Ancient traces

Ancient traces

Ancient traces

Ancient traces

Ancient traces

Ancient traces

Ancient traces

The earliest surviving man-made structures in Laos are the groups of standing stones and associated burial chambers at Hintang Houamuang in Houaphanh Province and Hintang Nalae in Luang Namtha Province (1000-500 BCE) and the clusters of stone jars at the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang Province (4th-2nd centuries BCE), all of which are believed to have functioned as prehistoric aristocratic necropolises.


The formation of petty kingdoms during the late prehistoric period necessitated the construction of large defensive fortresses, and as time went on their construction became more and more intricate, featuring substantial moated earthworks with wooden pallisades. With the development of larger kingdoms during the first millennium CE, elaborate royal palaces also began to make an appearance, but since these were constructed mainly from wood and other perishable materials, those not destroyed in countless wars would eventually have succumbed to the tropical climate. Early Hindu and Buddhist temples were initially established mainly in forest areas, often on the site of ancient animist shrines; many were located in caves or beneath rocky overhangs, while others were protected by thatched wooden canopies. Thereafter under royal patronage masonry steadily replaced wood and thatch as the principal construction material for religious buildings.


By the 3rd century CE the Mon had established a major city-state at Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, from which they gradually built up a large mandala known as Dvaravati (6th-11th centuries), which stretched from southern Burma across what is now central Thailand. In 769 Dvaravati extended its power northwards to the present-day northern Thai city of Lamphun near Chiang Mai, where it founded the kingdom of Haripunjaya. The proliferation of ancient Buddhist sites marked by Dvaravati-style bai sema (temple boundary stones) found along the middle reaches of the Mekong River in what is now central Laos suggests that during this very same period the Mon also extended their sphere of influence eastwards from Haripunjaya through the modern Lao provinces of Bokeo, Sayaburi, Vientiane, Saysomboun, Borikhamxai and Khammouane. Mon city states established in this region included Souvannakhomkham in modern Bokeo Province, Candapuri (Chanthaburi, later the capital city of Vientiane) and neighbouring Sayfong in present-day Vientiane Prefecture, Phainam (later Viengkham) in modern Vientiane Province and Sri Gotapura (later Sikhottabong) in present-day Khammouane Province. Muang Sua (the original name for Luang Prabang) is also believed to have originated as a Mon settlement. The Mon played a crucial role in the propagation of Therevada Buddhism throughout the wider region, laying the groundwork for its subsequent consolidation as the state religion under the Fa Ngum dynasty of Lane Xang.


During the same period the provinces which now make up southern Laos fell under the control of the emerging Khmer empire. Recent archaeological work in the vicinity of the Khmer temple complex of Wat Phu Champassak in modern Champassak Province suggests that between the 5th and the 7th centuries CE the nearby ancient city of Setapura functioned either as the capital or at least as a major centre of the proto-Khmer kingdom of Upper (Land) Chenla. Upper Chenla later merged with its Mekong Delta-based sister kingdom of Lower (Water) Chenla, giving rise to a unified Khmer state ruled initially from Phnom Kulen and subsequently from Angkor. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries the powerful Angkorian kings expanded their sphere of influence across much of the region, constructing a vast network of temple complexes, the architecture of which was designed to support their claims to divine kingship.


During this period the focus of power in the vicinity of Wat Phu moved from Setapura to a new city named Lingapura, undoubtedly an important Khmer provincial centre which was linked by a road to Angkor in the west and also quite possibly also by a road leading eastwards through the mountains to the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Champa in what is now southern coastal Việt Nam. While little now remains of the ancient cities of Setapura and Lingapura and their road network, numerous temple complexes dating from the 7th to the 13th century survive today in various states of preservation throughout both Champassak and Savannakhet Provinces.


Featuring elaborately carved causeways, courtyards and galleries decorated with magnificent bas-reliefs (engravings raised from their background), the magnificent architecture of Wat Phu Champassak itself was intended to inspire worshippers both before and after ritual ceremonies. From the earlier Hindu temples to the later Mahayana Buddhist edifices, the architecture of the Khmer temple had a singular purpose – to recreate an entire cosmology here on earth, represented by a succession of concentric mountain ranges and seas surrounding a central continent, out of which rose Mount Meru, the five-peaked home of the gods.


Many other Khmer vestiges, including the temples of Nang Sida, Thao Tao and Tomo (Wat Oubmong), complete the rich built heritage of this area, which was collectively inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as ‘Wat Phu and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champassak Cultural Landscape’ in December 2002. Khmer vestiges may also be found further south in Sukuma and Mounlapamok Districts of Champassak Province (That Ban That, That Nasamrieng, That Dong That, That Ban Done, That Nang In, That Ban Viene) and to the north at Heuan Hin in Savannakhet Province.


