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Temples and traditions in Luang Prabang

Indochina Day Eight, part two

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Window detail, Wat Souvanna Khiri

Our first full day in Luang Prabang had started with a visit to the morning market, followed by the Royal Palace and the Heuan Chan Heritage House. Now it was time to visit some of the temples (over 30) for which the town is famous.

Wat Souvanna Khiri

Wat Souvanna Khiri, with small Buddha outside

One reason for choosing this particular temple to visit first out of all the many temples in Luang Prabang was that it houses an exhibition on Buddhist meditation which Lee thought we would find interesting. Well, we might have done so, except that he had forgotten that the exhibition was closed on Sundays!

Stupa at Wat Souvanna Khiri

No matter, though, as Wat Souvanna Khiri (also known as Wat Khili) was worth seeing in its own right and was small and quiet enough to serve as a good introduction to temple architecture and design. It was built in 1773 by Chao Kham Sattha, a monk from Xieng Khouang province. The living quarters are in the French Colonial style but the small temple itself, known as the sim, is in the traditional Lao style. It houses a beautiful gold Buddha statue.

Roof detail

Another roof detail, and gold Buddha inside

The exterior is richly decorated, as are some of the other buildings. One particularly notable decoration is the series of mosaic trees with little birds flying around.

Tree mosaics

Ornamental window, and front wall detail

Wat Xieng Thong

We had had Wat Souvanna Khiri almost to ourselves, but this was certainly not the case just across the road at Wat Xieng Thong, possibly the most visited temple in the city. But as with so many busy sights, there is a reason for the crowds; this temple is certainly not to be missed! The name means ‘Temple of the Golden City’ and it is considered one of the most important of Lao monasteries. The main shrine or sim was built under the rule of King Setthathirath between 1559 and 1560. According to the Rough Guide, ‘Unlike nearly every other temple in Luang Prabang, this sim was not razed by Chinese marauders in the nineteenth century or overenthusiastically restored in the twentieth’.

We started our visit at the hall built to house the royal funeral carriage. This is 12 metres high and has a number of urns for members of the royal family.

Entrance to building housing royal funeral carriage

Royal funeral carriage

Then we turned our attention to the sim. From a distance you can see how its roof sweeps nearly to the ground - the locals liken it to a mother hen sheltering her brood.

The temple grounds
~ the sim is on the right

The decorative feature at the central point of the roof is known as the Dok So Fa; these can be seen on most of the temples here. They consist of a line of mini pagodas, usually (as here) in gold. The number of pagodas and overall level of detail of the Dok So Fa signifies the relative importance of the temple, so the ornate nature of this one confirms the prominence of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang.

Roof detail ~ Dok So Fa

The sim houses a large gold Buddha and several smaller ones.

Inside the sim

Buddhas in the sim

Its interior walls are covered in paintings - Lee pointed out some which illustrate the rules Buddhists must follow and the punishments that await those that don't. Some people are shown being cooked in a copper cauldron of boiling oil (for committing murder) while others are suspended by a hook through their tongues (guilty of telling lies). Lee couldn’t however explain why some (below right) have the faces of pigs!

Wall paintings in the sim

Lee pointed out a long wooden trough in the rafters, shaped like a mythical serpent, and described how it functions. It is used in the Lao New Year celebrations; water is poured into a receptacle in the serpent’s tail, runs along the trough and spouts from its mouth, bathing a Buddha image housed in a wooden structure near the altar.

Trough for holy water

Outside, the terracotta coloured walls are ornamented with mosaic designs in coloured glass, illustrating aspects of daily life and worship. The most notable of these is on the rear of the building and depicts a tree of life, said to be based on a legendary flame tree that stood on this site at the time the city was founded.

Decorated wall and small window

More wall details, with Tree of Life

A smaller shrine nearby, similarly decorated, houses a reclining Buddha which dates back to the construction of the temple and is considered to be one of Laos’s greatest sculptures in bronze.

Reclining Buddha

There were several couples at the temple having wedding pictures taken, all happy for others such as me to also take photos.

Wedding couples

Temple cat

Marigold stupas

View of the Mekong from Wat Xieng Thong

Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre

After visiting Wat Xieng Thong we stopped for lunch at the Zurich Bakery, at Lee's suggestion, and had sandwiches made with their excellent artisan bread.

Our first stop after lunch was at TAEC, the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre - a small but very well-presented museum with interesting displays about some of the country's ethnic minority tribes – their clothing, music, traditions etc.

Costume display
~ Akha Nuqui tribe
(hand-woven apart from tunic back left)

Musical instruments
~ spike fiddle (Tai Lao tribe), flute ([H]mong),
cymbals, drum (both Yao Mun)

Ban Xang Khong

We then drove a short distance out of the city to visit a nearby village, Ban Xang Khong, where several traditional crafts are still practiced – silk weaving, wood carving, paper-making.

Carving a small Buddha


The paper-making is particularly interesting, as they use the bark of the mulberry tree, here known as saa, to make the paper, and distribute rose petals, leaves etc within the pulp. We bought a small hand-painted card here for only 5,000 Kip – a bargain souvenir, especially as it was handed over tucked into a bag made of the pretty paper.

Paper-making ~ spreading the pulp

Paper-making ~ adding petals and leaves

Paper-making ~ finished paper drying in the sun

Evening chanting

Back in town we had a couple of hours' rest at the hotel, and freshened up. Lee picked us up again at 5.30 to go to see the monks' ritual chanting to mark the end of the day, which they do every evening in most of the temples.

