“[Laos] is — and feels like — a gentle place where one encounters many kindnesses. The wounds of war are still fresh in Laos…. The sooner they are healed, the better for those who live there, and the better for those of us who love to visit it.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
It’s easy to suffer from temple fatigue when traveling around Southeast Asia — there are so many temples that they start to blend together. I have photos that I can’t identify because they lack defining features. I’ve taken to photographing signs outside temples to help categorize what I’ve seen — and still, I have a difficult time recalling anything specific about many of them.
Laos was a refreshing change of pace in art and architecture at the temples. I expected much of the same that I had already seen but was pleasantly surprised. While the temples in Laos are distinctive, they are, however, similar to each other, making multiple temple visits somewhat exhausting.
Unlike in Vientiane, many of the temples in Luang Prabang charge an entrance fee. The town attracts far more tourists than the capital, so it’s to be expected. When the entrance fee is about $2.50, it’s worth going. Besides, that money goes to maintaining the buildings.
During my few days in Luang Prabang, I visited a few temples — some more touristy than others. I came across smaller ones mostly on my day of biking around. Those temples weren’t as attractive as the main tourist sites, but they provided a glimpse at life in Laos without the tourists. I watched children playing in the courtyards and monks performing daily chores — it was relaxing.
The most popular temple in the touristy area of Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, which translates to Temple of the Golden City. This Buddhist temple is popular for good reason: it’s beautiful. It’s also the largest temple in the town and still considered the most important.
Situated a short distance from the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Wat Xieng Thong dates back to the mid-1500s and was a royal temple, until communist government rule ended the royal family’s control in 1975. Obviously, a teak temple would not survive for more than 500 years, so it’s been restored over the centuries (even the French helped fund restoration work during colonial control). But it still contains some beautiful Lao artwork.
The temple is also home to the royal carriage house, which displays a beautiful traditional carriage that is nearly impossible to photograph due to the limited space. It’s much better than the Edsel, which was a gift from Richard Nixon, on display at the royal palace.
Most impressive at Wat Xieng Thong is the mirrored mosaics — there are similar works at the Royal Palace that depict history and myths, but photos are not allowed there (unfortunately, there aren’t any explanations either).
The gold-painted woodwork on doors reminded me of temples in Thailand, but the interior designs were more intricate than I recall during my trips, making this Laotian temple more interesting. Pretty much every other temple in Luang Prabang has similar woodwork, so it becomes less interesting after visiting a dozen of them.
I wandered in and out of the temple as I sought a quiet corner of the grounds. I entered from the main street through Luang Prabang but exited on the far side facing the Mekong River. As the temple is on higher ground, there’s a beautiful view of the river before walking down the steps.
I visited more temples in Vientiane than in Luang Prabang — I was surrounded by more of them in the capital. I was also more interested in the views of the mountains around Luang Prabang. The temples may have been impressive, but the mountains were even better to provide a sense of peace on a relaxing holiday.