Religious buildings arc the cornerstone of traditional Lao
architecture (see the special section 'Temple Architecture' in the Northern Laos
chapter). Colonial architecture in late 19th- and early 20th-century urban Laos consisted in the main of thick-walled buildings with shuttered windows and pitched tile roofs in the classic French provincial style. Although many of these structures were torn down or allowed to decay following independence from France, today they are much in demand among foreign and local companies. Whatever their age, shop houses through- out Laos
share the basic Chinese shop house design in which the ground floor is reserved for trading purposes and the upper floors for offices or residences. During most of the post-WW II era, the trend in modern Lao architecture - inspired by the European Bauhaus movement - was towards a boring functionalism in which the average building looked like a giant egg carton turned on its side. The Lao and French aesthetic, once so vibrant, almost disappeared in this characterless style of architecture.
Buildings erected in post-Revolution Laos followed the socialist realism school that was enforced in the Soviet Union, Vietnam
and China. Straight lines, sharp angles and an almost total lack of ornamentation were the norm for much of the 1970s and early I 980s. Many newer buildings in Northern Laos in particular were constructed by Chinese or Vietnamese engineers in this style.
More recently a trend towards integrating classic Lao architectural motifs with modern functions has taken hold. Prime examples of this movement include Vientiane's National Assembly hall and the Luang Prabang
airport, both of which were designed by Havana- and Moscow-trained architect
Hongkad Souvannavong. Other design characteristics, such as those represented by the Sium Commercial Bank on Thanon Lan Xang in Vientiane, seek to gracefully reincorporate French colonial features ignored for the last half-century. Sculpture
The focus of most traditional art in Lao culture has been religious, specifically Buddhist. Yet, unlike the art of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, Lao art never encompassed a broad range of styles and periods, mainly because Laos has had a much more modest history in terms of power and longevity. Furthermore, since Laos was intermittently dominated by its neighbors, much Lao art was destroyed or carried off by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Siamese or Khmer. These states left behind a very strong influence on local sculpture as well. The French, during their colonial stewardship, also carted off much of historical value.
Though limited in range, Lao art and architecture can be unique and expressive. Most impressive is Lao sculpture of the 16th to 18th centuries, the heyday of the kingdom of Lan Xang. Lao sculptural media usually included bronze, stone or wood and the subject was invariably the Lord Buddha or figures associated with the jataka (saa-dok; stories of the Buddha's past lives). Like other Buddhist sculptors, the Lao artisans emphasized the features thought to be peculiar to the historical Buddha, including a beak-like nose, extended earlobes, tightly curled hair and so on.
Two types of standing Buddha images are distinctive to Laos. The first is the 'Calling for Rain' posture, which depicts the Buddha standing with hands held rigidly at his side, fingers- pointing towards the ground. This posture is rarely seen in other South-East Asian Buddhist art traditions.
The slightly rounded, 'boneless' look of the image recalls Thailand's Sukhothai style, and the way the lower robe is sculpted over the hips looks vaguely Khmer. But the flat, slab-like earlobes, arched eyebrows and very aquiline nose are uniquely Lao. The bottom of the figure's robe curls upward on both sides in a perfectly symmetrical fashion that is also unique and innovative. The whole image gives the distinct impression of a rocket in flight. Considering that the Lao custom at the end of the dry season is to fire bamboo rockets into the sky in a plea for rain. this may have been the sculptors' desired effect.
The other original Lao image type is the 'Contemplating the Bodhi Tree' Buddha. The Bodhi tree, or 'Tree of Enlightenment', refers to the large banyan tree that the historical Buddha purportedly was sitting beneath when he attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India, in the 6th century Be. In this image the Buddha is standing in much the same way as in the 'Calling for Rain' pose, except that his hands are crossed at the wrists in front of his body.
The finest examples of Lao sculpture are found in Vientiane'S
Haw Pha Kaew and Wat Si Saket, and in Luang Prabang's Royal Palace Museum
Although generally uncommon, other styles of sculpture from Siam (particularly in Vientiane) and Angkor (at Wat Phu Champasak) can occasionally be seen in Laos, Handicrafts
As has been already noted, the Lao are skilful earners. This applies not only to sim. (ordination hall) porticoes and gold relief, but to everyday folk art. The most popular carving mediums are wood and bone.
Among the Hmong and Mien hill tribes, Silversmith plays an important role in 'portable wealth' and inheritances. Silversmith and goldsmith are traditional lowland Lao arts as well but in recent years these have been in decline. Mats and baskets woven of various kinds of straw and reed are also common and are becoming a small but important export to Thailand. Among the best baskets and mats are those woven by the Htin.
Paper handcrafted from saa (the bark of a mulberry tree native to Northern Laos), is available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Saa is a renewable paper resource that needs little processing compared with wood pulp, and most of the country's supply originates from Luang Prabang Province, from where it is transported to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where saa paper-making is an established cottage industry. Music & Dance
As in other South-East Asian cultures, music in Laos can be divided into classical and folk traditions. The classical music is the least interesting, simply because it is so imitative of the classical traditions of Thailand and Cambodia
. Lao classical music was originally developed as court music for royal ceremonies and classical dance-drama during the reign of Vientiane's Chao Anou, who had been educated in the Siamese court in Bangkok. The standard ensemble for this genre is the sep nyai and consists of khawng wong (a set of tuned gongs), the ranyaat (a xylophone-like instrument), the khui (bamboo flute) and the pii (a double-reed wind instrument similar to the oboe) - exactly the same instruments are used in the Thai pii-phda! ensemble.
