LAO ARCHITECTURE

LAO ARCHITECTURE

Lao architecture is mainly a mix of French colonial, Buddhist (in temples), traditional Lao and modern architecture, with some influences from Thailand and other countries. In rural areas most Lao people live in Lao traditional houses, built of wood and raised off the ground on stilts, but in urban areas modern style houses are more common and Lao traditional houses are slowly disappearing. Many ethnic groups have their own house styles, such as the Hmong, Iu Mien, and some other ethnic groups in the northern mountainous areas, where the weather is cold and windy in cold season. These groups build houses on the ground with the end of the roof almost touching the ground. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The most important buildings in Laos are the wat (a Buddhist temples, sometimes spelled “vat”) and the that (a Buddhist stupa built to hold religious objects). Lao structures have traditionally been constructed of wood, which is often ravaged by the elements, and thus not many old structures remain. Secular architecture includes French colonial and French-influenced buildings with pitched tile roofs and shuddered windows; Chinese-style shophouses with upper floors for residences and lower floor for shops and businesses; and post-Revolutionary structures built in a socialist realist style; and neo-traditional style buildings like those at Luang Prabang airport and Vientiane’s National Assembly hall.

Across Laos there exists a plethora of distinctive monuments and architectural styles. One of the most notable structures is the That Luang, the great Sacred Stupa, in Vientiane. Its dome-like stupa and four-cornered superstructure is the model for similar monuments across Laos. Stupas serve to commemorate the life of the Buddha and many stupas are said to house sacred Buddha relics (parts of Buddha s body). Traditionally, Theravada Buddhists cremated the dead body and then placed the bones in stupas, which are set around the grounds of temples, or wats. Different styles of architecture are evident in the numerous Buddhist Wats.

Traditional Lao Homes

Traditional Lao houses are made of wood or bamboo and are built on stilts above the ground. People live on the first floor of houses raised on timber stilts. Traditionally the houses had steep thatched roofs and verandas. Under the house the family often keep animals, craft equipment such as a loom and simple food processing machines like large wooden mortars and pestles. In the grounds around the house were often a rice granary, family livestock and poultry, vehicles, fruit trees, a kitchen garden and maybe a kitchen shack. The quality and type of homes changes with elevation. The lowland Lao generally live in better quality housing than the poorer highland tribes.

Lao Loum houses are built on wooden piles with the floor from one to two-and one-half meters above the ground. This style keeps the living area above the mud of the rainy season, provides a shady area under the house to work or rest during the day, and allows the house to catch breezes for natural cooling. Depending on the wealth and resources of the family, the walls and floor may be made of woven split bamboo or sawn wood; the roof is constructed from grass thatch, bamboo, wood shingles, or corrugated steel roofing sheet. Some older houses in well-off villages are roofed with clay tiles, but this style was no longer common in the early 1990s. A separate rice granary is built in the house compound, also on posts using similar construction. Livestock is sometimes kept under the house. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Houses commonly range from five by seven meters to eight by twelve meters, with the smallest size typical of a newly established household or a family that has recently moved. Most houses are built with a porch on the long side that is used for visiting and as a public area. The interior is divided into one or two sleeping rooms, a common room for visiting and eating, and a separate kitchen area or side porch. Household furnishings are simple: mats or mattresses and blankets for sleeping on the floor, a low woven bamboo and rattan table for eating, and a few pots and dishes for cooking and eating. Lao Loum sit on the floor and eat from common bowls of soup or other dishes. Steamed rice is distributed among two or three common baskets placed around the edge of the table. *

Houses are typically built by hand using local materials, and once the householder has collected enough wood, bamboo, and/or thatching grass, he will ask his neighbors and relatives to assist in the house raising. It usually takes twenty people a day or two to assemble the frame and raise the heavy timbers. Once the heavy work is completed, the owners finish construction over the ensuing weeks. In this work as well as farm labor exchange, the host family provides a meal to all those coming to help. For common farmwork, the meal is relatively simple and usually includes a chicken or duck and a bottle of local rice liquor. For a house raising, the meal is more elaborate--a pig or small ox and considerably more liquor after the task is done. Illness, death, or other household emergencies also elicit help from one's neighbors. *

Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Centuries of migration from nearby Laos have helped shape the architecture of Thailand’s northeast, known as Isaan. Unfortunately, the region has chronically been hit by economic hardships resulting from drought, poor soil and a less developed education infrastructure in the rural areas. Thus, its architecture is simpler and less elaborate than elsewhere in Thailand. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Northeastern-style houses are similar to central Thai houses. They are built of wood on stilts, but their roofs feature a gentler slope since there is less rain to cope with. Thatch and corrugated iron roofs are more common in Isaan than other regions. Walls are perpendicular, not slanted, and often made of simple wooden planks rather than the prefabricated panels used in other regions. Homes are built in a compound structure, starting with a main cabin; a second cabin may be added as the family grows.

Different Styles of Architecture

Three architectural styles can be distinguished, corresponding to the geographical location of the temples and monasteries. Wats built in Vientiane are large rectangular structures constructed of brick and covered with stucco and high-peaked roofs. In Luang Prabang the roofs sweep very low and, unlike in Vientiane, almost reach the ground. These two styles are different from the wats of Xieng Khouang where the temple roofs are not tiered.

Vientiane-style temple architecture features a large veranda with heavy columns, an ornamented, overhanging roof, carved wood porticos and a carved wood shade along the top of the veranda, often with half-bird, half human kinnari against a background of stylized foliage. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Luang Prabang-style temple architecture is similar to the northern Siamese Lanna style. It features a roof that is very pointed and steep at the top and gradually flares and is almost horizontal at the bottom and often almost touches the ground. The Lao sometimes say these roofs resemble to the wings of a hen protecting her chicks. Many wats have gold-leaf-covered doors and outer walls. =

The Xieng Khuang style of northern Laos, of which relatively few examples remain, features a multiple-level platform and a roof that sweeps low and wide and usually isn’t tiered. The Thai Lu style features whitewashed stucco walls, small windows, two or three-ired roofs, curved pediments and naga lintels over the doors and steps. Thai Lu stupas are typically gilded and octagonal in shape of are covered with Thai Lu fabrics.=

Religious Architecture in Laos

The styles of these Laotian Sanctuaries are determined by their positions in the community and the layout of the roofs : the vihans (sanctuaries) with circular naves, nearly all situated in the area of Luang Prabang, are in the style of this province. For the others, it is possible to differentiate the three principle styles:

1) The style of Luang Prabang, is characterized by its huge pointed roofs made from flat tiles which are put down in successive layers, normally two or three, stopping only a few metres from the ground. [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com ^^]

2) The style of Xieng Khouang, presents an accentuated form of the characteristics described above : the roofs come nearly all the way down to the ground, and their cross sections are almost perfect pentagons. We can see in this style a provincial version of the Luang Prabang style, structures built in this way are nearly all situated in the province of Xieng Khouang, to the South-East of Luang Prabang. You can also see the original style of the Lao vihans, the style of Luang Prabang only representing the result of a long evolution; it would appear that the old vihans of Luang Prabang belong to the Xieng Khouang style. ^^

3) The style of Vientiane is a more tapering style, the part that the roof plays in the structure is less important here and the openings are higher. ^^

Temple Architecture in Laos

Wats are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations in the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life. Wats are often clusters of buildings with the uposatha (ordination hall) being the most important structure. These have traditionally been built on a multilevel platform and are made of brick covered by stucco. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Lao-style thats (stupas) have a distinctive curvilinear, four-corned shape, said the to represent the unfurling of a lotus bud, along with the steeple-like spire that many stupas have. Pha That Luang in Vientiane is regarded as the model of this style (See Vientiane). =

The high peaked roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence and the seven factors of enlightenment. The edge of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that fall on the building from above. The umbrella-like spires in the central roof ridge often have small nagas (serpents that protected Buddha) arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru. =

History of Lao Architecture

Laotian or Laos architecture has a long and glorious development history with strong attachment to Buddhism and animism. Through many ups and downs, many of the past constructions have been destroyed but what remain now still constitute a rich and unique heritage among Asian countries. The two most significant periods of Laotian architecture development are from 14th to 17th centuries and from early 18th to late 19th centuries. [Source: VisitWonders \=\]

