Laos is often described as less a nation state than a conglomeration of tribes and languages. And depending on who you talk with, that conglomeration consists of between 49 and 134 different ethnic groups. (The lower figure ii that now used by the government.)
While the tribal groups are many and varied, the Lao traditionally divide themselves into four categories – Lao Lum, Lao Thai, Lao Thoeng and Lao Soung. These classifications loosely reflect the altitudes at which the groups live, and, by implication (not always accurate), their cultural proclivities. To address some of these inaccuracies, the Lao government recently reclassified ethnic groups into three major language families – Austro-Tai, Austro- Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan.
However, many people you meet won’t know which language family they come from, so we’ll stick here with the more commonly understood breakdown.