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The main religion in Laos (approx. 60% of the population) is Buddhism, to which the Lao belong; the other peoples, especially the smaller peoples in the mountainous areas and in the lowlands, practise animistic nature religions (approx. 38% of the population). There are about 30,000 Catholics, 25,000 Protestants and about 1.5% of the population practises another religion, such as Islam, or no religion at all.

After the revolution in 1975, religions were left untouched and in 1991 there was also official freedom of religion again. However, in practice, the spreading of any religion whatsoever, outside of designated buildings, is prohibited. Religious propagandists are arrested and can be expelled from the country.


Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BC. The founder was Siddharta Gautama (560-480 B.C.). Although it is not known exactly when Buddha was born, the year of birth is taken as 543 BC. The year 2004 is 2546 in the Buddhist era.

The core of Buddha's teachings are the four noble truths:

-Life is suffering.
-The cause of this suffering is desire and attachment to life. As a result, man is trapped in an unholy cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
-By letting go of desire and detachment man can eliminate suffering.
-The eightfold path (right insight, life, striving, meditation, thinking, aim, word and deed) is the only way out of the unholy cycle of reincarnation and leads to nirvana, the state of bliss.

By adhering to a few basic principles, man can influence his fate or 'karma'. The Five Commandments are: do not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie and use alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

Buddhism is actually not a religion, but a philosophical system and an attitude to life. There are no gods. Buddhism does have monks, but again no church organisation.

The king is traditionally the protector of all religions.

After Buddha's death, the religion fell apart into two directions: mahayana Buddhism and Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism is based on the universal salvation of all living beings and is therefore called the 'great vehicle'. This movement knows 'bodhisattvas', mortals who have already attained enlightenment, but who remain on earth to show people the right path. Mahayana Buddhism has spread to China, Nepal, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Theravada Buddhism, also known as the 'School of the Elders', is practised in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. This direction within Buddhism limits itself to the individual salvation of man, without the intervention of others, and is therefore called the 'small vehicle'. Whoever achieves enlightenment independently becomes an 'arhat'. This status, however, is reserved only for monks. Laymen can only add to their karma during their life on earth and be reborn in a higher position. One can increase his karma by doing good works, such as giving alms to monks and donations to temples. Selfless giving or 'dana' is therefore the most important form of virtue that leads to good karma. Hence, sacrifices are made in Thailand.

Followers of Theravada Buddhism see themselves as the true continuers of Buddha's teachings, as recorded in the holy scripture, the Tripitaka.

Buddhism in Laos

Theravada Buddhism was established as the national religion of Laos by the Laotian King Fa Ngum around the year 1300. It then took several centuries before the Buddhist doctrine was followed throughout the country. There was a lot of resistance, especially outside the cities, and the peoples who worshipped their own animistic spirits refused to exchange the new teachings for their own traditional religion.

In the 16th century, Vientiane became not only the capital of Laos, but also a Buddhist centre. It was not until the end of the 17th century that Buddhist teaching was introduced in the schools. After the Communist regime took over power in 1975, Buddhism was no longer allowed to be expressed in public. In general, government policy is that as long as the teachings do not conflict with Marxism, any religion can be freely practised.

There are hardly any real monasteries in Laos; most monks live behind the walls of temple complexes. Boys are taken to a 'monastery' at a young age to be taught the teachings of Buddha and later to be initiated into the monastery. To become a monk, one must be at least twenty years old. Besides monks, there are also nuns.

Animism (Latin: animus = soul)

The starting point for animism is the soul. Furthermore, the body houses many spirits or 'phi', which are responsible for the functioning of the body. Each spirit may at some point transcend the body, but it will always return. It is only when a person dies that the spirits leave the body permanently and seek refuge somewhere else, basically in everything that lives.

Animists also believe that in natural phenomena, the spirits of their ancestors speak and that good and evil spirits exist. Animism is experienced and practised in many different ways, sometimes closely related to Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism. Very popular is the animistic baci ritual. The ritual is intended to ensure that at important events, such as birth and marriage, all spirits are present in the body to experience the event in as harmonious a way as possible.

Among other rituals, prayers are said in Lao and Pali (a very old language originating in Tibet), inviting the absent spirits to take their original place. Usually, Buddhist monks accompany the baci ritual with monotonous singing and offerings to the spirits. All attendees are required to keep a white cotton thread on their wrist for three days to keep the spirits happy.

After the ceremony is over, those for whom the ceremony was held leave. Those who stay behind are given small glasses of rice liquor and sometimes there is dancing.


Boon, H. / Laos : mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur, milieu
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen

Cummings, J. / Laos
Lonely Planet

Te gast in Laos & Cambodja
Informatie Verre Reizen

Waard, P. de / Laos

Zickgraf, R. / Laos
Chelsea House Publishers

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info