Vietnam: The Wealthiest Wat in Luang Prabang

We went on another walking tour this morning, this time looking at the architecture in Luang Prabang. We learned some interesting facts from Judy, Surya and Tui: for instance, that nails are forbidden in this town because of its UNESCO world heritage status; only tongue and groove construction is permitted. There are also strict laws about the height and dimensions of buildings and how far they must be set back from the river. The two bamboo bridges that go over the river? The one I’d walked over and the other one? Every rainy season they wash out and need to be rebuilt. The local village wanted to build a more permanent bridge and was told they couldn’t – the swinging bamboo bridge is part of the “quaint” look of Luang Prabang – and the old ways must be preserved at all costs. So every year, the bamboo bridges wash out and every year they must be rebuilt. This is the downside of being chosen by UNESCO.

The place I enjoyed most on our walking tour was Xieng Thong Wat, the most important wealthy temple in the area. This is the Wat rural families hope their boys will be accepted into – kind of like getting into the Ivy League.

The first building I wandered into housed a huge collection of standing Buddhas – the preferred position for the Buddha in this region. They were in all kinds of postures – but all standing. In the center of this room was a display of a replica of the giant container used in the death rituals for the King of Cambodia. It was a huge ornate urn in the center of a platform. According to Tui, this urn has two layers, the outer layer which we could see and an inner chamber which we couldn’t. When a king dies, his body is placed upright in this inner chamber. I can’t remember why, but it is essential that his body stay absolutely upright, so his corpse is skewered with a stick pushed through his body to make sure his body stays straight up and down. The local people come pay their respects to his body for the next six weeks. The space between the inner chamber and the outer chamber is packed with herbs and flowers to mask the smell of decay, and there are holes at the bottom to allow the bodily fluids to escape. After six weeks or so, the inner chamber is taken out and cremated and the outer chamber is  saved for the disposition of the next king’s remains. Only there is no monarchy in Laos anymore.

On either side of the king’s urn were two smaller urns–one of for each of his most important wives. Apparently, he had many.

Throughout the grounds of this Wat were numerous shrines and temples. Most of them were covered with beautiful mosaics of Japanese glass, a dying art form still practiced by two families in this region. These mosaics depict scenes of ordinary life. And I hope their majesty comes across in my pictures.

Mostly, I wanted to share some images of the beautiful artwork throughout this Wat. You can see why it is considered the richest Wat in the region. So turn your images on.

P.S. In the afternoon, instead of the regular writing class, I sat on the couch in our beautiful open air dining room of our hotel, and did one-on-one consultations with any writer who wanted one. I asked my writers to write wherever they found themselves in town, and we gathered for an hour in the late afternoon for people to share their work. This is truly writing-on-the-go. It’s an evolving art form for me, figuring out how to most skillfully integrate writing into our daily explorations and activities.

Be sure to read the captions by all the photos. The story continues there.


Standing Buddhas





Wall panel:


Beautiful Buddha:


Glass Mosaics. Now imagine these covering huge wall after huge wall. The work is meticulous and immense.






King’s Urn:


Queen’s urn:


Wedding couple:


Tree of Life:


Shrine . . . The fellow on top had done everything right and was in heaven but then he made a mistake and fell to earth like this. The point of the shrine to show that no one is perfect.


Front view:


Look closely. Leftover from last year’s parade? Could this be an old Dragon float?


Close up of the head:


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