The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is on the Indo-China Peninsula and is bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma.
History of Immigration and Settlement
Laos’s fortunes have been closely associated with the affairs of its neighbours, Vietnam and Cambodia. It has shared with them the experiences of French administration, the struggle for independence and the Vietnam War.
Besides enduring internal strife between 1960 and 1975, Laos suffered ravages as a result of the war in Vietnam. During this conflict, communist North Vietnam used the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to move troops and supplies to South Vietnam. United States’ planes bombed the trail and other areas in Laos. In 1971 South Vietnamese troops, supported by US bombers, entered Laos and attacked the North Vietnamese supply routes.
In the 1960s Australia sent overseas aid to Laos. Under the Colombo Plan the federal government provided scholarships for Laotian students to study at Australian tertiary institutions. Many Laotian students in Australia at the time of the communist takeover requested, and were granted, permanent residency status.
Thousands of Laotians fled to Thailand following the communist victory in their homeland. The first large scale arrival of Laotians in Australia was in 1976. Only a few made their way to South Australia. The numbers increased steadily until the 1980s, and are only in the hundreds even in the twenty-first century.
The majority of Laotian South Australians live in the metropolitan area of Adelaide.
Most Laotians in Australia are Theravada Buddhists. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Buddhism.
Until 1991 Laotian Buddhists in South Australia worshipped at Wat Ratanaprathib Vihara, the Thai Buddhist Temple in Thebarton. In 1992 Laotian South Australians established a small, temporary temple in Elizabeth South. Two monks were transferred from Melbourne to Adelaide to serve the Laotian community. There are now a number of Buddhist temples scattered throughout the metropolitan area of Adelaide.
Monks play a vital role in the lives of Laotian South Australians. Besides enabling Laotian Buddhists to worship according to Buddha’s teachings, the monks counsel family members in times of conflict and distress. In turn, the Laotian community supports the monks, who are not permitted to prepare or store food. Members of the Laotian community have a roster system for offering food to the monks twice a day. Monks are only permitted to eat breakfast and lunch. After these meals they may only take fluids. Monks are never permitted to drink alcohol. In Buddhism the views on vegetarianism vary between the different schools of thought. Laotian people who follow the Theravada school of thought are allowed to eat pork, chicken and fish if the monk is aware that the animal was not killed specifically on their behalf.
There are 14 festivals in the Laotian Buddhist year. The main four festivals are Maka Boosar, Visakha, Kulpansa and Pavarana. Seven monks must be in attendance at major Buddhist festivals, so the Laotian community invites monks from the Cambodian and Thai temples.
Maka Boosar falls on the third full moon of the Laotian year, which sometimes has 13 lunar months. Maka Boosar remembers a day just before Buddha’s death. 1,250 monks who had been sent out to spread Buddha’s teachings gathered around Buddha without summons, because they sensed he was about to leave this world. Buddha lectured his followers on how to carry on without him. A wealthy woman named Visakha provided food for the multitude of monks. All she asked in return was that Buddha’s birthday be named after her. On Maka Boosar Buddhist monks teach from the scriptures. Devotees pray and make takbad, offerings of food, incense and money, for the upkeep of the temple and its monks.
Visakha is the main Buddhist festival. It is celebrated on the sixth full moon of the Laotian year, which often corresponds with June. Visakha celebrates the day that Buddha was born, achieved Nirvana, and passed from the suffering of this world. It is believed that all these events in Buddha’s life fell on the sixth moon. Visakha is also celebrated with teaching, prayers and takbad.
Kulpansa falls from the seventh to the ninth moon of the Laotian year. In Laos this is the rainy season. During Kulpansa, monks, who traditionally travelled constantly to spread Buddha’s teachings, are not allowed to leave the temple. Buddha decreed this because journeys are arduous and unpleasant during this time. Kulpansa is also known as the ‘rains retreat’.
Pavarana is the festival to end Kulpansa. Like Maka Boosar and Visakha, Pavarana is celebrated with teaching from the scriptures, prayers and takbad. Pavarana lasts for four days.
Besides adhering to Theravada Buddhism, some Laotian South Australians maintain a belief in the Cult of Phi, although this tradition is fading out.
Those who follow the Cult of Phi believe that they have 32 khouane, guardian spirits, which care for various parts of the body and affect daily life. They believe that a person becomes ill if any one of these souls wanders far from the body or is harmed by an evil spirit. This gives rise to the ceremony of the Soukhouane or Baci, the calling together of a person’s souls to be blessed with well-being, symbolised by the tying of cotton thread around the wrists of those present. The Phakhouane, a colourful arrangement of flowers, food and drinks, is an integral part of this ceremony.
Traditionally, the Soukhouane is the central cultural activity of Laotians, and is presided over by a venerable man from the community. The Soukhouane is a ceremony for all occasions: the birth of a child, a welcome, farewell, and recovery from sickness, house-warming, wedding and, most important of all, the Laotian New Year.
The Lao Association of South Australia was founded in 1980 or 1981 by a handful of families. Members of the association know each other well. Often they knew each other in Laos. It is a close-knit community which provides mutual support and assistance. New Year celebrations are the highlight of the year for Laotian South Australians. They usually fall in February. The statue of Buddha in the temple is ceremoniously washed with holy water in preparation for the coming year. Likewise, Laotians also wash each other with holy water so that they are cleansed of sin for the New Year. A social gathering is held with a communal feast and traditional dancing.
Organisations and Media
- Indo-Chinese Australian Women’s Association Inc.
- Lao Association of S.A.
- The 1981 census recorded 169 Laotian-born South Australians.
- The 1986 census recorded 204. Only 194 people said that they were of Laotian descent; the remainder was probably of Chinese or Vietnamese descent.
- According to the 1991 census 227 South Australians were born in Laos. 241 people said that their mothers were born in Laos, and 229 that their fathers were.
- The 1996 census recorded 287 Laotian-born South Australians.
- The 2001 census recorded 436 Laotian-born South Australians, while 570 people said that they were of Laotian descent.
- The 2006 census recorded 437 Laotian-born South Australians, while 642 people said that they were of Laotian descent.
- The 2011 census recorded 441 Laotian-born South Australians, while 687 people said that they were of Laotian descent.
- The 2016 census recorded 538 Laotian-born South Australians, while 906 people said that they were of Laotian descent.
Jupp, J (ed), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, 2nd Ed, (Cambridge University Press, 2001)