From the 11th century the Khmer kings extended their control further north into what is now central Laos.


Literary sources describe the establishment of a Khmer temple on the site later occupied by Phra That Luang in Vientiane, and furthermore the stupa foundations located in the grounds of Vientiane’s Wat Simuang are believed to be of Khmer origin.


Numerous Khmer artefacts have also been found at Sayfong, south of modern-day Vientiane, including a foundation stone (now housed in Ho Phra Keo National Museum) which records in Khmer the establishment of a hospital by Khmer King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218).


The Sapheua Linga, housed at Wat Pha Rasakheua in Thourakhom District of modern Vientiane Province, may also have come originally from a Khmer temple.


Architecture of Lane Xang 1353-1695


From the 11th to the 13th centuries Tai-speaking peoples began to settle the wider region, gradually gaining control of the former Mon and Khmer kingdoms.


As political power shifted to the Tai mandalas, a new kind of polity emerged to replace the devaraja ideology of the Khmer god kings. Adapting Therevada Buddhist practices, but modifying them to accord with local animist beliefs, the Tai rulers based their power and legitimacy on their royal lineage as descendants of the legendary Khun Borom, which enabled them alone to officiate at ceremonies held to ensure the continued protection of their subjects. In Lane Xang, as in other Tai mandalas, accumulating merit (boun) became an integral part of the process by which Tai rulers sought to create a righteous world order, and one of the most effective ways of accumulating merit was the construction of Buddhist wats (temples).


King Fa Ngum, founder of Lane Xang, is said to have constructed numerous wats; 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 Wisun to house it.


Regrettably the original wooden structure was destroyed in 1887, but a drawing of Wat Wisun made by Delaporte in the 1860s illustrates the elegance of the traditional Lao temple design. No less than 4,000 trees are said to have been used for Wat Wisun’s construction; 12 pillars – each 30 metres high and 1.3 metres in diameter – supported the roof, each pillar reputedly made from a tree felled in a different forest. The pha bang was enshrined here from 1513 to 1707 (when it was removed to Vientiane) and again from 1867 to 1887.


Wat Wisun was reconstructed in 1896-1898 using brick and plaster, but still following the original design in which the foundations are smaller than the roof.


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. Classic examples include Wat Phonesay in Vientiane city and Wat Anonthalam Manotham and Wat Sayasathanh in Vientiane Province. The basic shape may also be seen, albeit somewhat modified, in Vientiane’s Wat Simuang, Wat Mixay, Wat Ong Tu and Wat Inpeng.


Following the marriage of Wisunarath’s son and successor Photisarath (1520-1550) to the daughter of King Muang Khao of Lanna (Chiang Mai), there ensued a period of close political and cultural ties between the two states, culminating in 1546 with the installation of Photisarath’s son Sai Setthathirat as King of Lanna.


Lanna was subsequently lost to the Burmese, but during this period 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. For strategic reasons King Photisarath had spent much of his reign in Vientiane, and in 1560 Sai Setthathirat I formally moved his capital there, partly to exploit the greater agricultural potential of the Vientiane region and partly in order to reduce the risk of attack by the Burmese. The decision to build Wat Xieng Thong and to change the name of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to Luang Prabang (Royal City of the Pha Bang) may perhaps be seen as an attempt to compensate his northern subjects for the departure of the royal court.


Throughout this period the hereditary rulers of the tributary Muang Phuan (Xieng Khouang) also sponsored the construction of temples, giving rise to the so-called Xieng Khouang style. The former capital of Muang Khun was once dotted with these graceful sanctuaries with their simple low roofs, but almost all were totally obliterated in the US saturation bombing of the 1960s and 1970s.


Luckily the Xieng Khouang style also became popular in Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, where it is known today as the Luang Prabang III style. An excellent example is Wat Aham, the original of which was constructed by King Photisarath on the site of the shrine to phou nheu and nya nheu (guardian spirits of ancient Muang Sua) as part of his campaign to ban animist worship.

King Photisarath is also credited with the construction of several of Vientiane’s major wats, including the afore-mentioned Wat Simuang, Wat Ong Tu and Wat Inpeng. His work there was consolidated by his son and successor King Sai Setthathirat I, who embarked on an ambitious construction programme in Vientiane following the relocation of the capital from Luang Prabang in 1560.


Sai Setthathirat I constructed the original Ho Phra Keo in Vientiane to house the Phra Keo or Emerald Buddha which he had removed from Chiang Mai during the early 1550s. He also commissioned the creation of the Ong Tu Buddha image, and after its installation Wat Ong Tu in Vientiane became the royal temple where subjects took their oath of allegiance to the king. The king subsequently sponsored the construction of six more Ong Tu temples around the country – in Vientiane (Wat Phonesay and Wat Xieng Mai Nabong), in Viengkham (Wat Ong Tu), in Muang Sopbao, modern Houaphanh Province (Wat Phoxay Sanalam), in Muang Khun, modern Xieng Khouang Province (Wat Siphom) and in Ban Nammone in present-day Nong Khai, Thailand (Wat Nammone). Other important Vientiane wats originally constructed during Sai Setthathirat I’s reign include Wat Mixay, Wat Tay Noi and Wat Tay Yai.


