That Luang stupa is one of the country’s most sacred and important religious and cultural monuments; its shining image can be found in government logos and all currency notes.
Though the site is said to date back to third century AD, the original stupa was built by King Saysetthathirath in 1566, after he moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (his statue proudly sits in front of That Luang). Repeated attacks over the centuries mean the stupa has been rebuilt and remodelled many times; it was restored in 1953.
The stupa is believed to contain a hair and bone from Lord Buddha. It has three levels: a base, body and a spire, which rises 45 metres, its shape echoing an elongated lotus bud. The whole golden structure can be brilliantly blinding against a clear blue sky and visitors should admire it both from a distance and up close -- pay 5,000 kip to enter the inner cloister. You may meet a monk or two who are happy to chat in English. The stupa is flanked by two wats and the surrounding grounds are a popular spot to walk around at sunset.
That Luang Festival or Boun That Luang is the country’s largest and most significant festival. It’s held here annually on the full moon of the 12th month of the Buddhist calendar. This usually means November, but it can sometimes fall in October – check Tourism Laos for dates. Boun That Luang lasts for three days, commencing with a procession of phasat pheung, wax castles decorated with money and wax flowers, from Wat Si Muang to the stupa. Pilgrims circle That Luang clockwise three times before the wax castles are offered to the temple. The festival ends with thousands participating in tak bat, the giving of morning alms to monks followed by an enormous picnic with family and friends, games and fireworks. The festival has evolved in modern times to include events before and after such as a large market fair, children’s entertainment, concerts and performances, all of which draw huge crowds.
People from near and far make pilgrimage to That Luang during the festival and throughout the year. Villagers will wear their very best to make an offering and have their photo taken in front, the photo to be proudly displayed on the wall at home. If they don’t own a camera, there are usually vendors milling around who can take their photo and print it on the spot.
Given how revered the monument is and how special a visit is for locals, take care to dress respectfully -- that means no singlets for either men or women.
By Cindy Fan.