Wat Xieng Thong: The jewel in the crown of Lao temples

Renowned for its colourful ornate glass mosaics, guilded teakwood panels and low sweeping tiered roof lines, Wat Xieng Thong is the temple highlight of Luang Prabang. Its name means Monastery of the Golden City.  Located in a tranquil garden setting on the riverbank where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong River, Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most elegant and best-preserved examples of 16th century temple architecture in Luang Prabang. There are over twenty structures on the grounds including shrines, pavilions and residences among gardens of various flowers, ornamental shrubs and trees. The sim or ordination hall was constructed in 1560 by King Setthathirat I (1550-1571). Up until 1975, the temple also served as the royal temple at which the kings of Luang Prabang were crowned. Wat Xieng Thong was regarded as the monastery of the ‘Gateway to the Town’ as it was here that the king’s officials made their arrivals and departures. (To enlarge any of the following photos, just click onto it).

Formal entrance gate on city side

Entrance fee

The Ordination Hall (sim)

The ordination hall (In Thai – uposatha, in Lao – sim) is always the most important structure in any Theravada Buddhist temple. The sim of Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most richly ornate in Laos.

The Ordination Hall with the Chapel of the Standing Buddha to the left

Sideview of the Ordination Hall (Sim)

The sweeping roofs have Cho Faa, graceful finials of stylized naga heads at their ends

The high-peaked roofs are layered to represent several levels (always odd in number – three, ‘five or seven, occasionally nine), which correspond to various Buddhist doctrines (the doctrines have been codified into numbered groups such as the three characteristics of existence, the’ four noble truths, the seven factors of enlightenment, the five groups of existence etc). The edges of the roofs almost always feature a repeated flame motif, with long, finger-like hooks at the corners called chaw faa. It is sometimes said that these hooks are for catching evil spirits that descend on the sim from above, Umbrella like spires along the central roof-ridge of a sim, called nyawt chow faa or ‘topmost chow’ faa’, sometimes bear small pavilions or nagas (mythical water serpents) in a double-stepped arrangement meant to be a representation of Mt Meru, the mythical centre of the Hindu Buddhist cosmos.

Seventeen-element gilded Dok So Fa on top of the roof

Main entry door with elaborate gold leaf pediment of nagas, stupas and various flora

Detail of main entrance goldleaf stencil work

Side view of Sim

The pillars supporting stylized lotus buds

At the  back of the Sim is the famous “tree of life mosaic” in coloured glass on a dark red background. This is one of the best known images in modern Laos. The mosaic was crafted in 1960 by  Lao craftsmen.

The Tree of Life - mosiac at the back of the Ordination Hall

Ordination Hall Tree of Life Mosaic

Detail from the Tree of Life mosaic

The Red Chapel (ho tai pha sai nyaat)

The Red Chapel , or the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha, is one of the most photogenic and important buildings of Wat Xieng Thong temple complex. The exterior is covered with a red to pinkish coloured stucco inlaid with brightly coloured glass mosaics that illustrate both religious activities and everyday Lao traditional village life with scenes of: trees, boats, carts, elephants, houses, hunting and fishing, working and playing. The mosaics were added in 1957.

The Red Chapel (front view)

Detail on front panels of The Red Chapel

Red Chapel - side view

Red Chapel mosaics

Red Chapel - side view

Red Chapel mosaics

Red Chapel mosaic detail

Red Chapel mosaic detail

The Seated Buddha Pavilion

The Seated Buddha Pavilion is a modern construction that has recently been refurbished. Its double-layer roof is supported by four square stenciled lotus-capped columns with naga brackets. The underside of the roof also is stenciled. The life-sized seated statue is in the Bhumisparsha mudra (Buddha touching the earth, or calling the earth to witness).

Seated Buddha Pavillion

Bhumisparsha Mudra

Seated Buddha Pavillion - painting with the Buddha in the Vitarka Mudra

Stupas nearby

Curious statue in the temple complex

A very curious interesting figure sitting upon a small Buddha shrine within the complex

The Carriage House (built c. 1960)

A short distance from the ordination hall is another ornate structure that houses the funerary chariot of King Sisavong Vong. The façade of the building is composed of richly carved teakwood panels layered in gold leaf displaying scenes from the Ramayana (Pha Lak Pha Lam in Lao). One can follow the tales of Rama, Hanuman, Sita‘s judgment by fire, Ravana, Jutaya and Indra in the form of the golden deer.

Inside the building lies the funerary chariot which occupies almost the whole of the interior. On the carriage are replicas of the funerary urns of the recent Lao royalty. At the back of the building are Buddha figurines.

The Carriage House

The Carriage House (front view)

Panel above door

Detail of entry doors showing Hanuman, devas and devi

Panel depicting 'Sita's Fire.' The test by fire was to attest to her purity after her long captivity by the demon king Ravana. She stood in the fire without being burned.

Panel showing the combat between Satayout (Jatayu), the vulture king, and Ravana, the kidnapper of Sita. Ravana, with his many arms and different weapons, is shown in the act of cutting off Jatayu's wings.

Top facade panel detail deplaying another scene from the Ramayana

Funerary carriage of King Sisavang Vong

Buddha statues inside the Carriage House with glass mosaic on back wall

Tripitaka Library (built c.1828)

Last but not lest is the small building directly behind the Ordination Hall referred to as the Tripitaka Library which historically houses the Tripitaka, the three baskets of Theravada Buddhist scriptures.  The exterior of the Library is similar to that of the Red Chapel with red to pink stucco inlaid with brightly coloured glass mosaics depicting scenes of local Lao daily life and traditions.

Tripitaka Library (Back view)

Tripitaka Library Mosaic

The Library - Detail of mosaic

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