The practice of classical Lao music and drama has been in decline for some time 40 years of intermittent war and revolution has simply made this kind of entertainment a low priority among most Lao. Generally, the only time you'll hear this type of music is during the occasional public performance of the Pha Lak Pha Lam, a dance-drama based on the Hindu Ramayana epic.
Not so with Lao folk music, which has al-ways stayed close to the people. The principal instrument in the folk genre is the khden (French spelling: khene), a wind instrument that is devised of a double row of bamboo like reeds fitted into a hardwood sound box and made air-tight with beeswax. The rows can be as Few as four or as many as eight courses (for a total of 16 pipes), and the instrument can vary in length from around 80cm to 2m. In the early 20th century there were also nine-course khaen but these have all but disappeared. The khaen player blows into the sound box while covering or uncovering small holes in the reeds that determine the pitch for each (as with a harmonica, sound is produced whether the breath is moving in or out of the instrument). An adept player can produce a churning, calliope-like music that you can dance to. The most popular folk dance is the lam wong (circle performance) in which couples dance circles around one another until there are three circles in all: a circle danced by the individual, a circle danced by the couple, and one danced by the whole crowd.
The khaen is often accompanied by the saw (sometimes written so), a bowed string instrument. In more elaborate ensembles the khui and khawng wong may be added, as well as various hand drums. Khaen music can also incorporate a vocalist. Most Lao pop music is based on vocal khaen music. Melodies are almost always pentatonic, ie, they feature five-note scales. Literature
Of all classical Lao literature, Pha Lak Pha Lam, the Lao version of the Indian epic the Ramayana, is the most pervasive and influcurial in the culture. The Indian source first came to Laos with the Hindu Khmer approximately YOO years ago as stone relief’s which appeared on Wat Phu Champasak and other Angkor-period temples built in what is now Central and Southern Laos. Oral and written versions may also have been available; eventually, though, the Lao developed their own version of the epic, which differs greatly both from the original and from Thailand's Ramakian.
Although the main theme remains the same - handsome and virtuous Rama (Pha Lam in Lao) loses his consort Sita (Sii-daa) to evil Ravana, the Lao have embroidered on the Ramayana by providing much more biographical detail on the arch-villain Ravana and his evil wife Montho. Rama's brother Laksana (Pha Lak) also has a larger role, as suggested by the inclusion of, his name in the Lao epic's title.
Various Thai tribes in Laos have their own renderings of the Ramayana story. In the Thai Lu version, for example, Rama is portrayed as an incarnation of Buddha and Ravana is identified with Mara (Buddha's Satan-like tempter in canonical Buddhist mythology).
Also passed on from Indian tradition are many jatakas. Of the 547 jataka tales in the Pali Tripitaka (Buddhist canon) - each chronicling a different past life - most appear in Laos almost word-for-word as they were first written down in Sri Lanka. A group of 50 'extra' or apocryphal stories - based on Lao- Thai folk tales of the time - were added by Pali scholars in Luang Prabang 300 to 400 years ago. One of Laos's most popular jatakas is an old Pali original known as the Mahajati or Mahavessandara (Lao: Maha Yetsanthom, the story of the Buddha's penultimate life. Interior murals in the s1m of many Lao wat typically depict this jataka and nine others: Temiya, Mahajanaka, Suvannasama, Nemiraja, Mahosatha, Bhuridatta, Candakumara, Narada and Vidhura.
Before the advent of printing, which was introduced by the French, all Lao manuscripts had been inscribed onto palm leaves and other unprocessed natural fibers and, if necessary, then collated into hand-bound volumes.
The reading of palm-leaf manuscripts nowadays is restricted to Buddhist monasteries, where they are considered historical artefacts rather than as a viable way of preserving Laos's Folk Music Tradition
The Lao folk idiom also has its own musical theatre, based on the maw Jam (mo lam) tradition. Maw lam is difficult to translate but roughly means 'master of verse'. Led by one or more vocalists, performances always feature a witty, topical combination of talking and singing that ranges across themes as diverse as politics and sex. Very colloquial, even bawdy, language is employed. This is one art form that has always bypassed government censors, whether the French or the LPRP, and provided an important outlet for grass-roots expression.
The musical backbone of maw lam, as with the lam w6ng, is the khaen. Diverse other instruments, including electric guitar and drums, may supplement the basic khaen/vocalist ensemble. Versions that occasionally appear on Lao national television are usually much watered down to suit 'national development'.
There are four basic types of maw lam. The first, maw lam leuang (story maw lam), involves an ensemble of performers in costume, on stage. Milw lam khuu (couple maw lam) features a man and woman who engage in flirtation and verbal repartee. Maw lam jot (dueling maw lam) has two performers of the same gender who 'duel' by answering questions or finishing an incomplete story issued as a challenge. Finally, maw lam d/aw (solo maw lam) involves only one performer.
Authentic live maw tam is most commonly performed at temple fairs and on other festive occasions. You can also commonly hear maw lam khuu and maw lam diaw on radio broadcasts from Laos or from North-Eastern Thailand.
Maw lam can be further subdivided by region, the most famous being lam sii phen dawn (from Si Phan Don), lam salawan (Salavan) and lam phuu thai (Phu Thai style, from Savannakhet
), all in Southern Laos. Northern Lao khaen-based folk music is usually referred as khap rather than tarn, yielding khap phuan (Phuan style, from Xieng Khuang
) and khap ngeum (from the Nam Ngeum area, ie, eastern Vientiane Province). literature. The use of saa paper (see Handicrafts earlier in this section) has been relegated entirely to the tourist market