Previous entry Next entry

Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 16 Jan 2007

Location: Luang Prubang, Laos


Wats are peppered liberally throughout Luang Prubang. More than 30 in all. Down every alley, side street, hidden behind small walls and gardens of frangipan and palm lie small, rustic temples. The wats house a large number of monks who are heavily present thoughout town - hence hence the ubiquitous flashes of orange robes as you walk the streets.

On our first day in town Ruth and I hired bikes to explore the town. Luang Prabang is small and pleasant enough to tackle on two wheels - we had to dodge only a few kamikaze taxis.

Wat Xieng Thang is the towns most magnificent, and the country's most important, temple. Until 1975 and the (polite) communist revolution Wat Xieng Thong was a royal temple under royal patronage; an important site of political and religious ritual where the kings of Laos were crowned.

We arrived to find no crowds and little to distract our attention from the ambience and architecture. A few monks sat by the bank of the river uninterested in us - the only tourists present.
So we strolled aimlessly around the site, a cluster of small buildings set around a square of trees set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Wat Xieng Thong is the Alpha and Omega of Lao religious architecture. Despite this the temple is small and slightly worn, lacking the gawdy, glittering excesses of larger Thai Wats as would seem to be a feature of most Laos temples.

To the immediate right of the entrance gate is the royal funeral chapel fronted by two huge gold gilted doors depictiong images of Hanuman, the monkey god, in scenes from the Indian epic 'Ramayana'. Stepping inside we were confronted by a group of golden Naga (mythical snake) heads which belonged to King Sisavangvong's funeral chariot; a 12-meter high vehicle which carried the king's urn to the cremation site after his death in 1959 - a Lao tradition and unforunately the last in a long line. The next king, removed from power after the 1975 revolution was starved and worked to death at the main labour camp for political prisoners.

Across the courtyard stood the main Sim (sanctuary). The exterior, of wood, brick and tarnished blue glass mosaic is dominated by the terraced roof - each level sweeping gracefully downwards and protruding farther than the last.

Broad white steps led us inside to the gloomy interior, richly decorated with black and gold-leaf columns supporting a ceiling vested with dharma wheels. The high ceiling in the centre of the sanctuary housed the usual, various figures of buddha. Thin shafts of light from slit windows crossed the room, casting shapes and shadows across the floor.

The back wall of the sim was encrusted with an impressive glass mosaic produced in 1960 which depicted the Tree of Life. It is a major tourst attraction (for Luang Prubang anyway) and an eager women came up to me to ask where it was. I pointed to the back of the funeral chapel after mistaking a much inferior mosaic for the real one. Poor thing walked off once she had (not) seen it.

To the rear of the main sanctuary was a garden of small temples with more glass and stone mosaics set amongst pink and red walls and depicting worshippers, Buddhas, trees and animals. With the sunlight on them the result was beautiful.

We visited Wat Winsunalat afterwards, a rather unremarkable and bland working temple that compared unfavourably with Xieng Thong and is not worth elaborating on.

Stopped at one of the quaint cafes serving green tea, coffees and delicious pastries on the way back - they are just too tempting and provided a welcome change from the staple south east asian diet.

(Another) food of the week:
That evening we sat on the banks of the Mekong at an outdoor restaurant eating a town speciality - Jarew Bowny, a thick condiment of dried chillis and rubbery buffalow skin. Interesting and hot are the only words i can use.