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Dr. Constance Wilson, Department of History
Northern Illinois University

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Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important temples in the country of Laos. The word "wat" in Lao means temple, in this case, the Temple of the Golden City. Wat Xieng Thong is very old, built around 1560 by King Setthathirat, a patron of Buddhism, who ruled Laos from 1548 to 1571. The temple is located in a beautiful garden on the bank of the Mekong River where the Nam Khan, a smaller river runs into it.
There are many legends about the place where the Nam Khan enters the Mekong. It is believed to be the site where the two hermits, who founded Luang Prabang, placed the boundary stone for the new settlement. Another story tells about a betel merchant with the name of Chanthapanit who built a palace on this site, making himself the first king of the new capital. It has been said that he was the first founder of Wat Xieng Thong.The union of the Nam Khan with the Mekong is also said to be the home of two nagas (water spirits in the form of large snakes), the guardians of the river. A shrine to the nagas existed at the site until recently.
Until 1975, when the Communist Party gained control over Laos, Wat Xieng Thong was a royal temple, supported by the royal family. It was the place where the former kings of Laos were crowned and granted their power. When we look at the past history of Wat Xieng Thong, it and the other major temples were as Betty Gosling writes, "sites of rituals in which Buddhist, pre-Buddhist, and royal traditions met, overlapped, and meshed." (p. 35)
We do not know what the sixteenth century temple looked like, one of the earliest photographs of the sim or chapel is shown below. It is a small building with a low sweeping roof of three tiers. The supporting columns are square and white washed. A broad staircase leads into the interior. At the sides are two pillars holding bronze lotus buds.
photo_bw.jpg (11266 bytes)Photograph of Wat Xieng Thong, probably made in the 1950s or earlier.
During the 1960s Wat Xieng Thong was completely remodeled and redecorated, becoming the splendid temple we see today. The roof was repaired. The entrance was gilded. Both the interior and the exterior walls were covered with black, glossy lacquer and decorated with figures and symbols in gold leaf. On the back wall a large flame tree, a tree of life, was set in colored glass mosaics.


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Slide 1. A view of the front and side of Wat Xieng Thong. Note the large sweeping roof with its many decorations. Fresh whitewash covers the stairs, the pillars supporting the lotus buds, and the base of the building.

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Slide 2. A close up of an exterior side wall shows the black lacquer with its decorations in gold leaf.

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Slide 3. A telephoto of the "dok so fa" a decorative element in the center of the main roof

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Slide 4 The back of Wat Xieng Thong with its famous tree of life mosaic in colored glass on a dark red background. This is one of the best known images in modern Laos. The mosaic was crafted in 1960 by the Lao craftsmen,


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Slide 5. The large carved and gilded door entering the main chapel. On the left hand side is a large figure in gold leaf on black lacquer.

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Figure I. This drawing of the decoration around the main entrance of Wat Xieng Thong shows the skills of the Lao artisan. The door frame is covered in gold leaf. Note the four nagas that outline the curved middle section. At the top of the frame is a that, a Lao Buddhist architectural form.

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Figure II. We have a drawing of one of the decorative designs from Wat Xieng Thong. It is a pleasant one of flowers and foliage.

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Slide 6. On an interior wall small figures in gold leaf illustrate the daily activities of a Lao village. We see people playing, winnowing rice, cooking, and near the top, paying their respects to the Buddha at a temple.


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Slide 7. On the left hand side there is a shrine dedicated to the Buddha whose image appears on top of a building containing the image of Nang Thorani, wringing the water from her hair. To the right are elephants in a procession of warriors who have fired arrows in the direction of the Buddha image.

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Slide 8. Still another scene of village life, showing temples, houses, and boats.

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Slide 9. A large image of the Buddha sits on a platform, surrounded by smaller images, candles, and offerings.



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Slides 10 and 11. A small chapel on the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong, with caved walls, gilt on a pink background. The carving shows worshipers and Buddha images in a pastoral setting with trees, plants, and animals.
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Slides 12 and 13. Another small chapel, this chapel has dark red exterior walls with colored glass mosaics. Again we find a tiered roof with upward figures at the peaks. Here the mosaics show a shrine on a river with a large boat drifting by.


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Slides, 14 and 15. This is the carved and gilded building that houses the cremation vehicles and urns of the recent Lao monarchs. The carvings show scenes from the Ramayana.


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Slide 16. The cremation chariot of the Lao king with large naga heads in front. In the back is the urn.

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Slide 17. The cremation urn, which holds the body in a curled up position is deeply carved and gilded.

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Slide 18. Gilt images of the Buddha in storage at Wat Xieng Thong.

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Slide 19. Another Buddha image at Wat Xieng Thong.

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Slide 20. Living quarters for the monks at Wat Xieng Thong.



Boun Souk, Thao. L’Image du Buddha dans L’Art Lao. Vientiane, 1971.(In French)
Gosling, Betty. Old Luang Prabang. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Marchal, Henri."L’Art decoratif au Laos". Arts Asiatiques. Vol. 10, No. 2, 1964.(In French)
Parmentier, Henri, L’Art du Laos. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1964. 2 Vols. (In French) The photograph is from Vol. 2, p. 34.
Stuart-Fox, Martin. The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline.Bangkok: White Lotus, 1998. (The references to Wat Xieng Thong are on pages 21, 23, and 31.


2002 SEAsite Laos.  Wat Xieng Thong Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos