In Laos, they represent the most important Môn-Khmer ethnic group. Their territory stretches from Phongsali to Pakxane in Bolikhamxay Province, but the Khmu are mostly found living in groups throughout the provinces of Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, northern Sayabury, southern Phongsali, eastern Luang Namtha, also in the center and west of Houaphan and Xieng Khouang and north of Vientiane.
This ethnic minority is divided into many subgroups which are not easily identified ethnically, amongst them are the Môn-Khmer, Ou, Lu, Rok, Me, Keun, Kheng, Khouene, Khongsat.
The Nguan and the Kha Bit who are closely related to the Khmu are attributed to the Lamet and the Samtao, which are quite different ethnic groups.
The Khmu Me share the Khmu Ou's territory in the north of Luang Prabang Province (Nam Bak) and to the west. This represents the southern boundary of the Khmu Rok's territory, which extends throughout the Mekong buckle. The districts of Houn and Beng in Oudomxay Province are the centre of the Khmu Rok's territory and are also inhabited by the Khmu Klong.
The Khmu Lu they have their own territory in the districts of Xay and Namo in Oudomxay Province as well as in the district of Nam Tha in Luang Namtha Province.
The Khmu Rok, after the Khmu Ou, represent the second largest group within the Môn-Khmer family.
The beliefs and the religion of the Môn-Khmer family are related to the well-known Pumpkin story which explains their origins. The memories and the stories told in Houn district show that the Khmu Rok have been living in the region for more than 400 years. In many stories, relations with the Lao and the importance of Bronze Drums are recurring subjects, unfortunately, this knowledge is only found with the elderly people who are worried about losing their traditions.
Roofs of houses covered with wooden tiles or thatch
Enclosed village with storage houses grouped outside the village
Basket-ware is very important: for self-usage or exchange, baskets are woven by the men between June and August
Hunting, picking and iron smith's activities are important
Use of a silver pipe to smoke tobacco
Some old people have full tattooed bodies
Upland dry rice cultures
Special rice storage houses on pillars protected from mice and rats
Legends and stories are told during evening time, near the fire
Recovery ceremonies for serious diseases, epidemics or natural disasters: buffalo sacrifice occurs exceptionally
The Khmu prefer the valleys of average altitude (400 m to 800 above sea level) with a slope-basin which is favorable for grub cultures and their settlements.
The most desirable resource is a large quantity of biomass which is burned to enrich the soil for better produce. Moreover, the grubbing territory should be large enough to provide for a whole village of 30 families, sometimes up to 150 families.
Traditionally, the land was left fallow for 15 years in between harvests. Nowadays, it the fallow period is reduced to 3 to 5 years. Under these conditions, it is sometimes necessary to practice the burn-beating technique.
The Khmu always settle near a river where they can bathe, get water supplies, go fishing and hunt frogs. During the dry season they harvest seaweed (river algae).
In the past, small livestock was intended for consumption and exchange; nowadays, it represents an important source of income to most villages. Big livestock like buffalo or cow are seldom.
The Khmu are used to visiting other ethnic minority villages. They traditionally practice barter with other ethnic groups and they also look for work when necessary. The barter system is very old and the Khmu and their NTFPs (Non Timber Forest Products) are well appreciated. It is important for the Khmu to keep up good relationships with their neighboring villages, as both depend on each others services. Seasonal jobs taken up with the Lao and Lue communities of Nam Beng i.e. are now part of the production system of many Khmu families.
The traditional production system is mainly made up of slope rice culture, hunting and picking fruits of the forest, raising small livestock and exchanges of baskets with neighboring villages. In recent years, there have been very few changes concerning the production system. Only the people fortunate enough to have access to irrigated land changed their traditional systems. For the others, reduction in fertile land yields less produces and forces the families to work in many different domains. This is why some families would rather work as farm workers instead of sowing rice and waiting for an uncertain harvest.
Khmu villages can be very big with up to 150 families. They are traditionally settled on forested slopes, between 400 and 800 meters above the sea level. A river and a large territory for sticky rice growing are the main criteria for choosing a village's location. Before 1975, Khmu people used to organize an animist ceremony to ensure that the spirits of the district, the particular spot and the forest were pacified.
Animism and beliefs in spirits of the living and dead are the main features of the Khmu religion. These are characteristic to most of the Môn-Khmer ethnic groups. But magic and trance-like behaviors are specific to the Khmu. Nowadays, although the cases are rare and nobody wants to openly speak about these practices they are still existent.
The neighboring ethnic minorities know of the Khmu magic performances and are afraid of them. The importance of spirit beliefs has decreased a great deal, most of all since the 1975 changes. Equally, most religious rituals organized for special people or for annual ceremonies within the rice growing cycle have disappeared from the majority of the villages.
- It is forbidden to touch the altar or the amulets representing the house's spirit
- No ceremony is organized for a newborn baby if the child is born with the feet first. The shaman has to select an animal for sacrifice, generally a pig. If the child is born head first, the pork becomes sacred and shouldn't be eaten by the family.
- One should not enter into a house without the chief's permission
The Khmu are able to adjust easily to socio-political organizations. They accept to work within production systems of neighboring ethnic minorities that are better organized.
Sometimes, they adapt to development to such an extent that they give up their traditional characteristics and taboos which are a means to protect their ethnic group. When a loss of culture is not compensated by new contexts that are readily integrated into their society, the Khmu community looses its identity and inner balance.
Therefore, the Khmu should be lead into a development system which is adaptable, progressive and sustainable at the same time.