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Laos Tribes We Visit Along the Way and Other Attractions

Join our Laos Mekong river cruise to experience the village life and interact with tribes populating small riverside villages. The government recognizes 240 ethnic subgroups and 49 ethnicities. Your expedition will offer a glimpse into ethnic minority groups whose practices stand in pretty stark contrast to the western way of life.

Laos is home to three major ethnic minority groups: the Hmong, the Khmu and the Lao Lum. Little is known about the history of the Hmong people, although linguistic evidence suggests that they may have occupied some areas of southern China, while DNA samples have proposed a genetic relationship between the Hmong people and Mon-Khmer people, a large language family of over 110 million speakers distributed throughout Mainland China, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and China’s southern border.

In the 60s, the CIA recruited the Hmong people to quell the Pathet Lao communist political movement, supported at the time by North Vietnam. But the subsequent takeover of Laos by Pathet Lao led to thousands of political and economic refugees in western countries. The Hmong people represent the largest group of Asians in Milwaukee, and in 2018, five Hmong candidates were elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, the highest since Hmong refugees began arriving to the USA in the 70s.

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Don’t expect to see Buddhist temples or signs here as the Hmong in Laos practice shamanism and animalism. Agriculture is the major economic activity (villagers grow rice and vegetables); the Hmong have also traditionally grown more opium than any group in Laos.

During your visit to Ban Pak Leab, you will get the opportunity to interact with the Lao Lowland people. The Lao Lum/Loum community lives in self-contained houses in the flat areas along the lower part of Mekong river. Although the soil here is fertile, the Lao Loum have preferred not to keep reusing the land to cultivate crops, relocating often to other fertile areas. In contrast to the Hmong people, Lao Loum are Buddhists, form nuclear families, and have faith in the power of the spirit.

The Hmong are known for their knowledge of the jungle and medicinal herbs. Many tribe members are expert blacksmiths and skilled weavers. Traditional Hmong attire is adorned with exquisite embroidery and silver jewelry.

Midland people and Upland people also inhabit Laos. The homes of the former, known as Lao Theung, nestle along the mountains and valleys of Mekong river and shelter extended/joint families. The latter have settled in the upper basin of Mekong, grow white rice and corn, and share similarities in family structure with the Lao Theung. Of the three regions, the lowland is the more prosperous region, as you will come to witness during your visit.

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The Khmu community are divided into several clans, named after a vegetable, bird or mammal. Members of the clans are disallowed from eating or killing the vegetable, animal or bird they represent. Like the Hmong, the Khmu are animists, believing in spirit guardians of rivers, forests, livestock and rice. They also happen to use every part of a pig, practicing elaborate knifework, which includes collecting still-running blood and stirring it continuously to prevent coagulation. The blood is mixed with water and herbs in a precise ratio to serve as topping over meat. The community also makes rice wine, which is both pungent smelling and sweet tasting.

The Khmu most densely populate the provinces of Luang Prabang. Khmuic traditions and beliefs are quite interesting. Usually, a traditional Khmuic house is designed in such a way that its direction intersects with that of the sun. Khmuic people worship the sun and believe its rays expel negative energies out of their homes and kill harmful bacteria.

Story-telling sessions are conducted regularly around evening fires. Many men participating in these sessions use silver pipes to smoke. Many Khmuic people are heavily tattooed. Khmuic people believe that offering rice souls on their rice fields will result in a good harvest. The tribe has separate cemeteries for people who died due to natural causes, children, people who died away from home, and people who died in accidents.

Khmuic people consider certain activities such as entering someone’s house without their permission and organizing ceremonies for children born feet-first as taboo and believe that these activities can bring bad luck.

Many of the Khmu Ou – who represent a majority of the Khmu people in Laos – practice Christianity. Missionaries who landed here first in 1902 and continued contact from then on, reported a great interest in Jesus Christ among the Khmu Ou, with stories revealing a near- obsession with watching spiritual movies on VCR round-the-clock.

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At Ban Pak Yun village, you can meet Lao lowlanders, Khmu and Hmong people, who all live together. Your itinerary will cover at least five villages, with each offering distinct experiences and sights.

As our itinerary is not fixed, you may also visit Pak Lai, a port and administrative town with a few historic structures built in Lao and French colonial style. The town is famous for its bustling local market and hosts South East Asia’s largest elephant festival. Other than the Laos Mekong cruise, our Laos to China and Halong Bay, Red River and Laos Mekong expeditions make stopovers at Pak Lai.

The first day of your expedition begins at Vientiane, the national capital stretching along the eastern bank of the Mekong. Laos’ largest city was destroyed by the Thai army in the 1820s and restored by French colonists in the early 20th century. Vientiane is famous for its golden Pha That Luang Stupa, Sisaket Temple, the President’s Hall, Wat Prakeo Temple and the Phatouxay monument. The city also boasts a legendary night market selling an unbelievably vast array of trinkets and souvenirs.

