On a peninsula gently cradled in the palms of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, sits the picturesque, royal city of Luang Prabang. And crowning it, like the mythical jewel on the forehead of a Naga is the Wat Xieng Thong.
A confluence of rivers is sacred to Asian communities. And so it was that this spot was chosen, for a future king’s ceremonial entry to the city from the river, prior to his coronation at the Sim (ordination hall). And this is where he returned to be cremated.
Built in 1560 by King Setthathilat, the Wat Xieng Thong is considered the most important and magnificent of all Lao temples.
Its scale is modest, the ambience overwhelmingly Lao. The silence this misty morning intensely spiritual.
The comrades obviously did a bad job of stamping out religious sentiment. Or perhaps their heart was not really in it. Quite like the Vietnamese head of the Chinese Black Flag Haw - Deo Van Tri - whose early life as a novice monk in this very temple, saved it from destruction in 1887, while his marauders ransacked the entire town.
The basic structure has survived intact, but much of the embellishment we see today is heavily restored.
The majestic sweep of the winglike tiered roof of the Sim, shelters serene Buddhas and black and gold stencils of scenes from the Jataka and Hindu mythology. Under the eaves at the rear, a remarkable ‘tree of life’ mosaic commemorates an ancient flame of the forest, around which two hermits allegedly marked the boundaries of the temple.
Three little shrines surround the Sim. Directly behind it is the Library Chapel, built in 1828, which houses the sacred texts and is kept locked. South of of its facade is the little White Chapel, that houses a gold standing Buddha.
To the southwest is the Red Chapel, in whose shadowy recess lies an exquisite 16th century bronze reclining Buddha, considered one of the most valuable of Lao Buddhist images.
The carriage house on the North East, a concrete structure, covered with ornate, gilded teakwood panels depicting stories from the Ramayana, was added in 1962 to house King Sisavang Vong’s funerary carriage.
But it is the mosaic encrusted red exterior of the Chapel Rouge that grabs our attention. The seemingly random slivers of glass, cohering into timeless vignettes of everyday life, that one can see played out along the villages of Indochina to this day. And battles and fables from a royal past.
The king is no more, banished to re education camp in 1975, from which he never returned. But in the silence of this temple compound, the spirit of royalty and tradition seems to transcend time.