Temples with the watermelon stupa
Published: 27th November, 2018
Wat Aham and Wat Visounnarath (Visoun) occupy a spacious corner at the intersection of Phommathat and Visounnarath Road, but the complex is probably best known for Wat That Makmo, literally the “watermelon stupa” because of its distinctive rounded shape.
Wat Visounnarath was named after King Visounnarath—it was under his reign that the temple was constructed in 1503-4. Records suggest that the original was ornate and spectacular, and legend has it some 4,000 trees were used to complete its construction. The dozen pillars that supported the interior were each 30 metres tall and the building’s exterior was made entirely of wood. The golden Pra Bang Buddha statue, Laos’ most important sacred relic, was kept here from 1513 to 1707.
The impressive scale of the temple didn’t sway the Black Flag Army, Chinese invaders who raided and razed it to the ground in 1887. The temple was rebuilt in 1898.
Neighbouring That Pathum (Stupa of the Great Lotus) has a similar story. The stupa, better known as That Makmo for its watermelon shaped top, was also built in 1503-4, this time by Queen Visounnarath. Then those pesky Chinese marauders came, stole the Buddha images that were inside and destroyed it. The 1898 rebuild didn’t last long as it was struck by lightning in 1914, revealing a treasure trove of Buddha images which are now at the Royal Palace museum. What you see is a result of restoration done in 1932.
Today, That Makmo stands 35 metres high and has a lovely patina but the whole thing is crumbling and in dire need of the repairs that were approved in 2017. Reconstruction and preservation will be done with the help of experts. Hopefully that will include the archway that connects Wat Visounnarath with Wat Aham, one of the oldest archways in Luang Prabang.
Wat Aham (Temple of the Opened Heart) came later. First built in 1527, it was reconstructed around 1820. The temple has roomy grounds graced by two large banyan trees wrapped with colourful ribbons. They are believed to host Phu No and Nha No, the guardian spirits of Luang Prabang. Wat Aham doesn’t see as many tourists as the other temples, but the main attraction here, aside from the peacefulness, are the murals on the walls and ceiling within the main sim that depict the various stages of hell and torment; keep an eye out for the two demons sawing a sinner in half.
The temple’s roof shares its sloping, tiled style with many others, but is distinctive for its small carved dragons. The entrance is flanked by unintentionally comical lions with a bright red grin, and we can’t help but grin right back.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Luang Prabang