Sekong Ethnic Diversity
A handful of southern Laos’ Alak live in Sekong, having migrated from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Their palm and thatch houses encircle communal spirit houses on stilts. Several clans – named after animals considered sacred – comprise the Alak’s matriarchal society, in which women once tattooed their faces. They hold annual buffalo sacrifices and festivals to honour spirits protecting their villages.
The Katang are best known for their extended families that dwell in longhouses. Whenever a family member marries, the house is lengthened to accommodate the new family. The Katang are Laos’ sixth largest ethnic group, and live in isolated pockets of Sekong. Men and women once stretched their earlobes with large bamboo tubes for decoration, though only a few do this today.
A few thousand Katu inhabit Sekong. They live in long rectangular houses, and though most families are monogamous, some men have more than one wife. However, they must pay a dowry equal to 15 buffaloes, or live with their wives’ families to work off the debt. The Katu sacrifice buffaloes to the spirits, which protect their villages, and employ shamans who are paid with chickens or silver. They often share villages with Alak, Ngae, and Ta Oy, and like the Alak, Katu women once tattooed their faces,
The mountain-dwelling Ngae tend to share villages with Suay, Alak, and Ta Oy, and can often be found in river valleys. Ngae infants cannot leave their houses until after a buffalo sacrifice, and the youngest child must live with his or her parents for life. Shamans perform sacrifices in the communal spirit houses and oversee spirit world contact.
The Pako dwell in eastern Sekong in the mountains near Vietnam, and mostly subsist by slash-and-burn farming. They do not weave, and speak a unique language. Many have adapted metal war scrap, found along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, into useful tools by using traditional blacksmithing skills. The Pako reside in stilted-house clusters of 10, and each village has a communal house. They are animists and construct spirit houses in the village outskirts.
The Suay have their own language and are among Sekong’s earliest inhabitants, having migrated from neighbouring Attapeu. Though never part of the Khmer civilization, they wear Khmer khamas (chequered cotton fabric). Once known as skilled blacksmiths, most are now rice farmers, who also raise livestock and gather forest products. The Suay live in bamboo and thatched houses on stilts in villages away from their fields. They believe in a mix of animism and Buddhism.
More than 23,000 Talieng live in southern Laos, and many are concentrated in the remote mountainous areas of Sekong above 1,500 metres. The Talieng, which means “headhunter”, tend not to interact with outsiders, and are one of the few remaining groups, who maintain their own customs and traditional dress. In the past, polygamy was common among the ruling class, but now most families are monogamous. The youngest child of each Talieng family is responsible for taking care of his or her parents and for worshiping ancestors. Every year, they hold a week-long ceremony to pray for their ancestors. Buffaloes are sacrificed in front of the communal house.
The Ta Oy mostly live high in the mountains near the Vietnam border and Bolaven Plateau. They practice animism and shamanism, and perform sacrificial rituals. One custom entails burying the dead in their best clothes and jewellery, and after several years, exhume, wash, decorate, and place the remains in funeral houses outside their former homes.