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 Tai-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, Phu Tai/Phouthay, 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 traditionally had a caste system involving a nobility, commoners and priests.
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.
As with other indigenous peoples, the Tai Dam and other minority Lao Tai groups are facing 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 were displaced as Laos completed the controversial Nam Theun 2 Dam project in 2010. 6,200 indigenous people living on the Nakai Plateau were displaced and promises to compensate and provide adequate livelihood opportunities were not met, violating Asian Development Bank guidelines.
Updated July 2018