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Laos: From Historic Buddhist Temples
to Modern Silkweaving

Report of the lecture given by Denise Heywood BA FRGS on October 28th 2009

Denise's talk was essentially about cross-cultural influences to be found in the remote and ancient city of Luang Prabang set amid forests and mountains, on the Mekong River in Northern Laos. Until the communist takeover in 1975 Luang Prabang was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos.

Throughout its history cultures have fused in Luang Prabang, From earlier times there is rich evidence of a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist symbolism and a 17th century image of Khrishna wearing boots and epaulettes celebrated Laos first meeting with Europeans! In the mid nineteenth century the young French explorer Henri Mahout discovered Luang Prabang and shortly later France annexed Laos whilst recognizing the city as the royal residence of Laos.

Thus Luang Prabang has a heritage of wonderful Hindu and Buddhist buildings and culture and in addition, impressive examples of French Indo-Chinese architecture from over a century ago with many French provincial style houses displaying such features as classical pilasters and louvre windows. The town's unique and remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.

Luang Prabang had 63 temples of which 33 remain. There is a very distinctive vernacular style with steep sloping and cascading roofs. Symbolism often embellished in gold (or gold paint!) in these temples is a fusion of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. The Lotus symbol frequently appears. The Haw Kham Royal Palace and the Wat Xieng Thong temple are among the most significiant historical sites whilst Vat Xiengthong (constructed in 1559/1560 A.D. by king Say Setthathirath) is the most beautiful among all monasteries of Luang Prabang and represents the typical Lao art style. The Laos vernacular style has partly emerged to resist the torrential rainfall and this too can be seen in the traditional design of houses, many of which also have cascading roofs and are sometimes built on stilts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Laos was ravaged, enduring civil war and aerial bombings (more bombs were dropped on the northern Laos by the US between 1964 and 1973 than the total dropped during WWII) After Pathet Lao's communist consolidation of power in 1975, the monarchy was ended and slowly a new stability emerged.

In 1995, UNESCO made Luang Prabang a world heritage city to try and preserve the city's unique blend of outstanding architectural styles. This move has also helped preserve the ancient traditions and trades which make Laos unique and especially the outstanding quality of its hand-woven silk textiles derived from traditional Lao patterns often reinterpreted with contemporary colors. The World Heritage city status has also no doubt increased opportunity for the ladies of 54 ethnic minorities to preen themselves in their traditional fashion (especially their wonderfully elaborate head dresses) and for many young men to continue the tradition of spending time as Buddhist monks (including the daily begging processions throughout the town).

With great enthusiasm and clarity and photographs which would have done 'The National Geographic' proud Denise Heywood introduced us to a beautiful and remote culture about which many of us had little prior familiarity and offered us the option of a conducted tour.

Arthur Webster

Denise Heywood
wearing an example of the wonderful
silk weaving from Laos

Denise Heywood is a lecturer, journalist, author and photographer. She has lived in Paris, New York and, most recently, in Cambodia where she worked as a journalist for three years. Now based in London, Denise has lectured all over Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe. She is a lecturer for NADFAS and for the British Museum on their Asian Art Course, and has taught courses at the University of Cambridge. She has recently written a book on the Buddhist temples of Laos, Ancient Luang Prabang, and has just completed one on Cambodian dance, Cambodian Dance Celebration of the Gods. Denise writes for many art, literary and travel publications, and has made radio programmes for the BBC. She leads art tours to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and France and lectures on cruise ships sailing throughout Asia and the Mediterranean