Of all the Buddhist temples and historical sites in Laos—from Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaeo in Vientiane to Wat Phou in Pakse and Wat Xiang Thong in Luang Prabang—if there were one temple or place that would best highlight Lao’s Buddhist and historical heritage it would most certainly be Wat Xiang Thong.
To be sure, next to That Luang in Vientiane, Wat Xiang Thong is perhaps one of the best-known images of Laos as well as the most historic and enchanting Buddhist temple in the entire country.
Also known as the Golden Monastery, Wat Xiang Thong is located at the northernmost tip of the peninsula of “old Luang Prabang city.” You can enter the temple grounds from three entrances—one from Manthatoulat Road (it runs along the Mekong River and was the entrance that On and I took) another from Xiang Thong Road (the main thoroughfare which eventually becomes Sisavang Vong) or an entrance from a side street that can be reached from either Manthatoulat or Xiang Thong.
Near the northern part of Xiang Thong, the main temple or sim, which was built in 1560, dominates the rest of the monastery. To really appreciate this wonderfully gracefully building, you need to stand at a distance to get a view of the roof, the temple’s most outstanding feature and one that you will not find on any other temple in Luang Prabang, or for that matter all of Southeast Asia. Imagine if you will a bird with out-stretched wings (local legends say the roof resembles a mother hen sheltering her brood) and you get an idea of what this elegant roof looks like with its sweeping, curving lines.
Sadly, the weather was not cooperating today to guarantee any decent photos of the main temple. Although the gray skies made for a nice color contrast with the gold and dark wood of the structure, a deep blue sky with some bulbous white clouds would have been the perfect complement. It is hit or miss when the weather is concerned and having those great photos (I lucked out for example, when On and I went to That Luang in December or when we went to Wat Phou last July and the photos that I was able to take).
Aside from a large gorgeous Buddhist statute inside and other smaller statues, there’s this long wooden aqueduct or trough in the shape of a mythical serpent, Naga. During the Lao New Year water is poured into a receptacle in the serpent’s tale and spouts from its mouth. In addition you also should check out the motifs on the walls that depict a variety of tales including the Laos version of the Ramayana.
The other really cool, not to mention colorful aspect of the main temple is the exterior back wall which is covered with a mosaic depicting a legendary flame tree that stood on the site when the city was founded.
To the left of the sim is a small brick-and-stucco shrine (which is embellished with intricate purple and gold mirrored mosaics) containing a small standing Buddha—supposedly made of gold. Although the door was padlocked shut, someone had drilled a hole in the door so you could look inside.
Next to this small shrine, is a much larger shrine known as the Red Chapel. Although the mosaics covering this shrine might appear too modern to some, what really counts is what is enshrined here: a bronze reclining Buddha. Considered by many to be one of Laos’s greatest sculptures in bronze, the reclining Buddha image is thought to date from the sixteenth century.
There is one more important structure to check out before leaving Wat Xiang Thong (if you haven’t already after seeing the main monastery) and that is the golden Funerary Carriage Hall or haw latsalot. This modern religious structure, built in 1962, never fails to impress visitors (like On and myself) with its wide teakwood panels carved with depictions of Rama, Sita, Ravana, and Hanuman—all characters from Pha Lak Pha Lam, the Laos version of the Ramayana. Inside, the main article on display is the latsalot, the royal funerary carriage which was used to transport the remains of King Sisavang Vong to cremation along with other Buddhist statuary.
After having already been to the Royal Palace Museum, two smaller temples, and a walk along Manthatoulat Road, our visit to Wat Xiang Thong was the capstone to the first part of our walking tour of Old Luang Prabang. Give yourself at least an hour or ninety minutes when you visit here to have time to appreciate the beauty and charm of this magnificent temple.