Architectural Heritage
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.
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 traditonal 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.
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.
Traditional wooden houses built on posts high above the ground represent the oldest architectural heritage in Luang Prabang.  Pictured on left is a house for the resident population.
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.
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.
Pictured on the left is the residence of monks known as Kouti.  It is constructed in a similar manner as a traditional wooden houses.
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 the  body 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 heen fused.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Visun
Wat Aham
Wat Manorom
Wat Mai
Wat Long Khoun

Luang Prabang | Contents | Luang Prabang & the Sacred Pra Bang Image

Ritual & Ceremonial Heritage | Architectural Heritage | Publisher & Supporter


SEAsite Laos | Language | Folklore | Art & Culture | History | Literature | Links | Other Topics | Overview

Gallery | SEAsite

2002 SEAsite Laos.   Architectural Heritage