The Temples of Luang Prabang

The New York Times tells me that there are 34 temples in Luang Prabang, but I’m pretty sure their reporters just gave up counting after they walked around a few blocks. Laos is a deeply Buddhist country, and as I strolled around the country’s second-largest city, I felt like I ran into a new temple every time I turned a corner. The most stunning of these was Wat Xieng Thong, which was built in the mid-1550s and was once the coronation site for all of the Lao royals.

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A wat (or temple) generally consists of multiple structures, including prayer buildings, a bell tower, a drum tower, stupas, and living quarters for the monk. So when you walk around a wat, there are dozens of things to see.

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This wat is famous for the thousands of glass tiles that decorate many of its spaces. Some tell stories, but most appear to be purely decorative. You can find representations of animals in all sorts of formations, from massed herds …

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… to predators conversing with their prey (I found this a bit mysterious)…

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… to bugs having chats with birds (and what also looks like a leopard speaking sternly to a woodpecker):IMG_6372

We spent a lot of time studying these mosaics:

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You can find people interacting with animals …

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… though the monkeys in this one don’t seem to be faring very well:

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Some of the mosaics relay portray scenes from daily life, include harvesting …

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… and dancing:

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There’s just a whole lot of shiny everywhere.

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The building known as the Red Chapel is famous for its reclining Buddha, which was carved in a classical Lao style at some point in the mid-1500s.

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The main chapel has what appears to me to be a fairly standard collection of Thai-style Buddhas …

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… but what I really liked were the stencils on the wall (these turn out to be quite common in Lao temples) …

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… and the dog at the chapel door:

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This wat also includes what my guidebook prosaically called a “garage”:

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This looks nothing like any other garage I’ve ever seen, but I’m guessing the guidebook’s choice of nouns comes from the fact that this building houses a carriage. Specifically, this is the carriage that holds the funerary urns for the ashes of the royal family, headed by two giant nagas (snake deities):

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The other garage-like feature of this building was the somewhat random collection of Buddhas in the back (there’s no altar; it just looks like this is where they keep the Buddhas they don’t happen to be using right now):

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A few hours after visiting Wat Xieng Thong, we climbed the many stairs that lead up Mount Phousi, the hill that sits at the center of Luang Prabang. This venture combines terrific views…

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… in multiple directions …

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… with the opportunity to visit several temples.

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That’s the Wat Tham Phousi shrine, which features a small sign that invites you to crouch down and enter a cave. If you’re brave enough to go in, a short tunnel leads to an altar that features an unexpectedly lifelike-looking man:

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Not far away from this shrine stood this statue of a Buddhist chthonic (earth) deity known as Phra Mae Thorani:

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Phra Mae Thorani is often pictured wringing water out of her hair to drown Mara, the demon who was sent to tempt Buddha away from his journey towards enlightenment as he sat meditating beneath the bodhi tree.

Other deities on Mount Phousi include this rotund and slightly cross-eyed Buddha …

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… what we christened the “stop” Buddha …

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… and this, which was labeled “Saturday Buddha”:

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Apparently, once Buddha was enlightened, he spent seven days thinking about the suffering of all living creatures, and there is now a Buddha posture to represent each of those seven days of the week. Saturday is the luckiest and most dramatic of all, as the Saturday Buddha is always seated in meditation while he is guarded by the king of the naga.

There is temple at the top of Mt. Phousi, but it is very small — and near sunset, it is mostly notable for being thronged with tourists (it was by far the most crowded place we saw on our whole trip).

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At the base of Mt. Phousi, there is a beautiful temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum (which we always seemed to hit right after closing time):

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I really enjoyed my visit to Wat Sensoukharam …

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… which sits right out on the main street:

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My favorite part of visiting this wat was having the opportunity to see how some of the temple elements are constructed. There were monks actually doing their morning woodworking! So I got to see how this …

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… and this …

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… might eventually become something like this:

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It was a good reminder that temples aren’t just static places; some of them are continuing to change and evolve.

At this temple I also really liked the drum tower (mostly because it was covered in bougainvillea) …

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… and the boat house (mostly because I didn’t realize that wat complexes included boats):

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We also saw this golden temple out in the countryside, across the Mekong (which we didn’t visit because I didn’t have anything with which to cover my scandalously bare knees) …

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… and this temple not half a block from our hotel.

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This one must be new, because there’s nothing about it in any guidebook. Many of the temples in Luang Prabang were destroyed in the late 1800s when the Black Flag Army — which Wikipedia calls “a splinter remnant of a bandit group” from China — laid waste to much of the city. So some of the temples in town are fairly modern, but I don’t think this makes them any less beautiful…

IMG_6817… and I did love this temple’s naga staircases:

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I made one more stop to see Wat Pak Khan Khammungkhun, which has a more pared-down, simple colonial feel than most of its cousins:

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I enjoyed the flying maiden stencils here …

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… though I really puzzled over what was meant by the words on this box:
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Given the coin slot at the top, I have to assume that they mean “restoring.” But is it possible that they want money to “destroy” the temple and build a new one? I’m really not sure.

Temples mean offerings, of course, and each Asian country seems to have its own interpretation of what these offerings should look like. Laos appears to prefer an inverted cone shape with marigolds at the top and bottom:

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They range in size and decorativeness, but the cone is very much the norm:

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There are offerings of soda and fruit, of course, as you often find in Southeast Asia …

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… and a good number of these mass-produced plastic stands …

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… but in Laos, you’ll also find an unusual amount of cooked rice among the offerings. You’ll see rice in (or on) the hands of many of the Buddha statues …

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… in the mouths of the guardian deities …

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… and in places where sacred animals could have a snack if they so chose:

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In the same spirit, alms of sticky rice are offered to the hundreds of monks who live in Luang Prabang. In the midst of what has become a bit of a tourist frenzy, these monks rise every morning at dawn to receive alms from people who kneel along the streets:

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You’re not supposed to take pictures of the monks up close, but that doesn’t keep hordes of camera-wielding foreigners from running along after them and jamming cameras in their faces. There are signs everywhere asking people not to do this, but Luang Prabang seems to be waging a constant battle between authenticity and waiting for the next Instagram snap.

To close, I’ll note that I just loved this tiny personal altar with its tiny marigold offerings — a good reminder that religion comes in all shapes and sizes:

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