Luang Prabang – The Temple Of The Golden City

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 that is the reason this auspicious spot was selected as the point of ceremonial entry into the city (from the river), prior to the coronation of a new king. And this is where he returned to be cremated.

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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. And the silence this misty morning, intensely spiritual.

It is evident that the communist comrades failed to stamp out local religious sentiment. Or perhaps their heart was never really in it. It was after all the Vietnamese head of the Chinese Black Flag Haw – Comrade Deo Van Tri, once a novice monk in this very temple – who saved it from destruction while his marauders ransacked the rest of the town in 1887.

Buddha, Wat Xieng Thong
Interior of Sim

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 sacred texts and is kept locked. To the South of its facade is the little White Chapel, that houses a golden standing Buddha.

White Chapel
White Chapel
Ancient bronze reclining Buddha in the Chapel Rouge
Ancient bronze reclining Buddha in the Chapel Rouge. A well traveled piece of art that has been to Paris, Vientiane and back!

In the shadowy recess of the Red Chapel to the South West, 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.

Gilded panels of the Carriage house
Gilded panels of the Carriage house
Glass mosaics on the wall of the Chapel Rouge
Glass mosaics on the wall of the Chapel Rouge

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 are played out in the villages of Indochina to this day. Along with scenes of 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.

Related articles:
Luang Prabang – A Glimpse Of The Sacred
Vientiane – A Gentle Initiation Into Lao Time

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

32 thoughts on “Luang Prabang – The Temple Of The Golden City

  1. You take us to some wonderful places full of history and beautiful colors. Thanks once again for enlarging our world.


  2. Thank you so much for a beautiful temples.Happy New Year!

  3. I love the Tree of Life Mosaic, Madhu. Oh how I would love to visit some of these temples. While I remember, Happy 2013 to you!

  4. It looks like a very spiritual place. I am suprised that photos of the inside were allowed.

  5. Here I’m again sucking up far away beauty from you – the Chapel Rouge is so beautiful and the Nagas photo too.

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed this place as much as James and I did. However, it looks like we missed a few things when we were there, including taking a closer look at the interior. Nonetheless, one day we might return to Luang Prabang to see more, or even only to unwind. Nice photos, Madhu!

  7. Beautiful, ornate artwork. My favorite is the glass mosaics on the wall of the Chapel Rouge. I’d love to know the stories shown on the building. Happy New Year, Madhu.

  8. Beautiful… Asia is a continent I haven’t had the chance to explore much. It’s on my “to travel” list… all of it! 😉
    Happy 2013, Madhu!

  9. I love this post. Your brilliant photos and your guiding words. My husband went to Laos some years ago. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to accompany him on that trip. Maybe some day…Happy New Year!

  10. how wonderful to see luang prabang again, thanks for your glorious photos and lovely writing … we were there on a trip through from Thailand to Vietnam, coming down the river in a long boat until it crashed in some rapids …. quite an adventure, but luang prabang was our favourite place … the grace and serenity of the people was exceptional 🙂 Happy New Year Madhu!!

  11. As Bama said, we missed out on the interiors when we were there – we got as far as peeking through the doorway and we felt as though our cameras would disturb the worshippers inside. I didn’t know the carriage house was a modern addition in concrete, the gilded carvings really had me fooled!

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