Khmu people

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Woman in Laos 1.jpg
A Khmu woman from Laos
Total population
541,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
Laos (~90%)
 Vietnam 72,929 (2009)[1]
Thailand, China, USA, Burma
Khmu, others
Satsana Phi, Theravada Buddhism, Christianity
Khmu people in Bokeo Province, Laos
Khmu people in Bokeo Province, Laos

The Khmu (/kəˈm/; also spelled Khamu or Kemu; Khammu or Khơ Mú in Vietnam; Lao: ຂະມຸ [kʰámū]; Thai: ขมุ) is one of the largest ethnic groups based in northern Laos. They can also be found in Burma, southwest China (in the Sipsong Panna in Yunnan province), Thailand, Vietnam (where they are an officially recognized ethnic group), and Richmond, California. In the People's Republic of China, however, they are not given official recognition as a separate ethnic group, and are instead placed under the broad category undistinguished ethnic groups.

Khmuic Sraengs[edit]

Khmu is divided into many sraengs such as: Khmu, Khmu Cheuang, Khmu Kwaen, Khmu Khrong, Khmu Lue, Khmu Mae, Khmu Nyuan, Khmu Prai, Khmu Rork, and Khmu Ou. Ancient Khmuic People called each Khmu divided above as "sraeng" which means "group" and they are the same Khmuic ethnic". Kmuic Sraneg is difference from Khmuic language family. Some ethnic miorities are grouped into Kmuic language family but they are separated ethics, for example: Khang, Khao, Puac, Phong Khiang, Bumang, Mlabri and others are grouped into Khmuic language family but they are not included in Khmuic sraeng. Some ethnologists also consider Kbit or bit as Khmu and some others consider them as Palaungic. Palaungic language is related to Khmu especially Con, Samtao and Lamed. In fact, Mlabri have their own language which has some words borrowed from Khmuic, Lao and Thai because they are influenced by Khmu, Lao and Thai. Tradition and culture of Mlabri are much different and far away from those of Khmu.

Geographic distribution[edit]

The Khmu (also referred to as Khamu, Kammu or Kemu) were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. There are more than 500,000 Khmu around the world, with populations of 450,000 in Laos, 43,000 in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand, 10,000 in China, and 8,000 in the United States.[citation needed] The Khmu of Laos reside mainly from the Northern most to the central part, include 10 provinces and 1 Capital such as Phongsaly, Oudomxay, Bokeo, Luangnamtha, Saynyabury, Huaphan, Luangprabang, Xiengkhuang, Vientiane, and Bolikhamxay provinces and Vientiane Capital City. The Khmu are the second largest ethnicity by the whole and the first largest ethnicity in the 5 Northern provinces of Laos such as Luang Prabang, Phongsaly, Oudomxay, Bokeo and Lungnamtha Provinces. The Khmu of Thailand are clustered near the Thailand-Laos border.[2] Most Khmu villages are isolated, and only slowly receiving electricity. In many areas the Khmu live alongside the Hmong and other regional minority ethnic groups. A large number of Khmu live in Richmond, California, having come as refugees from the Vietnam War. California is home to both the Khmu National Federation, Inc., and the Khmu Catholic National Center.[3][4] Most Khmu in Thailand arrived recently from Laos and Vietnam as refugees, also around the outset of the Vietnam War.


The Khmu are a subdivision of the greater Khmuic peoples who are aboriginal to Laos and surrounding areas. The Khmuic people were among the first populations to settle in Indo-China Peninsular. They were by and large absorbed by the later arriving Mon–Khmer and Tai ethnic minorities, except for small populations that migrated to the mountainous regions. The Khmuic are an Austro-Asiatic people, distantly related to the nuclear Mon–Khmer people. They are believed to have inhabited in Indo-China Peninsular where they have resided for at least 40,000 years ago (around 40,000 BC) and they are only the most possible to be the first group of Homo Sapiens inhabited in this area. Some 10,000 years ago, they were probably part of a largely homogenous ethnicity now referred to as the Austro-Asiastic peoples with a homeland somewhere within the south borders of the modern-day Peoples Republic of China down to the Indo-China Peninsula especially the eareas of present day of Southwest of China, East of Myanmar, North and Northeast of Thailand, Northwest of Vientnam and the whole part of Laos. In fact, Austronesian people have figure appearance and skin tone which more resemble those of Austro-Asiastic than Tai-kadai. Peole of the Tai-Kadai language speaking family have fair skin tone except Thai Yai or Big Thai (ancient Siamese). Scientifically, the prevalence of Y-DNA Haplogroup O among Austro-Asiatic peoples suggests a common ancestry with the Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, Sino-Tibetan and Hmong–Mien peoples some 30,000 years ago in China. Haplogroup O is a subclade of Y-DNA Haplogroup K which is believed to have originated 40,000 years somewhere between Iran and Central China. In addition to the ethnic minorities previously mentioned, the progenitor of Haplogroup K was probably the ancestor of nearly all modern Melanesian people, as well as the Mongols and the Native Americans. Haplogroup K, in turn, is a subclade of Y-DNA Haplogroup F, which is believed to have originated in Northern Africa some 45,000 years ago. Haplogroup F is believed to be associated with the second major wave of migration out of the African continent. In addition to the ethnic minorities previously mentioned, the progenitor of Haplogroup F was probably the ancestor of all Indo-Europeans.