The first period marked the peak of Lao original architecture. Numerous wats or temples have been built by King Fa Ngum, the founder of Lan Xang Kingdom. One of the earliest was the sanctuary hastily erected in Viengkham in 1359 to house the sacred pha bang after it was deemed inauspicious to carry the image north to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (Luang Prabang). Thereafter each successive reign was marked by a programme of pious temple-building. Little is known about temple architecture during the first century of Lane Xang, but surviving foundations from this period indicate that temples were still of very modest size in comparison with their later counterparts. \=\

The 16th century witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Buddhist art and architecture in Lane Xang, presided over by three illustrious kings - Wisunarath (1501-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571). During this period wats were increasingly constructed in major centres of population, where they became a focal point for all aspects of daily life. At the same time their design and layout became progressively more elaborate, evolving into a series of buildings which would eventually include an ordination hall (sim), a manuscript library (ho tai), a bell tower (ho rakhang), a drum tower (ho kong), a stupa (that) and an area dedicated to the Buddhist sangha containing the monks’ living quarters (kuti). Though Lao wats evolved in the same basic way as those of their Siamese or Khmer neighbours, they were generally more modest in appearance and came to be characterised by the distinctive dok so fa (pointing to the sky) roof fixture and dok huang phueang (beehive pattern) front entrance panel of the sim. \=\

While serving as governor of Vientiane, King Wisunarath had become an ardent devotee of the sacred pha bang, and it was he who in 1502 finally relocated the image from Viengkham to the royal capital of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, constructing the magnificent Wat Visoun (Wisun) to house it. This style of architecture is commonly known today as Luang Prabang I style after Wat Wisun and other noteworthy surviving examples in that northern city (Wat May, Wat Pak Khan, Wat That Luang), but the design is by no means unique to Luang Prabang and may still be seen today in several other parts of the country. \=\

The splendor of Laotian architecture in 17th century was described by the Italian Jesuit missionary Giovanni-Maria Leria, who came to visit the capital with its moated walls, palaces and temples. “Encircled by a surrounding wall with a magnificent gateway, the royal palace was of prodigious extent… so large that one would take it for a town”. At its centre was the throne hall and royal living quarters, a large timber building richly decorated with coloured tiles, painted stucco and gilded wooden bas-reliefs. Surrounding and connected to it by a series of courtyards were smaller buildings which accommodated second wives and courtiers...Outside the palace compound the aristocratic classes lived in large, finely-carved wooden houses, the design of which contrasted strongly with the houses of the 'very poorly lodged' common folk, who lived in stilted wooden houses with thatched roofs and woven walls of palm leaves or grass similar to those still seen today all over rural Laos.” \=\

During this period of war between northern Thailand (Lanna Kingdom) and the southern, many Chiang Mai families fled to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, where their cultural influence was felt in a number of artistic fields, notably the development of temple architecture. Characterised by a high-pointed tiled roof sweeping down in multiple tiers, the Lanna-inspired Luang Prabang II style sought to represent the cosmological levels in Buddhist doctrine. This style of temple architecture is found only in Luang Prabang and King Sai Setthathirat I's great masterpiece Wat Xieng Thong stands as its most elegant and best-preserved example. The back of Wat Xieng Thong with its famous tree of life mosaic in colored glass on a dark red background. This is one of the best known images in modern Laos. The mosaic was crafted in 1960 by the Lao craftsmen. \=\

In Vientiane, this period saw the appearance of the Vientiane (Siamese) style of temple architecture, characterised by a tall and slender sim with short eves. However, comparatively few temples were constructed in Vientiane in the century before the reign of the ill-fated King Anou (Sai Setthathirat IV, 1805-1828), who appears to have compensated for this by making a conscious effort to recreate the splendour of the Lane Xang era, building a new palace and embarking on an ambitious construction programme, both in the capital and in major regional centres such as Nakhon Pathom. A new jade Buddha image was carved to replace the Phra Keo (which had been removed to Bangkok in the wake of the Siamese invasion of 1779), and in 1816 this was ceremoniously installed in a refurbished Ho Phra Keo. An outer cloister was also added to the Phra That Luang, but perhaps the best-known monument of King Anou's reign was the magnificent Wat Sisakhet, built within the royal palace grounds between 1819 and 1824. Wat Sisakhet was the only major structure to survive the devastating Siamese invasion of 1828, in which the capital was razed to the ground and most of its residents relocated to Siam. \=\

