Although there are numerous impressive and beautiful Buddhist temples located throughout Vientiane, That Louang, 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.
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 present glory.
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).