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. 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.”
The 18 century
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.