Architecture in Luang Prabang

During a leisurely stroll along the streets within the historical and cultural heart of Luang Prabang, one can observe evidence of the traditional settlement plan, orientation system, and architectural elements that add significantly to the charm of this ancient capital. Influences from Buddhism, the spirit world, and royal heritage abound creating a harmonious fusion of the past and the present, the secular and sacred. [Source: seasite.niu.edu/lao/*/]

Like many settlements based on traditional orientation systems, Luang Prabang was established beside a river. The traditional settlement plan included a town upstream which was located toward the end of the peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers where the aristocracy resided, and a town downstream where the lesser classes lived and worked in the markets and artisan studios. Taking into account that the plan of a traditional wooden house, the oldest architectural heritage in Luang Prabang, reflected local beliefs and accepted ways, each structure is imbued with more meaning than meets the eye upon casual observation. When traditional wooden houses were planned, from an exterior orientation perspective, the horizontal beams along the length of each roof were positioned parallel to the river, dividing the interior of the house into an upper and lower part. Internal orientation was based on the sleeping body whose placement, direction, and position of the head were of particular importance. The process for building traditional wooden houses was deeply connected to local beliefs and subsequently associated with traditional rites and ceremonies. /*/

The integration of local beliefs into the plan of a traditional wooden house is further revealed by a brief exploration of what transpired in various circumstances such as when a person passed away. Taking into consideration that there were different entrances for the living and the dead, when a person died they were moved from the upper part of the house where the family slept to the lower part where the body was placed parallel to the horizontal beam with its feet facing the front elevation of the gable. Because spirits were believed to move in a straight line, the body had to be transported out of the house, accordingly. A special ladder was built and positioned at the lower opening to carry the body outside and subsequently removed to ensure that the spirit could not return. /*/ .

An exploration into the traditional rules of space structuring helps to explain the relatively orderly layout of the houses. In essence, a sleeping person was not supposed to place their feet toward the head of another person. Because these rules were extended to adjacent houses, neighbors placed their feet opposite to their neighbors resulting in the back of one house facing the back of another house. /*/

Traditional Luang Prabang Houses and Buildings

The process for building traditional wooden houses was also deeply connected to local beliefs and subsequently associated with certain traditional rites and ceremonies. An astrologer would be consulted especially with regard to preventing the disturbance of the naga guardians believed to live in the land and rivers. Determining the appropriate location was of prime importance, as was the propitious period for various activities such as cutting trees for timber, digging the holes for the posts, and raising the frame of the house. [Source: seasite.niu.edu/lao /*/]

Traditional wooden houses built on posts high above the ground represent the oldest architectural heritage in Luang Prabang. Built high on hardwood posts, traditional wooden houses were created with prefabricated lightweight materials such as woven bamboo or wood. Houses were generally rectangular in shape with a simple ridged roof covered with thatch or bamboo, with a separate kitchen located at the side. The use of high gables and natural materials enhanced ventilation, and long projecting eaves provided protection from severe seasonal rain. The space beneath the raised floor provided security and a useful work and storage place. /*/

Both traditional raised wooden houses and masonry structures built on the ground, the two types of architectural systems found throughout South East Asia, exist in harmony in Luang Prabang and correspond to their respective water and land based backgrounds. The earlier water based culture influenced architecture that was harmonious and suitable for an environment in which rain and river dominated, while land based architecture, which included structures associated with religions or royal functions, were gradually adopted and came to be known as formal or classic. /*/

Although previously utilized for constructing the foundation of certain structures in a wat, brick and stucco became the primary building materials for colonial influenced buildings . Neo-colonial buildings combined wooden floors from traditional local architecture with french colonial influenced lower walls utilizing masonry. /*/

Early 20th century French colonial influenced structures are a more recent addition to the architectural landscape of Luang Prabang. Adapted for tropical conditions, the majority of these thick-walled public administration buildings and official residences were built using brick and stucco with pitched tile roofs and wooden shuttered windows. Gradually, neo-colonial structures that combined both traditional local elements and French influences appeared. When merged together in a relatively harmonious manner with traditional wooden structures, these colonial and other foreign influenced structures such as the Chinese inspired shop-houses added another aesthetically interesting element to Luang Prabang's architectural heritage. /*/

