The 2000 census lists 45,000 ethnic Phunoi living in north-central Laos. Phunoi is one of eighty-four languages spoken in Laos. It is a Tibeto-Burman language which reflects the Burmese rule in Phunoi history. Phunoi is classified as a Loloish language which reflects a Chinese origin.
Experts believe there are 240 ethnic groups in Laos. In 1981, they were officially divided into five groups according to language. However, the former three group system is still commonly used, and it divides according to geographic location: lowland, hillside, and mountaintop. The Phunoi belong to the mountaintop group. The mountain forests furnish animals for hunting and food for gathering. Rice and corn are grown by the slash-and-burn method.
The official name of the Phunoi changed to Sinsali in the 1990s. The literal meaning of phunoi is “little people,” and Laotians now use this word in a disparaging manner. All tribal people are considered a low class of society and are referred to as phunoi.
Though many Phunoi have embraced Buddhism, the majority practice ethnoreligion. Ethnoreligion combines animism and ancestor worship. The spirits of animism are placated for favor in growing food or restoring health. The spirits of ancestors are invoked for protection and guidance. There is no Phunoi Bible to tell this people the story of the one true Creator God.