Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU)
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Lao P.D.R.


Free reed bamboo wind instrument


A teacher of the school playing khaen.

The khaen can be played solo or otherwise mixed with an ensemble. Solo khaen playing is the original Lao music. It is the most important instrument in traditional folk songs.

Reasons for selection

The khaen is the national instrument of Laos, however some of the older methods of playing are being forgotten. These are being replaced with new, modern ways of playing.

Area where performed

All of Laos, Northeast Thailand

Essential elements of the performing art


Detailed explanation

The khaen is an aerophonic instrument of Laos. Its existence in ancient times is depicted in the motifs on Dong Son bronze drums. There are two types shown on these drums, the Lao Loum and Hmong khaen. A third type with two gourds for a resonance box seems not to have been depicted on prehistoric drums.

During the Lan Xang period in Laos, most literary classics mention this instrument, especially the Thao Kam Kada epic, which describes its elegant performance. It is also mentioned in the story of Thao Koo Lan, who perfected this instrument to win a bride. The story says that the Phagne (overlord)was so impressed by the song of the Koravirk (Phoenix)that he wanted one for himself. Unable to get one he ordered many craftsmen to make a musical instrument able to reproduce its sound: After many attempts, they made one which could almost produce this miraculous music, so they termed it khaen dae (the best)whence came the name khaen in the Lao Loum language.

These are the legends about this instrument, which has a mythical aura. It is said that, in the past, to be a master of the khaen ( mo khaen )one had to know how to play 32 melodies, but nowadays, the maximum is around twenty, not taking into account the local folk tunes. So the number 32 may symbolize the signs of Buddha's path or the number of human souls in the Mekong valley. However, among the Tai people, the Tai Deng (Red Tai)for example, believe that the head alone has 30, not 32, spirits and the body 90 making a total of 120. This number is commonly accepted in the traditional baci (animist prayer), even in the Mekong plain area.

Publication and textual documentation


Audio documentation


Visual documentation


Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

National School of Music and Dance

Data provider

Mr. Douangchampy Vouthisouk
National School of Music and Dance
Address: Vientiane, Lao P.D.R.