Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham on Sisavangvong street, was once the principle royal monastery, 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)
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.
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.