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Wat Xieng Thong: a photojournal

It is an unmistakable silence that ushers us into the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong. Weaving between the trees and a few modestly-sized pavilions, we stop in our tracks, awed by the light glancing off the glass mosaics and stencilled patterns on the ordination hall, the Sim. Close by a procession of monks’ robes – each one a vibrant splash of sun-kissed orange – lie draped over a washing line. It’s nearing five in the afternoon and there are only a small handful of visitors inside the temple. I cringe at the sound of my camera shutter, embarrassingly loud in such a placid setting.

We are standing on an embankment just above the Mekong, near its junction with the muddy Nam Khan. Luang Prabang sits on a narrow finger of land between the two rivers, guarded on its landward side by the forested mass of Phousi Hill. Legend has it that two hermits laid out the boundary stones of the town and monastery near a majestic mai thong, or flame of the forest. It is this tree, the “Tree of Life”, that is remembered on the rear wall of the Sim.

But the true story of Wat Xieng Thong began in 1560, when King Setthathirat established the monastery in honour of legendary Chanthaphanith, the first monarch of Luang Prabang. From then on it served as a royal temple, hosting the coronation of Lao kings and their funeral ceremonies. Eventually the complex would bear witness to one of the darker periods of Lao history.

In the late 19th century Xieng Thong became one of only two wats in Luang Prabang that escaped destruction at the hands of the invading Black Flag Haw. For no less than 25 years the remnants of China’s Taiping Rebellion ravaged the lands of northern Indochina; Vientiane was sacked in 1885 and Luang Prabang followed just two years later. The leader of the rebels, Deo Van Tri, had studied here as a monk in his youth, and instead of burning the temple he used it as his military command post.

At a small building beside the Sim, we peek in through the doorway, catching a glimpse of a Buddha and several worshippers kneeling inside the darkness of the hall. The French named this “La Chapelle Rouge” – The Red Chapel – for the vivid colour of its walls, studded on all four sides with a profusion of glass mosaics. They depict a range of bucolic scenes: among them a farmer tending to his rice paddy, a family sitting over a meal, and elephants grazing amid the trees. Just before we leave, I stop and observe the figures, each one sparkling like jewels in the evening sun. More than 400 years after the wat’s inception, much of this lifestyle remains unchanged.

Ceiling patterns

Temple roofs

Stencilling in gold leaf

Mosaics on the Red Chapel

The ordination hall, or Sim

Gilded woodwork

Mai thong, the Tree of Life

The temple’s crown

Rear wall of the Sim

More gilded carvings

The Carriage House

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lovely images and background James. Your post made me realise how little I know about Indochina! Luang Prabang seems magical! Can’t wait to get there! Any idea when the monsoons end? I was thinking November, but considering pushing it to early December.

    June 4, 2012
    • Thanks Madhu! I think the dry season begins in October – November to February is probably peak season for Luang Prabang but the upside is that temperatures will be more comfortable. You will love the mix of Lao temples and colonial architecture!

      June 4, 2012
  2. Very good photos to portray this place. The lightning and colours are great. I agree, its magical. I don’t know Indochina at all..

    June 4, 2012
    • Thank you, Bente! It was such a surprise to have virtually the entire place to ourselves. We also got very lucky with the weather; that morning it was completely overcast but the clouds eventually cleared up by midday. I haven’t read your blog since coming back from the latest trip – it seems like there’s a lot of catching up to do!

      June 4, 2012
  3. WOW! Love these pictures! The colours, and the details are amazing! I don’t know Indochina, but I really want too visit now I’ve seen these pictures. It looks beautiful.

    June 4, 2012
    • Laos is well worth a visit – it is such a beautiful country! I spent a week there and only experienced a few places in the north. I’ll definitely be going back for more in the future.

      June 4, 2012
  4. The mosaics in the red chapel and the tree of life are gorgeous! And this place looks so serene, outside the fact that there were not many people there at that time. By the way, your blog is amazing!

    June 4, 2012
    • Thanks Robin. 🙂 I was mentally prepared for the crowds but surprisingly, there were none! It was a lot of fun to travel with Bama and he told me all about your shared experience of Samosir.

      June 4, 2012
      • Aah, Samosir. Well, it was great trip there. I heard from Bama that you guys went together again to China. Cannot wait to see yours and Bama’s posts then. Same places, two different point of views, must be interesting.

        June 10, 2012
  5. A great blog that stirs the soul to visit this place and to enjoy the solitude that you have written about. Your fantastic description on the history wants me to know more!

    June 4, 2012
    • That’s very kind of you to say. I still have two more entries on Luang Prabang, so stay tuned! 😀

      June 4, 2012
  6. Wow James! Absolutely gorgeous!!! Thanks for sharing!

    June 4, 2012
    • You’re welcome Nicole, you would have loved it there!

      June 4, 2012
  7. Beautiful Photos!!!

    July 2, 2013
  8. Beautiful and super interesting, really 🙂 excellent work.

    December 21, 2014

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