Their language, in the Khmuic language family, is also called Khmu and belongs to the Austro-Asiatic group of languages.


The Khmu are an agricultural society, although gathering, hunting, trapping and fishing are parts of the Khmu lifestyle. Khmu crops include rice(especially white and black sticky rice), corn, bananas, sugar cane, cucumbers, beans, sesame and a variety of vegetables.[2] Most of the agricultural work in Khmu villages is done communally, so as to combine the strength and finish the work quickly. Harvesting of wild rice is generally performed by the village women.[5] Rice is stored outside the village in elevated structures to protect from mice and rats.[6] Khmu elders are traditionally the most important people of the village, and are responsible for resolving all village disputes.[7] Village leaders included the shaman (knowledgeable in spiritual medicine), the medicine man (knowledgeable in herbal medicine), the priest (based on family lineage of priesthood), and the village headman (in modern times chosen by the Laotian government).[7] Laotian Khmu communities generally have localized justice systems administered by the village elders.[7]


Khmu culture is traditionally passed down by the recital of stories around evening fires.[5] The story-telling sessions involve the sharing of silver pipes (originally opium, but now predominantly tobacco).[5][6] Some Khmu are heavily tattooed for both decorative and religious reasons.[5][6] In Laos, Khmu are reputed for practicing magic, and some families still engage in the casting of spells and telling of fortunes.[5] According to the animistic practices of the Khmu, reverence is offered to the house spirit Hroi gang.[5] Villagers believe that a Khmu house, village, and its surroundings are integrated with the spirits of the land, and so houses and villages are considered holy or ritualized spaces. Typically, entire Khmu villages are enclosed in fences with three or four gates which separate the Khmu from their granaries and barns.[7] Altars are placed outside the perimeter to ward off fires and storms.[7] In the past, each Khmu family was believed to be under the protection of a totem such as a boar or an eagle who had originally helped an ancestor and would continue to protect the family. In the ancient time Khmuic people celebrated 4 festivals namely: crop planting, harvesting, new year, and wash or get rid of sin festivals. In ancient time Khmuic people celebrated new year festival on the first waxing moon day of the first lunar month. At present day the new year festival is mostly not practice or if it is done, it is integrated with the harvesting festival. An ancient Khmuic house must be laid long along the direction from east to west and never intersected the direction of the sun, however there are least Khmuic people built their houses intersecting the sun direction. Each house must have a door in the east and another one facing to the north or south, this depends on the situation of the area where the house was built and never build a door in the west side of the house. A house with strait leans must have a large outside balcony(attached with a 5 or 7 step stair) connected from the east door and a lean room with east or north door(attached with a 5 or 7 step stair). A house with bent leans must have a large outside balcony(attached with a large 5 or 7 step stair) connected from a small and short lean room connected from the north or south site of the house, and an inside balcony(attached with a 5 or 7 step stair) connected from the east door. Ancient Khmuic people believed and worshiped the sun spirit for safety and healthy. In the early morning whichever day the sky is clear and when the sun starting to rise, Khmuic people opened the east doors of their houses to let the sun shine into their houses. There are three beliefs of this practice: 1. to expel devils, ghosts and bad spirits out of the houses (ancient Khmuic people believed that devils, ghosts or bad spirits are fear of sunlight); 2. to expel and wash out bacteria and any kinds of small insects dangerous to body and health; 3. Khmuic people also believe that the early morning sunlight is pure and fresh so, exposing ones own body to the early morning sunlight makes ones own mind fresh, good temper, healthy and active at work. Nowadays, most Khmuic people forget the beliefs and rules, and don't practice this way of building their houses.[7] Roofs of houses covered with wooden tiles or thatch.[6] Khmu cemeteries are traditionally divided into four sections; one for natural deaths, one for accidental deaths, one for children, and one for those who died away from home.[7] The Khmu do not generally believe in rebirth.[7] Traditional Khmu animism puts emphasis on the concept of taboo, as villagers believe that violations of taboo result in vengeance of spirits. Forbidden activities include touching the altars or the amulets representing the house's spirit, birth ceremonies for children born feet-first, and entering a house without permission.[6]


  1. ^ "The 2009 Vietnam Population and Housing Census: Completed Results". General Statistics Office of Vietnam: Central Population and Housing Census Steering Committee. June 2010. p. 134. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Khmu Profile
  3. ^ Khmu National Federation, Inc.
  4. ^ Kmhmu Catholic National Center
  5. ^ a b c d e f The Khmu Rok People of Laos by John Walsh, Shinawatra International University, March 2005
  6. ^ a b c d e Facts about the Khmu people
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Community Portrait: Khmu, Miriam Gross

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