Luang Prabang Temples: Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham on Sisavangvong street, was once the principle royal monastery of Luang Prabang.

It was also the residence of the chief Laotian Buddhist dignitary (Phra Sangkharat), and the repository of the 33″ high, gold alloy Buddha icon (Phra Bang), that Laung Prabang derives its name from.

It also once held the famed Emerald Buddha, that was moved to Vientiane, before being carted away during the Siamese invasion. (It now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok)

Wat Mai

With the rather tragic end of the monarchy, the Sangkharat moved to Vientiane, and the Phra Bang, to the museum attached to the palace next door. (Presently awaiting transfer to the brand new Haw Phra Bang, the temple constructed inside the Palace grounds specifically for the purpose.) 

But Wat Mai’s religious and cultural significance remains undiminished, and the three day Laotian new Year festival, is said to atract thousands of pilgrims, who come to witness the ceremonial return of the Phra Bang, and the rituals surrounding it.

Wat Mai - Luang Prabang
Rear view of altar.

The Wat dates back to the 17th century, but most of the present structure(s), including the fabulous gilded bas relief on the facade, depicting stories from the Ramayana and from Laotian daily life, were restored or rebuilt in the 19th century.

Despite all that grand gilding on the facade, this monastery, with its mystifying placement of Buddhas in the altar, holds a special, almost spiritual appeal. Possibly heightened in our case, by the mesmerizing chanting that we stumbled upon one evening on our way to dinner.

A glimpse of the sacred that we are unlikely to forget.

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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 instagram.com/theurgetowander

86 thoughts on “Luang Prabang Temples: Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham

  1. The thought of stumbling into such a special place and time took my breathe away, and made me tingle with awe (that sounds so clumsy!). Lucky you and great shots as ever Madhu!

    1. Thank you Patti! We stumbled upon the evening prayers on another evening. I think there is something deeply relaxing about rhythmic chanting, and in these surroundings, combined with the sound of children playing outside, it was just magical.

  2. Grand indeed, Madhu. Technically I have been to Asia, but only scratched the surface. Every time I see your photos, which are gorgeous, and get a taste of the history of a place, which you do so well, I know I have to find the time and a way to got over there.

    1. Have no doubt you will Naomi. And return with the most delightful stories to enchant us with 🙂 Thank you for your kind compliments 🙂

  3. Madhu,
    This looks like a very interesting place to photograph. We hope to visit that part of the world in the next couple of years. Thanks for posting the pictures.

    1. My pleasure entirely Eric. The Hindu influence is indeed amazing, considering there was no prescribed evangelism, like in the case of Christianity or Buddhism.

  4. Wat Mai glows with so much radiance and energy. It evokes peace, calmness, a sense of well being, of faith blessed by the heavens. Beautiful post. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

  5. So beautiful – photos and words – as only you can describe a place and a feeling. That rear part of the altar is fantastic. It’s the atmosphere of the place…and I can hear the songs and prayers.

  6. I love these kinds of temples and Buddhas, Madhu. Your photos are beautiful and I especially love the composition of the “Rear View of the Altar.”

    1. Thank you Cathy. Laotian temples seemed even more beautiful than the other Eastern temples I have seen somehow.

  7. Beautiful Madhu – don’t you just love it when something like the chanting happens coincidentally and you’re there to see/enjoy it?! Great post!

  8. My last visit to Laos was in the year 1995. My target destination was a project to be inspected up near the Chinese border in the north of the country. Communism had taken away the greatness of that countries past and it was mind boggling for me to see their version of a hospital in that town. I rode from the airport standing in the trailer attached to a three wheeler normally used for ploughing. Slow and bumpy over corrugated roads. The hotel was -5 star but food was excellent. I heard stories of people brainwashed in the most inhumane way by that era’s ruling class. What I saw was a far cry from the beauty you have shown us above but I suppose, like, Myanmar they did preserve an occasional great relic of the past. Being the Golden Triangle I can assure you I walked among the poppies, but did not use their product.

    1. That sounds like quite the adventure Ian! I can imagine life must have been hard during the worst of the communist era. I heard the government is relatively benign and more open these days, but just about.

  9. Your photos really capture the moment and feeling, be it kids at play or the spiritual. Yes, the tourists have found LP, but it is worth a visit. Indeed grand.

    1. It was magical Angeline. We stopped and spent a good while listening to them, and while watching the children at play.

  10. Looking at the stunning pictures of the Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham monastery one can well imagine the surcharge of spiritual energy present inside.
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Madhu, your beautiful photos give me yet another reason to return to Luang Prabang. It feels as though Bama and I barely scratched the surface when we were there! Somehow we managed to miss Wat Mai completely, and we ended up skipping the Royal Palace in favour of lunch at Tamarind before a jaunt to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls (which was a bit of a letdown).

    Wat Mai seems even more ornate than Wat Xieng Thong – and I would probably gaze at that gilded bas-relief for hours! Thankfully these two temples escaped destruction when the rest of LP burned in 1887.

    1. Thanks James. The Wat Mai is much smaller in scale than the Wat Xieng Thong, but it had a more spiritual feel. The Royal Palace, wasn’t anything to write home about, and the golden Prabang statue is in fact quite diminutive and disappointing. So you didn’t miss much there 🙂

    1. We do don’t we? I often wonder whether that extravagance is for the love of God or for a show of might? 🙂 Thank you for the visit George 🙂

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