Luang Prabang Monasteries


The following text is reprinted from Luang Phabang: An Architectural Journey (Vientiane: Ateliers de la Péninsule Co. Ltd., 2004), pp. 101-3. It was written by Laurent Rampon, Chief Architect for Heritage in Luang Prabang, 1998-2001, and translated from the French by Aiden Glendenning.

The thirty-five temples that still survive within its protected area are the pride of Luang Phabang. While these temples constitute the major element in Luang Phabang's heritage, it is not their interesting architecture that gives them this significance, but rather the central role that they play in the life of the city and the atmosphere they create.

The Lao village, often named after its temple, forms the basic urban administration sub-unit by grouping communities. For these communities, the vat [monastery] plays much more than a religious role. Temples traditionally fulfil several social functions, particularly in education and medicine. A vat is a public place for meeting and exchange, and a venue for gatherings. This is still true today, as can be seen during the various celebrations that punctuate the Buddhist calendar. Nothing confers more prestige in Laos than the building of a monastery, to which village communities have always devoted the best of their construction resources. A large space is chosen in a dominant position in the village, and initially marked out by a fence. The first building to be constructed is not the sanctuary but the monks' lodgings, the kouti. At this stage the monastery is little more than a hermitage. Next is the sala, a public hall where the monks receive offerings of food and read scriptures. The monastery becomes a complete vat with the addition of the central element: the sanctuary or vihan, plus a stupa or that. Structures are then progressively added around the sanctuary, while an esplanade free of all construction is generally preserved on the eastern side of the vihan. Depending on the donations it receives, the vat may develop other features: a surrounding brick wall; ornamental gates; vaulted chapels; a drum and bell shelter; a library; a school; a well and cistern; funerary stupa.

Henri Parmentier made the first typological classification of Lao pagodas. His inventory, completed between 1911 and 1927, details more than a hundred temples as representative of the whole of Laos and constitutes an invaluable record of Lao heritage—many of the monuments he studied have today been destroyed or rebuilt.

The typology he developed in his work l'Art du Laos is based mainly on analysis of sanctuary designs and roofing systems. It classes all Lao pagodas into two principal groups according to their roof system, which has two main panels or sometimes four lean-to roofs along its sides and ends. These two forms of system are then subdivided according to their building layout. Parmentier also listed regional architectural variations and stylistic differences.

In 1974, Thao Boun Souk, also known as Pierre-Marie Gagneux, published Luang Prabang, 600 Ans d'Art Bouddhique Lao, which further developed typological work on Lao temples. Gagneux paid much more attention to difference in roof styles, and created more specific classifications using roofs as one of the principal methods of identification. His work grouped Lao vihan into three basic regional styles: The Luang Phabang style (e.g. Vat Xieng Thong) is characterised by an immense roof, and also includes vihan with a peripheral nave. The Xieng Khouang style shows similar characteristics, but rather more accentuated. The Vientiane style is more streamlined and features a surrounding walkway (e.g. Vat Pha Houak). All three styles of vihan can be found in Luang Phabang.

Like her predecessors, in her book Art et Archéologie du Laos (2001) Madeline Giteau notices a distinction between the type and the style of a vihan. She identifies two types of sanctuary and bases the differentiation on the relationship between the roof and the floor plan, analysing the structure by focusing on pedestals, walls and column lines. For Giteau, however, there are only two styles: the northern style with a great sweeping wide of the walls and down low near the ground, and a southern style, along more slender lines, with higher walls and roofs that are proportionately less broad. These two types have evolved differently because of varying climates but also due to aesthetic considerations.

Since it was set up in 1996, Heritage House in Luang Phabang has been responsible for protecting the listed sites and providing architectural advice and guidelines. To perform real conservation, proper knowledge of the site is required. Preservation of temples is a necessary but complex task, and varying opinions on how to proceed emerged. It is vital that the key elements of what is a living heritage be preserved, while at the same time allowing room for the diverse functions of the site to evolve in the tradition which has shaped the city's current character. Studies were made of the various components of the local heritage, and the results of this research entered the Heritage Masterplan for Luang Phabang.

In the first version of the Heritage Masterplan, published in 2000, we classified Luang Phabang's monasteries directly along the lines of the work of Henri Parmentier and Thao Boun Souk. Two factors then persuaded us to advance a hypothesis that completes these earlier classifications. Firstly, more recent sanctuaries from the second half of the twentieth century differ from earlier models, in spite of the express desire of their builders to conform to local tradition. Secondly, in our role of providing advice to the Buddhist clergy, a dilemma sometimes occurs concerning appropriate decoration for the vihan in question. This work has made it clear that there is a close relationship between the type and the style of the vihan, and that these two aspects must be considered in tandem. The major elements of the new classification we arrived at are detailed in the second version of the Heritage Masterplan, published in 2001. The study included forty-two temples that were reconstructed before 1925 in Luang Phabang and the surrounding villages. Sometimes the character of these vihan has been altered by successive restorations and repairs. In such cases we referred to the earliest verifiable records of their appearance, using Parmentier's inventory or old photographs. By basing the typology on the study of early vihan, it was also possible to classify most modern sanctuaries, although some of these seem to have adopted rather hybrid forms. We described four styles: three main Luang Phabang styles and one Siamese style.

List of Religious Buildings in Luang Prabang (With Estimated Date of Foundation)

Source: Luang Phabang: An Architectural Journey (Vientiane: Ateliers de la Péninsule Co. Ltd., 2004), p. 116.

  1. Vat Pak Khane, 1737
  2. Vat Xieng Thong, 1560
  3. Vat Khily, 1773
  4. Vat Sibounheuang, 1758
  5. Vat Simoungkoun, 1763
  6. Vat Sop, 1481
  7. Vat Sene, 1714
  8. Vat Nong, 1729
  9. Vat Pa Phay, 1765-91
  10. Vat Xieng Mouane, 1853
  11. Vat Choum Khong, 1843
  12. Vat Pa Khe, 1853
  13. Vat Pa Fang, 1799
  14. Vat Tham Phou Si, 1962-65
  15. Vat Phou Si, 1804
  16. Vat Aphay, 1529
  17. Vat Pa Houak, 1861
  18. Vat May, 1821-91
  19. Vat Phone Xay, 1791
  20. Vat Aham, 1822
  21. Vat Vixun, 1522-26
  22. Vat Ho Sieng, 1705-9
  23. Vat That, 1548
  24. Vat Manorum, 1377-78
  25. That Luang, 1818
  26. Vat Mune Na, 1533
  27. Vat Phan Luang, unkonwn
  28. Vat Phon Sath, 1960
  29. That Mak Mo, 1503
  30. That Noi, 16th c.