There was nothing happening at the first temple we went to, Wat Aham, but it was worth seeing nevertheless - in particular the beautifully painted interior walls depicting scenes from the Buddha's life and, again, the rules believers must follow and the punishments that await those who do not.

Wall painting
~ scene from the life of the Buddha ~ Tak Bat or alms-giving

Buddha, and more scenes from his life

Punishments for sinners

Outside the sim is guarded by guardian tigers and statues of Hanuman and Ravana, two characters from the Phra Lak Phra Ram, the Laos version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Hanuman and Ravana

There is a legend attached to this temple:

It is believed that around the 14th century at the site where the Wat Aham currently stands, a shrine was built for Pu No and Na No, the two guardian spirits of Luang Prabang.

Nearly two centuries later during the reign of King Phothisarath the shrines were destroyed. The King was a devout Buddhist who worked to end animism and spirit worshipping. He had the shrines destroyed and built a Buddhist temple on the site, the Wat Aham. When soon after the town of Luang Prabang was hit by several disasters including diseases, drought and failed harvest, local people believed the destruction of the spirit shrines to be the cause. During the reign of the next King the shrines were rebuilt. When the spirit houses were destroyed again in the 20th century, the spirits were believed to have taken residence in the large banyan trees on the temple grounds. Even today the spirits are remembered during the Laos new year festival celebrations.

Buddhas under the banyan trees

We had better luck at the next temple Lee tried, Wat Sensoukharam, where we were permitted to stand at the back, as long as we were quiet, and could take photos and videos - without flash, naturally.

Monks chanting in Wat Sensoukharam

(do turn on the sound to listen!)

Wat Sensoukharam was originally built in 1718 and was restored in 1957. We were to return to this wat in the day time a few days later so I’ll reserve my description until then, but I did pause to get a couple of photos outside as we left, including one of Chris contemplating a very tall Buddha.

Outside Wat Sensoukharam

Evening in Luang Prabang

When we left Wat Sensoukharam we said goodbye to Lee until the morning. We walked along the main street and stopped for a beer at the Maolin Bar again, securing a table on the terrace for a good bit of people-watching – always a holiday pleasure!

We had dinner at the nearby Coconut Garden restaurant, which was recommended both in my Lonely Planet guidebook and also by Lee. We got a good table under a tree and away from the road. As it was our first real taste of Lao food we opted for the tasting menu. All the food (apart from the fresh fruit salad dessert) was served at the same time, including the soup. I found the dishes all pretty much OK but nothing stood out, and we both agreed that we had enjoyed our meals in Cambodia more. Lao cuisine has a great reputation, so we hoped for better things from future dinners here.

At the Coconut Garden restaurant

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Laos Tagged restaurant culture temple history buddhism laos museum music monks monastery luang_prabang costume crafts customs

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As always Sarah, a captivating narrative accompanied by wonderful photographs. I hope Lee has learned some lessons from the couple of hiccups in your day.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Thanks so much Yvonne :) I wasn't concerned about the minor hiccups today and overall rated Lee as a guide, but a few days later he made a more serious error that could have caused us major problems had I not spotted it in time - as you will no doubt read ...

by ToonSarah

Loved the monks chanting. Almost like Gregorian chant. Beautiful.

by Beausoleil

Lovely isn't it Sally? A real treat to hear it :)

by ToonSarah

Gorgeous decorations in those temples!
I always enjoy reading your descriptions and looking at your photos.

by Nemorino

Did the Rough Guide say why this temple was treated differently by the Chinese marauders and later by the overenthusiastic-restorers? :)

by hennaonthetrek

The temples of Luang Prabang were absolutely stunning. I think the tree of life was undergoing some restoration work during our visit. I don't think we could view it properly. I do remember listening to the monks chanting, too. Lovely blog, stunning pictures.

by irenevt

Thank you Don, Henna and Irene :)

No, the Rough Guide didn't say why it escaped - maybe it was just luck?

by ToonSarah

Very interesting,Gorgeous pictures of the detailed decorations. thanks Stay SAFE. Alec

by alectrevor

Thank you Alec - you stay safe too!

by ToonSarah

I've been trying to think about what the pig faces could mean. But I don't know how Laotians regard pigs. Do they think they are clever? dirty? greedy? delicious? disease ridden?

by greatgrandmaR

Hi Rosalie. If I'd noticed the pig faces at the time I would have asked Lee, but I only spotted them in my photo later. I wondered if it was to do with greed, although I know that's a Western perspective on pigs. Certainly the Laotians eat pork, and in villages we visited (photos in a few days' time!) they were free to roam around, so they can't think of them as too dirty ;)

by ToonSarah

Wow, you did a lot in one day ... I am impressed. We only had a quick visit to a few temples, love to read about your visits. We went to the making of the paper as well, but for me it wasn't all that.

by Ils1976

No, I wasn't so fussed about the paper-making Ils, except that I liked the way they incorporated petals and leaves :) I once visited the paper-making museum in Fabriano, Italy, so I already knew about the method for making it by hand like this. An interesting museum, btw, if ever you are in that area - it is where watermarks were first developed

by ToonSarah

thanks for the advice Sarah, I will keep it in mind! :)

by ils

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