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  7. Vocabulary for religious architecture

The wat, where the religious community lives, obeys a specific organization linked to religious rituals. The wats group together the oldest buildings in the town, whether they be buildings to do with the Buddhist cult (that, library, chapel …) or buildings used as living quarters.

The wat is made up of several buildings which regulate its running.

The vihan

The main structure of a Laotian pagoda is the vihan (or sanctuary), a room of worship which groups together bonzes and the faithful. Normally its orientation is to the East, but sometimes to the South or the North. Around the Vihan are chapels, libraries, stupas, bonze monasteries, drum shelters, living quarters or shelters for pilgrims and, of course, the altar to the protective spirit (Hô Phi).

The Vihan at Louang Prabang is mainly made up of a room which has a pedestal where the main Buddha sits in state, a preaching chair (or pulpit), a terrace, and a light holder. The main streets of Louang Prabang follow the sense of the embankment, the pagodas also follow thisrule, main;ly orientated to the North-East.

The sanctuaries of this old royal town are de l’ancienne ville royale se characterized by their roofs which are covered with well looked after flat tiles, laid in a double thickness. The woodwork was achieved by stacking up posts and beams.

One of the characteristics of the facades of the sanctuary of Louang Prabang is the sort of pelmet in carved wood which hangs like a screen between the pillars of the outside porch, under the pediment : the whole assembly is generally made up of two matching arcades with a motive in the middle that comes down to the point. The distinctive aspect of this honeycomb decoration is called "Houang Pheung" (hive). The sculptured wooden consoles, which hold up the beams of the roof, are sometimes seen with curves which sometimes represent a dragon or a naga (serpent).


These dwellings (which are religious dwellings for the bonzes and novices) are normally built in traditional Lao or Colonial style. They follow a similar trend to that of traditional houses, adapting material, composites and proportions.

The library

Libraries are normally of mixed construction, built on high foundations. The most common types are of a square form, with flared walls, raised up on high foundations and covered with a roof de style pourtournant.

Drum shelters

In Louang Prabang, drum shelters are nearly always to the north of the sanctuaries. These are constructions that resemble simple sanctuaries, but most of them don’t have walls. Some pavilions are on stilts; and shelter the large pagoda drums.

This is a well cared for ceremonial construction and is never bigger than 100 square feet. A staircase leads to an open porch covered by a curved roof often decorated with nagas.

Canoe shelter

A long roof, resting on stakes, some of which can be removed, so as to be able to displace the canoe. These simple constructions look very provisional. Being as they belong to the village, the canoes are a strong symbol for the community. Traditionally, its the wat that keeps the canoe and takes it down to the water for the big races.

The meditation room

Cells for individuals or cells large enough for a few people at a time individuelles ou regroupées, they are made out of wood on stillts or brickwork.

The sala

Is the meeting point of the village, normally its open on three sides.

The chapel

This building is a long, narrow room with an altar and only one opening. The molded walls, forming a ridge-tree (or beam) a sort of wooden structure.

The that

Thats (or stupas) are solid constructions used for celebrating fulfilled wishes and funeral purposes. They contain the relics of very important people and can be found in various forms :

  • Stupas in the form of half a globe, bell or dome;
  • Stupas where the supports are of an equal size to the supported element;
  • Stupas whose arched parts end up by becoming a simple terminal accessory.

The refectory

This room, which is more often than not, in a kouti, has walls that open up to the exterior.

The kitchen

It is very often only a hearth, sheltered by a roof with two slopes based on poles. Among the buildings that are annexed to the wat, there are the latrines which are also dependencies of the bonze’s living quarters. The latrines are tiny brick buildings; they have the same aspect as the meditation cells.

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