However, the crowning achievement of Sai Setthathirat I’s reign was the Phra That Luang, built on the site of an earlier, possibly Khmer temple.


The construction of Phra That Luang in 1565 was clearly a major event in the history of the nation and there are many stories of groups of faithful travelling from outlying muang to Vientiane to deposit valuables in the foundations of the new stupa. Comprising three levels, each representing a different stage along the path to Buddhist enlightenment, Phra That Luang was later restored by the French and is nowadays regarded as the symbol of the Lao nation.


Outside Vientiane, the king constructed Wat Phia Wat in Muang Phuan (modern Xieng Khouang Province), rebuilt the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham (modern Sayaburi Province) and That Sikhottabong in Muang Sikhottabong (modern Khammouane Province) and erected royal stupas in numerous other outlying muang.


Following the mysterious death of Sai Setthathirat I in 1571 while campaigning in the south, Lane Xang was plunged into a bloody 70-year war of succession, during which time it was relegated to the status of a Burmese vassal kingdom. Order was eventually restored by King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690), whose long and peaceful rule was marked by the emergence of Vientiane as an important regional centre for Buddhist learning.


A resident of Vientiane for five years during the 1640s, Italian Jesuit missionary Giovanni-Maria Leria described during this period the splendour of 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.


Architecture of the three kingdoms 1695-1893

In 1695, following the death without an heir of King Suriyavongsa, there began an extended succession dispute which brought about the final disintegration of Lane Xang into the three rival kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. During the following century Siamese influence in the region grew steadily, and by the mid 18th century Ayutthaya was exacting tribute from all three.

Due mainly to the destruction of records during subsequent wars, comparatively little is known of the history of the three kingdoms during this period. However, it is clear that temple-building continued apace in the northern kingdom of Luang Prabang, particularly during the reigns of Kings Ong Nok (1713-1723, who commissioned Wat Nong, Wat Sene and Wat Xieng Lek), Anourathurath (1792-1819, who commissioned Wat May, Wat Phonesay Sanasongkham and Wat Phra That Chomsi and rebuilt Wat Nong) and Chantharath (1850-1868, who commissioned Wat Pa Heuk, Wat Siphouthabath, Wat Pak Ou and Wat Xieng Muan). On the eve of the devastating Chinese Black Flag invasion of 1887 there are said to have been no fewer than 65 wats in the Luang Prabang area; many were subsequently damaged or destroyed, but around half were eventually restored or rebuilt.


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.


French colonial architecture 1893-1953


In contrast to the situation in neighbouring Việt Nam and Cambodia, the French colonial government in Laos had little money for infrastructural development and was therefore unable to fund the construction of large French-style buildings on the same scale that it did in Hà Nội, Sài Gòn and to a lesser extent Phnom Penh. However, French colonial architecture still made a modest impact in most major towns and cities.


Prior to the arrival of the French, Vientiane comprised ramshackle collections of mainly wooden or bamboo stilted houses with thatched roofs, grouped around the overgrown ruins of former temples and palaces. The first major French building to be constructed in the city was the Résidence supérieure (1900), strategically sited within the former royal palace compound.

This was followed by the nearby headquarters of the Service des travaux publics (1907, now the Embassy of France in Laos), the staff of which subsequently set to work on a Plan d’alignement to straighten the existing roads in the capital and make them run perpendicular or parallel to the Mekong River. As part of this plan a new main road called l’avenue de France (now Thanon Lane Xang) was opened up, leading out of the city in a north easterly direction parallel to the ancient Thanon Nongbone. By around 1920 a sewage system and a basic electricity grid were in place.


During the last 30 years of French rule a number of larger-scale construction projects were implemented, including the Bureau de la résidence (1915, now the offices of the Ministry of Information and Culture), the Lycée Auguste Pavie (1920, now part of the School of Medicine), the Hôtel du commissariat (1925, now the Lao National Museum) and the Église de sacré-coeur (1930).


Colonial government buildings were also constructed throughout this period in other urban centres such as Luang Prabang, Thakhek, Savannakhet and Pakse.


In addition to government buildings, the French also built two-storey brick and stucco villas with pitched tile roofs and wooden shuttered windows in every major centre of population to accommodate the colonial administrators and their families. However, as elsewhere in the Indochinese colonies, provincial French design was modified to suit the hot and humid tropical climate through the addition of balconies, verandahs and internal corridors. Construction was entrusted mainly to migrant Vietnamese labourers, who also built their own two-storey shophouses in designated areas.


