Although civilization in land-locked Laos is likely more than 6000 years old, the country remains little-known outside Southeast Asia. It is only in recent years that this overwhelmingly Buddhist land, roughly the size of England and layered with fading veneers of both French colonialism and communism, has begun to open, gradually, to outsiders. Its capital, Vientiane, is also home to one of Southeast Asia's smallest Muslim communities.
Living within national borders drawn by the French at the end of the 19th century, roughly half of Laos's population of four million is ethnic Lao, known locally as Lao Lum, close kin to the inhabitants of adjacent Northeast Thailand. These are the people of the Mekong Valley lowlands who are the majorities both in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang, the pre-colonial royal capital, and who have also traditionally dominated Lao government and society.
The remaining half of the population falls into three groups distinguished, among other ways, by the altitudes of their home regions. An estimated 20 percent are Lao Tai, who live in the hills and cultivate dry rice, as opposed to the irrigated paddy-rice culture of the lowland Lao Lum. In the hills are also the Lao Theung, the "approaching-the-top-of-the-mountain" Lao, a loose affiliation of mostly Mon-Khmer people who constitute another 15 to 20 percent of Laos's population. Finally, on remote, often misty mountainsides above 1000 meters' altitude (3300 feet), there live the Lao Sung, the "High Lao" people, who are related to the Hmong and Mien of northern Thailand. There too live scatterings of Akha, Lisu and Lahu peoples.
In Laos, as in neighboring Thailand, Burma and Southwest China, much of the trade through the mountains has traditionally been carried on by Chinese Muslims from China's adjacent province of Yunnan. These pioneering caravaneers, known to the Lao as Chin Haw, once drove mule trains south as far as Luang Prabang and beyond. Today, a few Chin Haw Muslims can be found occasionally in the high country of Laos, where they often continue to serve as middlemen in the trade between lowlanders and hill people.
But nearly all 500 or so Laotian Muslims live in the capital, Vientiane, and there they attend one of two mosques. The oldest and best known of these is the Jama' Masjid, or Congregational Mosque, which sits in a prestigious central neighborhood just behind the Nam Phu Fountain. The building is constructed in a local adaptation of Mughal style, but the minaret is small, like those of most South Asian mosques. At ground level is a large communal kitchen, and above it is the main prayer room. Throughout the mosque, signs appear in four languages—Lao, Arabic, English and Tamil.
This latter South Indian script is a reminder that, in crossing the Mekong from Thailand, the traveler crosses not only one of the great rivers of Asia, but also a great cultural divide imposed by European colonialism. Vientiane's Jama' Masjid, like the surrounding city and Laos itself, was once part of French Indo-China. The Tamil presence has roots in Pondicherry, France's former toehold on the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent. Because travel was easier within the French colonial region than across the divide between the French and British spheres, Tamil Muslims found their way to Vientiane by way of Saigon, where the mosques also display signs in the looping Tamil script.
But on Fridays, when the congregational prayers are held, the atmosphere is clearly South Asian, with no evidence of French influence. Local Muslims, speaking Lao but often unmistakably of subcontinental ancestry, mix with traveling Pathans and Bengalis. Still other congregants are descended from legionnaires, originally recruited in then-French North Africa and posted to Vientiane, who married locally and stayed on.
Other regulars at the mosque include diplomats from the embassies of Malaysia, Indonesia and Palestine, and staffers of international agencies.
Most of Vientiane's Muslim families make their livings trading in textiles, fishing and butchering, and in import-export concerns and restaurants. The latter reflect the diverse heritage of the community: In addition to several good South Indian Muslim restaurants, it is also not difficult to find others that serve couscous, kebabs and spicy merguez lamb sausage, all of them familiar flavors in North Africa. Muslims are a very noticeable presence in the textile sections of Vientiane's several markets, especially in the Talat Sao, or Morning Market.
Few Muslims live in the smaller towns and settlements beyond Vientiane. Some say there is a small mosque in Sayaburi, on the west bank of the Mekong not far from Nan, but Sayaburi has been closed to outsiders for many years. Only now, as the restrictions on internal travel within Laos are gradually lifted, is it once again becoming accessible. When asked about the presence of Muslims elsewhere in the country, an elderly Muslim of Vientiane shook his head sadly and replied, in an intriguing hybrid of Arabic and Lao, "kaffir mot" —"all unbelievers."
Yet this is not entirely the case. Just outside the predominantly South Asian circle of the Jama' Masjid, another Muslim community has taken root. The Azhar Mosque—known locally as "Masjid Cambodia" for its congregation of Cambodian Chams—is tucked away in a corner of Chantabouli, a working-class district northwest of Vientiane's center. The Cham community here (See Aramco World, March/April 1993) is small, comprising only about 200 people in 45 families, and all have arrived since 1975 as refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime. They brought with them a strong sense of identity, as well as their own language, which is why they built their own mosque beginning in 1976.
In Cambodia, most had been living in fishing villages along the banks of the Mekong above Phnom Penh, where they had lived for the better part of a millennium. But from the day the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, mosques were torn down and the Chams were forbidden to worship or to speak their own language. Seventy percent of Cambodia's 400,000 Chams either starved to death or were killed outright, and those who survived did so either by concealing their identity or by undertaking traumatic journeys into exile.
The eyes of Musa Abubakr, the dignified, aging imam of the Azhar Mosque, fill with involuntary tears as he recalls the death by starvation of nearly all his family. Since his arrival in Vientiane, however, he has built up a flourishing spare-parts business along one of Chantabouli's main roads. "Remember," he says, "we're Lao Muslims now." And so saying he testifies both to the hospitality of the Lao people and to the Chams' own hope that their times of trial have come to an end on the quiet streets of Vientiane.
Andrew Forbes is editor of the Crescent Press Agency in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He holds master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Leeds.
New York-based free-lancer Stephenie Hollyman is cofounder of a multimedia news service. Her book on the Dogons of West Africa will be published by Abrams.