Photo: Marigolds for offerings.

The temples of Luang Prabang

Life in Laos revolves around the temple and Luang Prabang is especially renowned for its spiritual aura, no doubt partly due to the 34 UNESCO-protected wats, all located within a compact town centre.

What makes these sacred structures so remarkable is that they are not relics or museums, but rather living, working institutions. They remain home to more than 1,000 novices and monks continuing ancient Buddhist studies and monastic rule.

Mosaic detail at Wat Xieng Thong.

Mosaic detail at Wat Xieng Thong. Photo: Cindy Fan

For many young boys in Laos, the temple is their only opportunity to receive an education when their family can’t afford the costs associated even with public school. Often coming from poor rural villages throughout the north, boys as young as seven can receive acceptance to a temple and free education (usually sponsored by the temple). The life of a novice is not an easy one. They leave their home and families knowing it could be years before being reunited, and travel a long way to live in a big modern town. The shared accommodation is very basic, to be endured during Luang Prabang’s extreme temperatures — brutally hot some months, bitterly cold in others. The day begins before dawn, temple drums heralding the start of morning meditation and chanting. Once completed, they walk through the street collecting morning alms (usually sticky rice) from villagers — and busloads of photo-snapping tourists. The day is spent in studies and chores. Lunch is their final meal of the day. At 16:00, the drums sound once more to call all to evening prayers. There is no day off or summer holiday from this life.

Novices typically spend a few years in temple, sometimes progressing to monkhood before leaving. There is no stigma with this — the temple has given them education and opportunity, now they can find a job to pay for further education, perhaps even university. Chat up a waiter, hotel receptionist or trekking guide and there’s a good chance they were a novice or a monk. So whether you visit one or many of the wats in Luang Prabang, admire the grand roofs, glittering mosaics and gilded doors, but also appreciate the signs of life: orange robes drying on clotheslines, the scent of frangipani trees, the novice who’s sweeping and interested in practising his English, French, Mandarin or German with travellers.

Luang Prabang's temples pulse with life.

Luang Prabang's temples pulse with life. Photo: Cindy Fan

When visiting a wat — and this means entering the walled complex, not just the building itself — it is important to observe a few rules to avoid causing offence. You will probably never know if you are causing offence since locals will rarely say anything so you don’t lose “face”. So do try to follow these guidelines.

Both men and women should dress respectfully (covered shoulders and knees), and remove shoes before entering the inner sanctum. No hugging, kissing or drinking alcohol is permitted on temple grounds. Don’t point your feet towards the Buddha, so when sitting, tuck the feet under and away or cross the legs. This means no headstands or other yoga poses in front of the Buddha (we’ve seen this a few times). Another thing we’ve seen are photos of tourists kissing the Buddha — it’s a sacred image, seriously don’t. Women should not make physical contact with monks. Ask permission before photographing a monk up close. Avoid entering the sim if chanting or meditation is in session. There are important days in the Buddhist calendar when temples become busy with devotees making offerings and special ceremonies. On these days visitors should be particularly sensitive of their dress, their presence and should avoid getting in the way. Finally, not everything is a photo-op. Can you imagine if a stranger came in and started photographing your mother’s funeral?

The half-marathon begins near the Royal Palace Museum.

The half-marathon begins near the Royal Palace Museum. Photo: Cindy Fan

A lot of this is just common sense. So put on a shirt, grab a bicycle and camera, here are a few highlights of Luang Prabang temple hopping.

The temples
If there is a must see, it is Wat Xieng Thong, considered the finest in all of Laos and one of the most important in Luang Prabang. Located at the tip of the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, Wat Xieng Thong was once the ceremonial gateway to the town, with soon-to-be-coronated kings arriving via these steps. The buildings are elegant and stately, with gorgeous details like gilded facades, elegant roof and a famous “tree of life” motif in glittering mosaic. Wat Xieng Thong continues to be used for special ceremonies during Pi Mai (Lao New Year) and the Lai Heua Fai (Boat Lantern Festival) procession. Admission is 20,000 kip.

Detail at Wat Xieng Thong. It's all about the details.

Detail at Wat Xieng Thong. It's all about the details. Photo: Cindy Fan

On the other side of the main street from Wat Xieng Thong is Wat Khili (Wat Souvanna Khili), the Temple of the Golden Mountain built in the 18th century in a rare Xieng Kouang style. Observe how some of the other buildings within the wat sport an unusual blend of Lao and French colonial architecture. Wat Khili has recently undergone meticulous restoration thanks to the Buddhist Heritage Project. As they explain, Wat Khili “holds a special place in the pantheon of Luang Prabang’s Buddhism, largely due to the revered monk Pha Khamfan Silasangvaro, an intellectual, writer, artist and architect who was Abbot of Vat Khili from 1931 until his death in 1987.” The temple is now home to the Buddhist Archives, which preserve historic photographs and documents, many of which had been safeguarded by monks throughout the turmoil and war of the 20th century. The archives are not open to the public but there is usually a special public exhibition on, in addition to a bookshop.