The design of the colonial villa in turn began to influence subtle changes in the design of Lao urban dwellings. From the 1930s onwards, in major centres of population, the traditional Lao twin gabled wooden stilted house increasingly gave way to inventive architectural hybrids such as European-style villas on stilts, or stilted wooden houses with their lower levels enclosed by masonry walls. Many excellent examples may still be seen today throughout the country, and particularly in Luang Prabang.


Perhaps the most memorable piece of colonial-era architecture in Luang Prabang is the Royal Palace, built by the French for King Sisavangvong between 1904 and 1909 to replace the former royal palace, which had been burned down in 1887 by a joint Tai Khao-Chinese Black Flag force under Sip Song Chu Tai leader Kham Hum (Đèo Văn Trị). The building was intended to cement Franco-Lao relations and thus features a blend of French and Lao architectural styles. The roof is of traditional Lao design, topped at its centre by a gilded spire. Above the main entrance, approached via a flight of Italian marble steps, is the royal three-headed elephant crest, which symbolises the three kingdoms of Laos; French fleur de lys emblems adorn the pillars on either side. The interior decor also features an intriguing mix of European and Asian design elements.

Modern and contemporary Lao architecture 1953-present


As in neighbouring Cambodia, the 1950s were years of optimism which saw the appearance of new and innovative architectural styles. Important public structures from this period include the original National Assembly building (now the Prime Minister’s Office), the Lycée de Vientiane, Mahosot Maternity Hospital, the National Stadium and the Municipal Swimming Pool.


However, with the subsequent deterioration of the political situation in the later years of the Royal Lao Government, fewer public works were commissioned. The Patuxai Monument (1957) is said to have been constructed using US-purchased cement which had been earmarked for the construction of a new airport – hence its nickname, the ‘vertical runway’.


The last major public building project before 1975 was the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, construction of which commenced in 1973 following the formation of the final coalition government and continued until 1986, when it finally opened as a reception hall and guest house for visiting international heads of state.


The economic difficulties experienced in Laos for more than a decade after 1975 precluded the commissioning of any major public works, and during this period the fabric of many existing buildings – religious and secular – deteriorated badly.


However, with the advent of chintanakan mai and the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), new office and apartment blocks began to appear throughout the capital city of Vientiane.


Since the early 1990s the designs of architect Dr Hongkad Souvannavong have brought a new vitality to several major centres of population. They include the new National Assembly building (1990), the Luang Prabang International Airport Terminal (1997) and the Patuxai Monument Park (2004). Dr Hongkad has also designed the new Government House, which will be built adjacent to Patuxai Monument on the site of the first National Assembly building (currently the Prime Ministers’s Office) in 2006.


Regrettably key issues such as appropriateness of design and location in a predominantly low-rise city centre have yet to find a strong voice in urban planning. In this context the construction of the Lao Plaza Hotel (1998) and the National Cultural Hall (2000) in central Ban Mixay, and more recently the 14-storey Don Chan Palace Hotel (2004) on an island in the Mekong River, have caused some concern amongst conservationists.


Another important issue of recent years has been the fact that since chintanakan mai individuals have had the right to build their own homes and to make money from their property. Predictably, the pace of development in recent years has outstripped planning, and although most larger foreign-funded projects have followed the architectural rules, a considerable amount of unsystematic construction has taken place in residential areas. The popularity of the ubiquitous ‘Greco-Roman Ranch’ style house, which originated in neighbouring Thailand, has also contributed to the rapid demise of the traditional stilted Lao home in major urban centres.


Today the traditional Lao house – a thatched wooden structure built on stilts to catch breezes, avoid flooding and insect infestation and leave space beneath the living area for grain, livestock and a loom – is increasingly found only in rural areas.


  •   In VIETNAM: No. 4, Alley 604/33/2, Group 22, Ngoc Thuy Ward, Long Bien District, Hanoi, Vietnam

  •    Mobile: +84 972861122

  •    Mail:


  •   In WASHINGTON: 116 Forest Lane, Bellingham, WA 98225

  •   In TEXAS: 4654 Highway 6 North, Suite 101N, Houston, TX 77084

  •    Mobile: +1 971 232 9999

  •    Mail:


  •   In THAILAND: No. 25/A2, Nak Niwat Soi 21, Lad Prao 71, Bangkok 10230

  •   In CAMBODIA: Sala Kanseng, Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap

      In MYANMAR: 109, Sinh-oo-dan Street, Latha Township, Yangon

      In LAOS: Hom 07 Ban Nasamphan, 13th North Road, Luangprabang


© Copyright 2015 by Gia Linh Travel