Local culture in Laos is an asset which has continuously infused the country’s very distinctive essence and identity. With a large number of indigenous minorities, Laos has been a focus for anthropologists since decades, while its traditional handicrafts, more particularly the unrivaled complexity of local textile making and weaving, have drawn admiration from connaisseurs around the world.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the country is currently in rapid transition. Since Laos opened up to the world in the early 1990s, it has experienced the rising influx of tourism followed by a growing influence from mass trade and globalization, particularly in the capital city Vientiane and world heritage destination Luang Prabang. While opportunities and threats are both integral to the global economy, the vulnerability of Laos is linked to its limited ability to sustain local cultural traditions through new creative practices.
In Laos, cultural infrastructure strongly caters for tourism but does not take local communities into sufficient consideration. While it is rather typical across most countries of Southeast Asia, in Laos the management and/or commercialization of culture is by often led by foreign entities or individuals. On the positive side, this foreign interest has helped preserve some local cultural assets over recent decades yet it has simultaneously created a strong dependency on foreign support. Tourism has also negatively influenced the handicraft production chain, decreasing product quality to produce quantity. A balance needs to be restored in order to let the next generation of Laotians acquire more leadership in the management of their own culture and the development of new creative skills that can generate valuable cultural experiences.
Typically in Laos, culture is deeply embedded in everyday life (especially in rural areas). But on the other hand cultural education is scarce and creative thinking not commonly practiced, if at all. Presently, young people in Laos are not well exposed to cultural and creative education as their access to general education remains a challenge.
Across Southeast Asia, culture is now increasingly considered as an opportunity for economic growth through the development of handicraft consumer goods. Beyong mere product, culture also needs to be remembered as an experience that defines a local way of life. With a distinctive culture shaped by the surrounding eco-systems, traditional ethnic minority lifestyle is an inclusive model of sustainable development.
Now the question remains whether the intangible relevance of Lao culture(s) will find its place in contemporary life, amid rapid transformations.