Wat Choumkong, another temple on the Luang Prabang trail.

Wat Choumkong, another temple on the Luang Prabang trail. Photo: Cindy Fan

The work by the Buddhist Heritage Project is ongoing and a race against time to save crumbling buildings and artefacts, while supporting projects such as a building another badly needed Buddhist Secondary School to address overcrowding — currently 1,300 students work in eight crowded classrooms, with classes taught in three shifts per day.

Built in 1804 and restored in 1914, That Chomsi, the small stupa atop Mount Phou Si, is the most popular spot in town to catch the sunset as visitors who grind up the 328 steps are rewarded with a pretty panoramic view of the rooftops, mountains and Mekong. It’s considered a Luang Prabang must-do — and that means bumping elbows with a lot of other tourists. The sunset is memorable, however, those who hate crowds can try going at off-hours or using one the lesser trafficked entrances for a quieter experience.

The magnificent entrance to the home of the Phra Bang.

The magnificent entrance to the home of the Phra Bang. Photo: Cindy Fan

It’s impossible to miss the Haw Phra Bang, the blazing golden shrine on the main street at the entrance to Royal Palace Museum grounds. The shrine is home to the revered Phra Bang, a gold Buddha statue that is the protector of Laos and the town’s namesake (Luang Prabang is City of the Phra Bang/Golden Buddha). It is said to be cast in Ceylon between the first and ninth centuries, though it was likely made later as it reflects 13th century Khmer sculpture. The statue was brought to the kingdom by the first king Fa Ngum when Luang Prabang became the royal capital in 1353. The Phra Bang was captured by Siamese invaders in 1778 and 1828 causing great distress and upheaval — luckily, it was eventually returned both times. Each Pi Mai the statue is taken on a procession where it is moved to Wat Mai for three days of customary new year ablutions.

Wat Mai (Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham) is unmistakable. It has a distinctive five-tiered roof and spacious compound with a prime location on the main street near at the night market and morning market. Built in the late 18th century, it was the permanent home of the Phra Bang from 1894 to 1947. Compared to early art and photographs of the temple, Wat Mai is unique in that it has remained relatively unchanged. Stroll around the verandah to admire the exquisite decoration, stencilling and reliefs.

Wat Mai during the new year procession.

Wat Mai during the new year procession. Photo: Cindy Fan

Wat Wisunalat (Visounnarath or Visoun for short) is a curious one to see because of the rotund stupa, nicknamed That Makmo or “watermelon stupa” that dates back to 1504. It collapsed in 1914 when it was struck by lightning, but the damage revealed a treasure trove of gold Buddhas within; those artefacts are now at the Royal Palace Museum. The temple was constructed in 1512, originally built with ornately decorated wood. As legend would have it, the construction took 4,000 trees. Like so many of the wats in Luang Prabang, Wat Wisunalat was pillaged and burned by Chinese marauders in the Black Flag Army in 1887. It was rebuilt in 1898 and now holds a collection of important Buddha images and religious art. The most precious pieces have been moved to the museum.

For something a little more offbeat, the temples across the Mekong are well worth checking out and will get you away from the crowds. From the boat landing behind the Royal Palace Museum, take the passenger/vehicle ferry across (5,000 kip per person). On the other side, turn right (upriver), walk through the village to find the steps up to Wat Chomphet and someone collecting the 10,000 kip entrance fee. Wat Chomphet is lovely for its modesty. Only a few novices live here and the plain, understated building dates back to the 18th century. Enjoy a great view of the peninsula against a backdrop of mountains.

Another street, another pretty temple in Luang Prabang.

Another street, another pretty temple in Luang Prabang. Photo: Cindy Fan

Head back down and continue along the path to 18th century Wat Long Khoune to see the interesting Chinese guardians painted at the entrance. Pay the fee to go inside to admire the gold stencilled ceiling. There may also be someone selling entrance to Wat Tham Sackkalin cave. Once paid, they’ll ask the local kids to unlock the door and take you into the cave which holds a number of crumbling Buddhas. It’s a quirky experience and the kids will be appreciative of a small tip.

Finally, we love being at Wat Sop Sickharam on the main street at 16:00 (or better yet, across the street from it at Le Banneton enjoying an ice cream). At this time the novices drum up a storm. The drumming occurs regularly at many of the temples and the thundering beats echo and respond to other temples throughout, the sound rolling out across the peninsula like waves.

Wat Aham beside Wat Visoun. Walk and walk to find unexpected angles on unexpected temples.

Wat Aham beside Wat Visoun. Walk and walk to find unexpected angles on unexpected temples. Photo: Cindy Fan

These are just a sample of temples to be seen; don’t limit yourself to these. Take a side alley and more often than not, it pops out to one of the lesser visited wats, not as grand or old but devoid of tourists. Take a break under the bougainvillea and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. It’s magical to wander the grounds during evening prayers.

Interested in the finer details of each wat and their architecture? Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Heywood is an excellent companion book. It covers most of the temples, as well as a number of the town’s heritage secular buildings.

Last updated on 29th August, 2016.

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