Luang Prabang Religious Architecture

After Theravada Buddhism was officially adopted in the 14th century during the reign of Fa Ngum, monasteries (wats) were progressively built on the former sites of animist shrines. Most of these wats were destroyed when Luang Prabang was invaded by foreign aggressors in 1887, however, a substantial number have since been rebuilt using traditional methods and styles. A residence of monks is known as Kouti. It is constructed in a similar manner as a traditional wooden houses. [Source: seasite.niu.edu/lao/*/]

The architecture of the Theravada Buddhist wat reflects its role as the meeting place of monks and the community. From a technical perspective, monks must actually reside in the wat compound, which consists of various structures laid out according to a specified plan, for it to be considered a monastery. Generally the largest and most elaborately ornamented structure, the congregation hall (Sim) is considered the most important building in the compound and is where monks are ordained. Generally longer than wide, the Sim has a front entrance for the congregation and a back entrance for the monks. Inside, at the far end, a large Buddha image is positioned on a dais. As a means to contain treasure sealed in its foundation, the Sim was the first architectural structure to utilize brick and mortar building materials and techniques. /*/

Other main structures within the compound include a meeting place (Sala), meditation and living quarters (Kouti), and stupa (Tats) containing relics of the Buddha or senior abbots. In Luang Prabang, a shelter protecting a traditional wooden boat, which is utilized for the annual boat races, might also be located within the compound. In addition, a small pavilion that protects the drum, which keeps the rhythm of monastic life, is situated just inside the entrance to the wat. Like all musical instruments, the drum is believed to possess a soul and is located away from the main area to prevent its spirit from disturbing the inhabitants. /*/

Although Lao monastic architecture shares a resemblance to Siamese architecture and is also influenced by Khmer architecture, what is unusual about the architecture in Laos is its modest appearance. Constructed of relatively light materials, even the most significant wats are unpretentious and welcome the visitor with their gentle charm and ornamental elegance rather than present an imposing and grandiose personality. /*/

All three of the principle Lao architectural styles, namely, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, and Vientiane can be found in Luang Prabang. The basic shape of the Sim and the roof are the essential differences between the styles. The most distinctive characteristic of the Luang Prabang style Sim is the high pointed, tiled roof that swoops down in multiple tiers, which represent levels corresponding to Buddhist doctrine. Large and rectangular, the brick structure is covered in stucco and mounted on a multi-level foundation. The Vientiane style Sim is higher and more slender with a single tiered roof, while the Xieng Khouang Sim has a simple low roof and sometimes includes a portico. /*/

Believed to symbolize the center of the universe, this beautiful ornamental metal device common to Lao monastic architecture, known as a Dok So Fa, graces the center of the roof of the Sim of Wat Xieng Thong. The various intricate and charming decorative elements found throughout the wats are not only imbued with spiritual meaning but also add significantly to their aesthetic appeal. Common to Lao monastic architecture is a decorative metal device positioned at the center of the roof of the Sim known as a Dok So Fa (pointing to the sky) which is believed to symbolize the universe. Another characteristic is the Dok Huang Pheung (bee hive pattern), the panel of carved wood suggestive of the arched curve of a naga's body that hangs like a screen between the pillars of the front entrance. Furthermore, many of the carved and gilded wooden door panels are renowned for their remarkable ornamentation and complexity of the motifs which feature stylized and intertwined elements inspired by the natural world, mythical creatures, and scenes from the Buddha's life. Stenciled designs on a red or black background and ornamental motifs can also be found on many other elements and surfaces throughout the structures. The naga, a prevalent protective element, is commonly found on the corners of the roof and at entrances, while decorative stylized lotus leaves are often found at the top of pillars. The panel of ornately carved wood that hangs between the pillars of the portico beneath the pediment, known as the Dok Huang Pheung, is suggestive of the arched curve of thebody of a naga. /*/

In the 18th century, there were approximately sixty-five wats in the Luang Prabang area. Of the more than thirty wats that have been restored or rebuilt, all are interesting, charming, and quietly inspiring in their own way with several becoming the site of ceremonies and events where mythical, religious, and traditional influences have been fused. /*/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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