Superficially Indochina is Buddhist but there is more to it than that. Tradition plays a role in Laotian life and the spirits play a role, especially amongst the small ethnic tribes. In total, there are around 50 such groups. Buddhism in the region dates back to the 8th Century and over succeeding centuries it spread. Laos kings were patrons of the religion which was adopted as the national religion in the 16th Century.
Communism is effectively atheist but the Government is tolerant of religion though it does seek to oversee affairs so that no religion interferes with the State. Freedom of religion exists within the Constitution though some local statutes seem to put limits on that if religion is seen as a source of division.
Laos tour packages inevitably include religious content. Visits to pagodas form part itineraries on a number of days.
It was under King Photisarath that Theravada Buddhism became the national religion and there are over 5,000 pagodas across the Country. At some point in their lives most Buddhist men spend some time as a monk although in some cases it may not even be for a week. The number of monks in Laos exceeds 20,000 and the government, despite its politics promotes the religion and its many festivals.
Approaching two thirds of Laotians can be categorised as Buddhist; the population of Laos is around 7.2 million. There is a Buddhist Wat in every town or village and monks in their orange robes are seen everywhere.At different times of the year there are festivals based upon the lunar calendar and Buddhism. Depending upon when you take a Laos tourpackage you may have the chance to observe local people celebrating. Life may be hard at times in Laos but the locals are always happy to celebrate.
In the many rural villages, the spirits (phi) are important. A mixture of belief in nature, community and Buddhism is often the guiding light for life. It explains disease and monks can be called upon to exorcise evil spirits to remove them from the home.
Ancestors are important among the Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups. Each home is likely to have a small altar on a wall which is the focal point for a ritual.
Europeans arrived in the region in the 16th Century and inevitably missionaries, Roman Catholic, followed them. There are around 45,000 Christians in Laos today, the concentration being almost exclusively in southern provinces and the vast majority being Catholic. There are a small number following the Evangelical and Seventh-Day Adventist churches.
The Government recognises Christianity but while they openly pray in the southern provinces it seems they are less willing to do so in the northern districts.
Only a tiny number of Laotians follow Islam though there is a Jama Masjid in Vientiane. Some are Cambodian who came to Laos to avoid the Khmer Rouge and almost all Muslims live in urban areas. Virtually none are ‘native’ Laos people.Indochina tour packages cross many borders in South East Asia and there has been significant movement of people over the years.