Attapeu's Ethnic Diversity

Little is known about many of Attapeu’s 10 ethnic groups, who live in very isolated mountainous areas.


The ancestors of most of Attapeu’s 127,000 residents have trickled in from neighbouring provinces, the Bolaven Plateau, and Vietnam. Animism and spirit worship guide these groups, though many are aware of Buddhism, and incorporate it in their beliefs.   

“Attapeu” is a French colonial distortion of “Idkabue”, which means "buffalo droppings", as wild buffaloes roamed the area. As such, many of the province’s ethnic groups hold rituals centred on the sacred animal. The Alak, Ngae, Lavae, and Katu perform annual buffalo-sacrifice ceremonies as an offering to the spirits for protection of their communities. Ngae babies cannot leave the house until a buffalo has been sacrificed.

Aside from their buffalo connection, these ethnic groups are quite diverse. The Alak arrange their palm and thatch houses around a communal pavilion. As they are a matriarchal society, women lead the family, control finances, and make all major community decisions. In the past, Alak women tattooed their faces, but this custom is fading.

The Katu live in a handful of Attapeu villages in the forests along the upper Xe Kong River, and they are difficult to access due to a lack of roads. The Katu dwell in long rectangular houses, and each is home to two to eight families. Like Alak women, the Katu once tattooed their faces, but the tradition has faded.

The Katang are Laos’ sixth largest ethnic group and live in isolated northern areas of Attapeu. Their extended families dwell in longhouses up to 100 metres in length. Whenever a family member marries, they add a room to the house to accommodate the new family. Both men and women once stretched their earlobes with large bamboo tubes for decoration, but this practice is now rare.

The some 12,000 Ngae live deep in the mountains in ethnically-mixed villages including Suay, Lao, Alak, Lavae, and Tai Oy. The youngest child in a Ngae family must live with his or her parents for life.

The 30,000-plus Ta Oy mostly live high in the mountains near the Vietnam border, and are known for their complex funeral ritual. Dead Ta Oy women are often buried in their traditional clothing, with ornaments made of copper, silver, ivory, or glass. Several years after the burial, the remains are dug up, washed, decorated, and placed in a funeral house near their home.

The Oy also inhabit Attapeu, and claim they migrated from China and across the Bolaven Plateau. They tend to intermingle with the Ngae. A few Kaleum live in the province’s most distant reaches and little is known about them.


Amazing Attapeu Province

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