The wat, or Buddhist monastery, is the centrepiece of most villages populated by ethnic Lao. A contingent of monks and novices lives in each wat, providing the laypeople with an outlet for merit-making. The wat also serves as a hub for social gatherings and, during annual festivals and Buddhist holy days, a venue for entertainment.
Sometimes referred to as a “temple” in English, a wat is actually composed of a number of religious and secular structures, some of which could also be described as a temple. The sim is usually the grandest structure in the monastery grounds, as it houses the monastery’s principal Buddha images, as well as being the place where monks are ordained. The that, or stupa, is generally a pyramid or bell-shaped structure which contains holy relics, usually a cache of small Buddhas. Occasionally, a that will be the reputed repository of a splinter of bone belonging to the historic Buddha himself, while miniature stupas, or that kaduk, contain the ashes of deceased adherents. The haw tai is a solid structure, usually raised high off the ground, for storing palm-leaf manuscripts, and kuti are monks’ quarters. Because the latter two buildings are not considered as important as other religious structures in the monastery grounds, they are not as frequently restored, and are thus most likely to exude that “timeless Asia” charm. Minor buildings sometimes found at a wat include a bell tower and a sala, or open-air pavilion. Many monasteries also have a venerable specimen of a bodhi (Ficus religiosa), a wonderfully shady tree of spade-shaped leaves that is said to have sheltered the Buddha while he meditated his way to enlightenment.
Because the wat and resident monks depend on adherents for support, the extravagance of a monastery’s decoration is directly related to the amount of cash flow in the host village or town. In poor villages, the wat may consist of just a sim, which will be a large but simple hut-like structure, raised on stilts without any ornamentation. The only clue to the outsider that this is a monastery will be the freshly laundered monks’ robes hanging out to dry alongside a piece of junk metal or war scrap, such as an old artillery-shell casing, which when struck serves as a bell to wake the monks or call them to assemble.