This 1565-built temple is named after the sacred image it once housed, the Phra Kaew or Emerald Buddha, a 66 centimetre statue carved from a single jade stone.
Along with the Pra Bang (Luang Prabang’s namesake Buddha statue), the two images were believed to be inhabited by spirits and very powerful.
When King Setthathirat moved his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, he built Wat Ho Phra Kaew as a personal place of worship for the royal family and to enshrine the Emerald Buddha. Alas, it was looted by Siam in 1778 and taken to Bangkok where it remains to this day, at the Grand Palace in a temple of the same name. It’s a potent political symbol and a religious symbol of protection for Thailand -- and it’s still a sore spot for Laos, who want it returned. As explained to us very passionately by a local, the Phra Keo is the reason Laos could only ever consider Thailand a friend, not a brother.
So the Emerald Buddha is gone but the temple-museum is definitely worth the visit for its beautiful collection of Buddhist artefacts, the most extensive collection in the country. When Hillary Clinton made her historic visit in 2012 as the first US Secretary of State to visit Laos in over five decades, the widely circulated photo of her making an offering to a Buddha was taken at Wat Ho Phra Kaew.
Like all religious and cultural sights in Laos, modest attire is required. No bare shoulders or thighs.
Note: As of July 2015, the building is undergoing badly needed restoration work (the last restoration took place from 1936 to 1942). Visitors can enter the grounds but the inside is closed. Officially, repairs are scheduled to be completed at the end of 2015.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.