The 'sala': architectural embodiment of Thai identity

Economy September 27, 2013 00:00

By Suphawat Hiranthanawiwat

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A sala by definition is an open pavilion. With etymological roots in the Sanskrit sala, the word in Thai connotes buildings with specific purposes, such as sala klang (provincial hall) or sala kanparian (sermon hall).

Sala are one of the most basic structures in traditional Thai architecture, and can be constructed easily with common building materials. As they are used mainly for temporary activities – as either rest stops or sites of leisure – a sala is often small and simple. With more elaborate programmatic requirements, however, a sala can be built for more permanent purposes using more durable materials.
In spite of its size, the sala represents the craftsmanship and wisdom of traditional Thai carpenters. Built entirely in wood with clever joinery techniques, a sala can be easily assembled and disassembled. 
Such timeless qualities promoted the sala to become one of three official national symbols of Thailand – a designation granted by the Thai National Identity Office.
Sala tha nam, or canal-side sala, were used mainly for mooring boats, as a waiting space, or as a temporary accommodation for lounging along the canal. Historically, transportation was water-based, so numerous sala tha nam were built throughout the country. 
A household sala tha nam was often a simple wooden structure with a gable roof, while those built in Buddhist temples were more elaborately decorated with stylised barge-boards and finials. 
A typical sala tha nam plan features a pathway through the centre, with raised seating areas on both sides.
Sala nai suan, or garden sala, best represent traditional Thai culture’s deep roots in agriculture and animal husbandry. Spending most of the day in rice fields and farms, Thai farmers built them as places of rest throughout the work day. 
Garden sala also epitomise Thai hospitality and generosity towards strangers, as these structures were considered public shelters open to anyone in need. A typical garden sala has a centered, raised platform for sitting and sleeping, and is surrounded by walkways covered by wide, overhanging eaves.
As Thai society became increasingly urbanised, the social role of the sala correspondingly changed. Ready-made sala can be purchased and used as garden decorations, with more fanciful designs available for more affluent urban households.
Nonetheless, the sala still provides a pleasant space to rest, to have a cup of coffee, or to simply enjoy the fresh air in one’s garden. A larger one can also be used as an outdoor office, or as a reception space for household guests.
Suphawat Hiranthanawiwat, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture Chulalongkorn University

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