One of Vientiane’s “must see” attractions is Haw Pha Kaew, once the king’s personal Buddhist temple. Although it is not actually a temple per se with monks on the premises and services being performed, today it functions as a museum of art with a very impressive collection of Laotian Buddhist artifacts.
Built in the sixteenth century, the temple has many priceless Buddhist statues and antiquities on display; however, what makes this temple interesting and perhaps somewhat infamous is its controversial past, which revolves around the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred items in all of Southeast Asia and the symbol of Thailand.
According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was found when lightning struck a chedi at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, in 1434. Inside the chedi a statue covered in stucco was found and when the stucco was later removed, the Emerald Buddha was discovered. Realizing the statue’s religious significance, it was taken to Lampang, Thailand for safekeeping where it would stay there until 1468 when it was moved to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai.
Here’s where the story of the Emerald Buddha gets interesting (and sounds like the plot for an epic movie): The King of Lanna had no sons but his daughter married the King of Lan Xang and a son was born who would become the future King Setthathirat (King Chaichettha in Thai). Both Kings died almost at the same time and he was given the chance to become King of Lanna, but instead returned to Lan Xang to become King, taking the Emerald Buddha with him.
Got all that? The story gets better. Around the same time, Burma invaded Siam. Chiang Mai which was the capital of Lanna, was invaded and conquered in 1558. Because of the danger posed by the Burmese, King Setthathirat moved the capital to its current location, Vientiane in 1560 and brought the Emerald Buddha with him and once again, the Emerald Buddha was on the road.
Five years later, in 1565, Haw Pha Kaew was constructed in Vientiane to house the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew means ‘Jewel Buddha Image’ in Lao; actually, the image is made of a type of jade). The Emerald Buddha would end up staying there for over two hundred years until it was taken back to Siam by Phraya Chakri, the future King Rama I of Thailand, in 1778 and placed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo or “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.”
Sadly, Haw Pha Kaew sans the Buddha that had once given its name would suffer another tragedy when it was destroyed in 1827 by Siamese troops in revenge for then King Anouvong attacking Siam. The temple would not be rebuilt until the 1930’s by the French supposedly following the original plans; however, the reconstructed temple looks more like a Thai-style structure from the eighteenth century.
While the loss of the Emerald Buddha might still be a bitter pill for many Laotians to swallow, the temple today houses some fine and exquisite Laotian Buddha statues and related Buddhist antiquities. It is one of the finest collections of Lao art in the country. Outside, bronze Buddhas, many looted of the jeweled inlay that once decorated their eyes, line the terrace surrounding the building. Inside are a trove of statues and relics-one of the most striking being a Buddha in the “Beckoning Rain” pose (the Buddha is standing with arms to the sides and fingers pointing to the ground) and bearing a jewel-encrusted navel. Photography is prohibited inside, but there is plenty to see and photograph outside.
Located on Setthathirat Road (just past the Presidential Palace and across the street from Wat Si Saket) the temple is open daily from 8:00-12:00 and 1:00-4:00. Admission is 5,000 Kip (about 1.00). The best time to visit the temple is in the morning when it opens to avoid the throngs of tourists that start piling out of tour buses in mid morning or an hour or two before it closes in the afternoon.