Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Buddhist Temples

Wat Si Saket — Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple

Wat Si Saket, Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple

Built in 1818 by Chao Anou, Wat Si Saket on the corner of Lane Xang Avenue and Setthathirat Road (across the street from Haw Pha Kaew) is Vientiane’s oldest surviving temples and next to That Louang and Haw Pha Kaew, one of the city’s most important Buddhist sites. 

According to tradition, this was where the Lao lords and nobles came to swear allegiance to the King. When the Siamese sacked Vientiane in 1828, they spared this temple, perhaps because it is built in a style similar to Thai temples. Ironically, the Lao lords and nobles were made to swear allegiance to the Siamese and the ceremony was repeated again in the 1920’s—this time to the French.

Wat Si Saket — Look at all the Buddhas!

Although such history might be lost on the average tourist exploring the temple, what is not lost on visitors to the temple is its feature: a square tile-roofed cloister that encloses the sim (ordination hall). This is a common feature of large Thai temples, but is less common in Lao temples. On the interior walls of the cloister are over two thousand small niches, each of which houses a small Buddha image. Over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying sizes and materials (terracotta, wood, plaster, silver, gold and bronze) rest on long shelves below the niches, most of them sculpted or cast in the characteristic Lao style. Most of the images are from the 15th-19th century Vientiane, but a few are from 15th to 16th-century Luang Prabang. 

(In a converted entrance portico west side of the cloister is a sort of “Buddha bin” holing hundreds of broken images-some from the 1828 Siamese-Lao war—discovered during excavations in support of one of the restorations.) 

Without question all these Buddha statues and figures are the temple’s unique feature, but the ordination hall is worth exploring to view its flowered ceiling (inspired by Siamese temples in Ayuthaya) as well as view the several more Buddha images at an altar in the rear of the sim bringing the total number of Buddhas at Wat Si Saket to 6840. That’s a lot of Buddhas! 

If you are planning to head up Lane Xang Avenue to Patouxai and then onto That Louang after your visit to Wat Si Saket the temple’s shaded galleries are a cool and pleasant place to linger and soak up the atmosphere before continuing on your journey.

That Louang — Sacred Buddhist Site & National Symbol

That Louang — December 31, 2007

Although there are numerous impressive and beautiful Buddhist temples located throughout Vientiane, That Louang, (pronounced tawt) Laos’s most important religious site is famous for its golden stupa that is a national symbol for the country.  

Located approximately four kilometers northeast of the center of Vientiane and within walking distance of Patouxai, its full official name Pha Chedi Lokajulamani means “World-Precious Scared Stupa” and rightfully so when you first get a glimpse of this magnificent golden stupa rising above the monument in the distance. It’s no wonder That Louang and its stupa is very sacred for Laotians—both as a Buddhist symbol and Lao sovereignty.

That Louang — December 31, 2007

The present building dates from the 1930’s and is a reconstruction; the original That Louang is thought to have been built by King Setthathilat in the mid-sixteenth century (that’s a statue of him perched jauntily on a pedestal in front of the stupa).  

Like most central and southern Lao Buddhist structures, archeological evidence has determined that the original stupa was built on an ancient Khmer site. Although what the original stupa was supposed to have looked like has been lost over the centuries, it is believed that the stupa was a pyramid covered with gold.

Later, this stupa would be restored and embellished with more gold periodically, but this stopped following the 1827 Siamese invasion. French explorers stumbled across the stupa in 1867, now overgrown with jungle. A few years later, Chinese bandits plundered the stupa looking for gold and left it in ruins. It wouldn’t be until the 1930’s when—using sketches done by one of the French explorers—that restoration work was begun to restore the stupa to its original glory.

That Louang — December 31, 2007

From the distance, as you approach this massive Buddhist cluster of smaller stupas with the main stupa towering high in the sky, which is surrounded by a Chinese-style cloistered wall, it’s like nothing else you are going to come across in Vientiane and perhaps the rest of Laos. The tapering golden spire of the main stupa—rising 45 meters over the structure—rests on a plinth of stylized lotus petals, which crowns a mound reminiscent of a Buddhist stupa in Sanchi, India. The main stupa is surrounded on all sides by thirty, shorter spike-like stupas and can be reached by any of the four gates. 

The guidebooks tell you that the best time to view That Louang is in the late afternoon when the golden spire catches the sun’s setting rays, for a spectacular, albeit brief natural light show. If you can’t get there then, the best time to view this gorgeous landmark would be earlier in the afternoon when the sun is just right in the sky for the best photo opportunity.  

On and I made the small mistake of hiring a tuk-tuk for 100 Baht (about $3.00 or 27,000 Kip) to get here from Patouxai. Had I looked at my guidebook a little more closely, I would have noticed that we could have walked here. We just didn’t know how close we were until we climbed aboard the tuk-tuk and started up That Louang Road (it branches off from Lane Xang Avenue). If you don’t mind a little walking, it is only about a 30-minute leisurely stroll from Patouxai. 

There’s a small, but thriving market just outside That Louang where you can buy everything from cold drinks and fruit to blonde hair dolls and other souvenir kitsch (I have no idea why so many of these dolls were on sale).

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