

"The savages have a very modest wardrobe. The men wear the Keupene or langouti and the women the Habane. The Keupene is a wide cotton belt about twelve feet long. It is wound round the small of the back several times after being passed between the legs. One of its ends hangs down the front and the other floats at the side. Most often these Keupenes are in ordinary cloth, white or blue. However sometimes those who are richer have Jarai langoutis. These are decorated with varied patterns and their ends are adorned with pendants made from the seeds of the forest. Sometimes the savages add one or two pewter rings. The women’s Habane is a simple piece of cloth which is knotted on the hips and goes down to around the knees. Generally the men and women savages have bare chests but they also wear a sort of small jacket without sleeves which is wide open at the front or even the khann. This item of clothing is also a piece of cloth in which the savages drape themselves with a degree of elegance [...]. Our indigenous people are quite conscious of their appearance. The young people in particular like to adorn themselves with pearl necklaces, pewter drop earrings, copper bracelets or rings, and a comb with a wide back covered in pewter which shines in the sun. The savages do not always wear their gop or drop earrings. .. As for their hair it is put up into a bun, knotted or held by a wide-backed comb." (Father Guerlach)

"Normally the savage has a well-defined waist, supple, wiry limbs and an uncovered chest. Hair is black and abundant. The skin is bronzed, the eyes dark brown and scarcely or not at all slanted, the beard is black but generally sparse. The stance of the savage is proud with no affectation. When he walks his steps are assured and the head is held high... they have flattened noses, prominent cheekbones and pronounced jaws. The women are generally small and ugly and even the youngest have an elderly air which doubtless comes from overwork. From the moral point of view, it can be said that the savage is not accessible to any high feelings or capable of good movement. His absolutely personal character is the result of a ferocious individualism and egotism pushed to its furthest limits." (Cupet)

The Meos. Physical description.

The Meos are Chinese in origin. They have very slanted eyes, wear unbraided pony tails and build their dwellings at ground level as in China. Their effects are in cloth like those of the Khas, generally blue to indigo. They nearly always wear a turban round their head. The costume of the women is very fashion-conscious, almost European. It consists of a short skirt, pleated and bordered at the bottom, an apron knotted at the belt and a jacket cut high over the chest with a large collar bordered with blue piping, totally similar to those worn by our sailors. The head is shaven Chinese fashion and the pony tail is generally rolled in a turban. The Meos are always grouped by villages and settle in the neighbourhood of ridges, on long brows offering a large area of land that can be cultivated. Their diet is exclusively maize. They are much more industrious than the Khas and even produce paper. Many of them use the waterfalls to provide power for the equipment for grinding the maize. A particular detail is that they eat using wooden spoons unlike the custom of the people of the country who never use anything but their fingers. Like the other savages they have neither religion nor any type of book or writing." (Cupet)

The Yaos. Physical description.

"The Yaos are short. Our measurements show a variation for an adult man between 1.52 and 1.60 metres and for the woman between 1.40 and 1.50. They do not have any tattoos and their skin is white, their eyes which are often grey are slightly slanted and their hair is quite fine. The face is expressive, the forehead straight as is the nose [...]. The men wear wide long trousers and a small Chinese jacket. They shave their hair and, like the Meos, only leave a small tress on the top of the skull. Their heads are covered with large turbans in blue cotton fabric." (Massie)

The Lus. Physical description.

"The Lu differ [from the Thais] by the slightly darker skin, the tattoos, the rounder chin, the more prominent cheekbones, the shallower forehead, thicker limbs and heavier joints. Like the Yangs they wear their hair long and knotted in a horn, sometimes covering it with a straw hat and sometimes a scarf knotted the Burman way. Masculine clothes consist of a small jacket buttoned at the side with tricolour piping in red, white and blue, and long trousers to the ankle. The women have mostly bare shoulders and hide their breasts under a sash rolled round the small of the back. The sash holds a uniform skirt for all the Sip Song Pannas." (Massie)

The Thai "culture"

This language [of the Pou-Thais] is identical to the Laotian of Luang Prabang in that the pronunciation only differs by a great tendency towards recto-tonality in the sounds. By the addition of dissyllabic phonetic characters, this very ancient form of language marks a transition between syllabic languages and two syllable languages. They have unvarying nouns without plurals, and possessive pronouns like Koï, mïng, man, hau, chau, phüoc, mane, which are attached to the verb to mark the persons.

Paï To go
koï paï I go
ming paï You (singular) go
man paï He/she/it goes
hau paï We go
chau paï You (plural) go
phuoc man paï They go
[...] the area over which this language extends is considerable [...] Four writing forms, all of which are alphabetical, are used to write the same words. One belongs exclusively to Tonkin and Upper Nam Hou, the other being current throughout the Laos of Luang Prabang and Vien Chiane. The third is applied by Bangkok in the countries that are truly Siamese and the fourth is used exclusively in the Shan countries and the province of Xieng Maï. The first two have the greatest affinity, one for the other, particularly when both are written in the same manner, either by quill pen, stylus pen or brush." (Massie)

The Kha "culture"

"Here the Khas are called savages. If barbarism is not being aware of writing characters or how to transmit remotely some basic ideas other than by conventional signs, the name would be justified because they know nothing of writing. Do they want to correspond: flat sticks with notches in varying numbers, on one or other side, of uniform size or varying in size, alternately large and small, alternated by groups of one or several units, more or less spaced, placed at varying heights on the bamboo, coloured or not, would indicate raising troops for unpaid labour, an order of general interest, would say when and in how many days a gathering would take place. When feathers are attached to a baton, depending upon the side on which they are fixed, the species of bird to which they belong, the part of the bird from which they were plucked would complete the communication and would, according to convention, make the stick recount the entire contents of a long letter." (Massie)

"The architects of that time had grandiose projects such as erecting a hut, the roof of which would be lost in the dark clouds of rain. The eldest son of our original parents was works director and conducted his world efficiently. Everyone was set to work so the job progressed rapidly. The rafters were put up. The eldest son on the ridge of the roof gave his orders in a ringing voice. Like the heroes of Homer he had good lungs and a cast-iron throat. The sound of his voice was like the noise of the wind during a storm. So he could be heard easily. On this day even the Public Works Director needed rattan. He asked for it and was brought a beam. Very discontented, he threw away the beam and demanded rattan. He was offered a rope. Anger got the better of him and he heartily berated these villains who seemed to be deriding him. Everyone started to laugh because he was not understood as the languages were confused. Angrily the eldest son of Bok Seugueur jumped down from the roof, picked up a heavy club and gave his brothers, sisters and small nephews a first-class punishment. The same convincing argument was not to everyone’s taste. To escape this hail of blows, the men dispersed to all corners of the globe. Those who spoke Bahnar emigrated to the Bahnar country, and others gave birth to the Sedangs, the Ruenga, the Jarai, etc. The oldest son stayed with his parents and became the source of the Annamite people. This is why the Annamites are richer and more intelligent that the people of our mountains; they are descended from the eldest son! Such is the origin of the different peoples according the chronicles of the savages." (Father Guerlach)