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.