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.
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.
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.
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.
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.