Architecture in Laos is a real mix. In the countryside and villages, people live in wooden houses simply constructed. In the flatlands these house tend to be on stilts (as in Cambodia). Structures in larger towns are much different. There are exquisite temples built in a number of styles that are very close to that of North Thailand. Generally with Lao wats, the roof reaches very low -- almost to the ground in an elegant arc. There is also plenty of dark wood and gold. A wander around Luang Prabang is a rewarding experience if you have an interest in Buddhist temples. They are simply stunning.
The other element to the mix that makes Luang Prabang and Vientiane so beautiful is the French factor. Whether they did it intentionally or not, the French created beautiful buildings all over Indochina, and Laos is no exception. In Vientiane or Luang Prabang, these buildings look cared for and preserved. In other less visited places such as Savannakhet, the opposite is true and there is a real sense of decay. It's a very elegant decay, but there is a real worry that the old French buildings will fall down if they are not knocked down first.
It is a subjective view, but when it comes to Lao architecture the real challenge is the buildings created during the Soviet era, when the words "bombastic" and "concrete" became the order of the day. Thankfully, buildings of that sort are no longer being built and in areas of conservation there is a real effort to make new construction fit in with the existing structures.
Painting & Sculpture
There is no real strong tradition of painting and sculpture apart from that concerned with religion. Impressive religious art and architecture are created in a singular Lao style, particularly the "standing" or "praying for rain" Buddha, upright with hands pointing straight down at the earth. The bas-reliefs, murals, and wooden inlay on many temples are breathtaking. As with architecture, styles are very close to that of Northern Thailand, echoing such temples as Wat Phumin in Nan or Wat Lampang Luang in Lampang.
Fabric & Jewelry
Laos is renowned for its silk and fabrics. Markets in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang abound in silk, brocade, and cotton. Intricate and beautiful designs are produced by village women on simple wooden framed hand- and foot-operated looms. Silk thread is still hand-spun and dyed too in the outer villages, but due to the lack of availability of enough raw silk, Chinese and Japanese thread is being used increasingly. The fabrics are woven from hand-grown spun and dyed cotton or silk thread. Quality varies and not all the hand-woven items seen in the markets are pure silk. There are various different regional styles. There is also a lot of seriously satisfying chunky silver jewelry, much of which originates from hill tribes.
Music and dance are integral to the Lao character, and you'll get a taste of them during your stay. Folk or khaen music is played with a reed mouth organ, often accompanied by a boxed string instrument. Don't miss a Baci ceremony, in which a circle of celebrants chant and sing to honor or bless an event.
Classical music is another art form where the Lao share almost identical cultural roots with the Thais. The Lao orchestra is defined by two forms, one large and the other small, or Sep Nyai and Sep Noi. The Sep Nyai is ceremonial and consists of two sets of gongs (kong vong), a xylophone (lanat), an oboe (pei or salai), two kettle-drums, and cymbals (xing). The Sep Noi is more relaxed and popular in feel and includes two bowed string instruments, the So U and the So I. These instruments, probably Indian in origin, have a long fret board and a small sound box made from bamboo and coconut. Both instruments have two strings and are played with a bow.
Lao pop music is the same as in the northeastern Isan provinces of Thailand. It is bluesy, often melancholic, and the rhythms are relentless, pushing along haunting melodies often in minor keys. As with American blues, the stories told are of everyday life, hardship, and love lost. The very distinctive sound that a lot of this music has is as a result of an instrument called the Khaen (or Khene in French). If you encounter a folk band, they will often be performing something called morlam. As with Thailand and Cambodia the singers, often one man and one woman, will be doing a routine of call and response and improvising a banter that can be irreverent or even bawdy. Even if you don't understand the language, it's great fun to watch.
The large population of Lao people living in France and the USA means that there are also singers playing hybrid forms of Lao and western music, be that genres as international as rap or heavy metal. This is a relatively new phenomenon in Laos itself since until as recently as 2003, "modern" music was virtually against the law since the seriously unhip ruling politburo thought it was a capitulation to decadent Western values.
There is a vibrant live music scene in Vientiane. Bars such as the Wind West feature very skilled musicians playing both Western covers, Lao pop, and traditional music.
Although Laos shares traditions of classical dance with both Thailand and Cambodia, it is not an art form that has been particularly nurtured over the last 40 years. This is largely as a result of relentless conflict and a population generally prioritizing survival rather than the arts. Unlike in Cambodia where dance was very nearly dramatically and murderously wiped out, the Lao government has been largely indifferent to the slow decline of some traditional arts. That doesn't mean that all dance is dead. The lamvong, the national folk dance in which participants dance in concentric circles, remains very popular.
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