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Wat Xieng Thong: An important Lao monastery

The Laos experience is incomplete without a leisurely visit to the renowned Wat Xieng Thong. Located at the northern tip of the Luang Phrabang, Wat Xieng Thong is a richly decorated temple (“wat”) built by King Setthathirath in 1559 near the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The monastery’s congregation hall/sim is a prominent feature, its exterior and interior detailing gold stenciled images on black lacquer. Another awe-inspiring feature is the sweeping roof that nearly reaches down to the ground. The roof has a three-tiered center flanked by many two-tiered sections. The central crest consists of an ornamental element comprising 17 miniature stupas (hemispherical structures containing Buddhist relics) protected by seven-tiered parasols.

Of special interest is the reclining Buddha sanctuary with the original reclining statute dating to the temple’s construction. The reclining Buddha is a major iconographic pattern of Buddhism representing Gautama Buddha during his illness prior to leaving his mortal flesh- body and entering the realm of infinite consciousness.

The sim’s exterior wall depicts a tree of life mosaic, with the standing Buddha on top and a man walking as well as different animals at the bottom of the picture, all against a red background. A beautifully carved gilded entrance door flanks each side of the mosaic. The interior walls depict scenes of daily life, animals, floral motifs and Jataka tales, an age-old body of literature narrating the previous births of Gautama Buddha and communicating moral messages.

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Two nights at Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the ancient capital and town center, is a UNSECO World Heritage site dotted with French colonial buildings, beautiful wats and an excellent night market. In December, thousands gather on the streets to watch a procession of elephants, some of which have travelled hundreds of miles from conservation centers and passed through villages to educate children about elephant conservation. As fireworks go off in the sky, the unique and majestic view stimulates excitement and delight even from the otherwise sedate young monks.

The city’s increasing popularity as a unique, charming and old-world tourist destination has led to the establishment of many fine hotels and restaurants here. You can step into fancy bakeries and cafes, stay at an upscale hotel, savor noodle soup at soup stalls and even enjoy authentic Indian food behind the indoor Dara Market. Three years ago, China embarked on a high-speed rail project through Laos en route to Thailand.

An unmissable experience is the early morning monks’ walk, where hundreds of monks make their way silently from their monasteries to the town center, in descending order of age. Locals offer the monks alms, and you can also join in with offerings. Although most tourists quietly appreciate this centuries-old ritual from a distance, some have unfortunately been seen to be disruptive, shoving cameras at the monks’ faces and taking selfies with them.

Bask in the night market – thronged by tourists – that spans 1km and runs every evening from 4pm to 10pm. Local textiles, silver jewelry and hand-crafted souvenirs retail for reasonable prices. There is no dearth of food options along the way, with a variety of local street food replenishing you through hours of shopping.

Also on your Luang Prabang itinerary – a morning exploration of the city’s Buddhist temples, libraries, royal palace and National Museum. Get around in a tuk-tuk, the iconic vehicles plying Laos streets. Tuk-tuks come in different designs, from a one-piece motorbike-style steering rear-wheeled drive called Skylabs, that can carry up to eight passengers, and smaller Jumbo tuk-tuks that seat fewer passengers and often squeal on roads, to traditional tuk-tuks with a rudimentary van-like design and small pick-up trucks with a partially closed back and benches along the sides.

Mekong River - The backbone of Laos and South East Asia

The Mekong river is the SE Asia’s longest river, flowing from Tibet through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Flowing for 4,602 kilometers/2,870 miles, it is an important source of food and water for 60 million people populating its banks and immediate surroundings. The river is home to 1,300 varieties of fish, including the giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphins. In an article, Natural History magazine wrote that the Mekong’s name translated from Lao as ‘mother of the waters’.

The river becomes easier to navigate as you travel south on it. From the tripoint of Burma, Laos and Thailand, the Mekong snakes southeast to create a border of Laos with Thailand and then meanders east into the interior of Laos, flowing some 400 km/250 miles before once again touching the border of Thailand. Continuing on for 850 km/530 miles, it flows east to pass in front of Vientiane and then takes a southerly route. Here, it once again leaves the border and takes an easterly journey into Laos, passing the populous city of Pakse and then turns south into Cambodia.



River Cruise itinerary for The Laos Mekong

The Laos Mekong

Vientiane - Chiang Khong

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

10 nights

from US$4,316.40

River Cruise itinerary for The Laos Mekong


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Kim McArdle posted in Jan 2019

China to Laos was our favourite Pandaw trip so far. The walks into the tribal villages through the jungle most days was pleasurable and informative.


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