Sep 20 2013
Few cultural institutions in Laos have endured the test of time, war and revolution like the wat, or the Buddhist temple. Standing strong as the core of local communities, most boys and young men spend a period of their lives as monks; wealthier members of the community provide donations to repair and expand on old wats, or to help build new ones, while the poorest seek food, shelter and education.
Temple-gazers may find themselves overwhelmed in Vientiane by the abundance of colourful pagodas and naga statues. While many of the temples are recently built, a few older temples display probably the most beautiful traditional architecture to be seen in the Lao capital. Here are a few of our favourites.
One of the most stunning wats in Vientiane is Wat Ho Phra Keow. Originally built in the mid-16th century by revered King Setthathirath to house the Emerald Buddha, it was destroyed and plundered twice by the Siamese, and the Emerald Buddha wound up in Bangkok, where it remains today (and the Lao won’t let you forget it!). The French completed the third and final version of the wat in 1942.
Wat Ho Phra Keow reveals striking architecture, bronze Buddha statues and lovely gardens in what resembles a museum more than a temple. That said, the wat still operates as a spiritual space for its many Buddhist visitors, so modesty and discretion should guide your dress code.
Beside the Presidential Palace, Setthathilath Road; entrance 5,000 kip; open daily 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00.
Wat Sisaket, opposite Wat Ho Phra Keow, is Vientiane’s oldest standing temple. Built in the early 19th century, this temple is younger than the original Ho Phra Keow, but survived the Siamese occupation by serving as a headquarters.
Home to over 6,000 Buddha statues and several old murals, Wat Sisaket offers the best collection of traditional art in Vientiane, providing perhaps a more satisfying experience for art enthusiasts than the national museum. Like Wat Ho Phra Keow, this feels more like a museum than a wat, but is nonetheless sacred to practising Buddhists.
Lane Xang Ave; entrance 5,000 kip; open daily 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00.
Wat Si Muang is one of Vientiane’s oldest temples though it’s been rebuilt. It’s story is the stuff of legend, with the temple built on the site of where a woman sacrificed herself into the earth, bringing luck and prosperity to those who visit. This, and its fusion with traditional Lao animism, draws in many local people and the temple is usually buzzing with activity. Buy flowers and offerings from the local vendors and if an English-speaking monk is present, enjoy a chat with him.
Between Setthathilath and Samsenthai Roads; entrance free; open daily 6:00-19:00.
As far as we have been able to find, Lao wats do not offer mediation retreats like those found in Thailand and other parts of Asia. Monks are often eager to practise their English, however, and the more established individuals are usually happy to share their pearls of wisdom with travellers. Wat Sok Pa Luang has a group meditation session every Saturday at 16:00. It’s open to everyone and free, but donations are appreciated.
Sok Pa Luang Road; entrance free.
Drawing monks from around the country to study Buddhist doctrines, the Sangha School connected to the Wat Ong Teu houses many monks who are well-versed in the ways of the Buddha. If you are in Vientiane on the first Sunday of each month, Wat Ong Theu has their monthly ‘monk chat’ from 15:00-17:00. The wat also houses the largest bronze buddha statue in the province and an atmosphere of serenity.
Setthathilath Road; entrance free.
Do please bear in mind when visiting a Lao temple that you are observing a sacred experience, especially if you decide to take photographs. Weddings, funerals and rites of passage are all carried out in the temple, and tending to be a non-confrontational culture, the Lao won’t always tell a tourist if they’re being intrusive. Always ask before snapping pictures. Don’t feel unwelcome though, and allow yourself to bask in the tranquility of these special places.
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