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Wat Chom Khong -- The small but attractive Wat Chom Khong Sourintharame means the "Monastery at the Core of the Gong," is located northeast of the Royal Palace. The name comes from the raised boss in the center of a bronze gong, from which it is said the wat's central Buddha figure was partly made.

Choum Khong was founded by Phakhu Keo in 1843, during the reign of King Sukaseum (1836 -- 51). The sim was restored in 1933 and 1951, and its decoration was entirely remade in 1962. It shares a wall with Wat Xieng Mouane, and the sims of the two monasteries have a lot in common in terms of style and decoration. The grounds of the wat are beautiful.

In front of the monks living quarters or kutis are two Chinese stone statues. In 1861 these were presented to King Chantharath (1850 -- 72) by the Chinese ambassador from Kunming during his visit to Luang Prabang. They represent the elements of yin and yang, and the Vajra (the lightning or thunderbolt representing masculine principles) and the Ghanta (representing the bell, or feminine principles). These statues had a bit of a rough ride under the French. In the 1890s the interim high commissioner, Joseph Vacle, placed them in front of his residence. After World War I they were placed in the Royal Palace. In the 1930s, the Lao prince and director of culture, Tiao Patasavong Sisouphan, presented them to Wat Chom Kong. They used to guard the central stairway of the sim. Now they flank the doorway of the nearby kuti.

Wat Ho Xiang -- Wat Ho Siang Voravihane or the "Lottery Pavilion" is next to Wat That on a small hill southwest of Mount Phousi. There is a naga-flanked stairway going up the hill to the temple. The wat was named in a 1548 ceremony by King Setthathirat. The sim is simple with a central pillarless hall and a single highly decorated doorway. Stylized murals, some of which depict the karmic and really quite brutal punishment visited on evildoers, adorn the entry and the side walls. There have been many reconstructions over the years. The first one was in 1823. The wat was also destroyed by a storm in 1900 and rebuilt once again. The octagonal pediment pillars and the verandas on the northeast and southwest sides of the sim were added in 1952. The octagonal pillars and gilded leaf capitals were added as recently as 1973.

Wat Long Khun -- Wat Long Khun with the rather uplifting meaning of the "Monastery of the Happy Song" is also sometimes dubbed the "Monastery of the Willow Stream." It is pleasantly situated at the top of a long stairway leading from the river's edge on the far bank of the Mekong almost directly opposite Wat Xieng Thong.

The monastery had important links with royalty and it was tradition that each new king would spend 3 days there in ceremonial bathing and meditative retreat before crossing the river for the preenthronement ceremonies at Wat Xieng Thong. With the end of royalty, Wat Long Khun was abandoned and fell into disrepair, as did the other temples on the right bank of the Mekong. The Lao Department of Museums and Archaeology and L'École Française d'Extrême Orient painstakingly restored the temples during the mid-1990s using traditional materials and techniques.

The Luang Prabang style sim has two sections set on a low platform. The rear and older half is the original sim and dates from the 18th century. It has some interesting interior jataka murals depicting the various lives of the Buddha. Sadly many of them are badly decayed by damp. At the front is an extended portico built during the reign of King Sisavang Vong in 1937. On the facade of the sim are depicted two large, bearded Chinese warriors on either side of the main entry. There some traditional wooden kutis (monks' quarters) in the grounds and a long, narrow structure without windows that served as a royal meditation room.

Wat Mahathat -- Wat Pha Mahathat or the "Monastery of the Stupa" was founded by King Say Setthathirat in 1548. The king was actually ruling from the Lanna Kingdom of North Thailand at that point. He also erected the imposing Lanna-style stupa, to the rear of the sim. The northern Thai influence can be seen in the golden umbrellas on the top of the stupa.

The staircase leading from Thanon Chao Fa Ngum Road with its silver colored seven-headed naga has echoes of the similar but much longer staircase at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. The sim was rebuilt in 1910 by Chao Maha Oupahat Boun Kong to replace the one that collapsed during a storm that struck during evening prayers in April 1900. Many people died in this tragedy. The sim, built in Luang Prabang, was restored in 1963. There are interesting relief murals in the portico at the front and decorations that depict the legends of King Thao Sithoanh and the Nang Manola. Others portray the kinnari (divine half-woman/half-bird renowned for its carefree kindness) and stories from the Ramayana. Within the confines of the wat also are the ashes of the revered Prince Phetsarath (believed by many to have had magically invincible powers as a half-deity), who declared Lao independence after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and Prince Souvanna Phouma, his younger half brother, who served as prime minister before the advent of the Pathet Lao.

Wat Manorom -- Wat Manorom Sattharam is situated just outside the remains of the old city walls to the south. Most experts agree that it is built on the site of one of the earliest Khmer Buddhist sites, although they disagree about the date it was founded. It might have originated with Samsenthai (1373 -- 1416), the son of King Fa Ngum in 1372 or 1375 (either before or after he ascended to the throne). Others suggest in 1491 or 1492, during the reign of La Saen Thai. That it was important is sure since it housed the Phra Bang at one point from 1502 until 1513, when it was moved to Wat Visoun. The sim was rebuilt in 1818, but, like so much else, was destroyed by the Haw in 1887. The present sim, rebuilt in 1972, is one of the tallest in Luang Prabang. In the grounds behind the sim are the remains of an earlier wat -- Xieng Kang. Although the sim is fairly modern and pales into insignificance compared to others in Luang Prabang, it does play a significant role in the community. One of its most important features is the great Buddha cast in the 1370s during the reign of Sam Saen Thai. It is in the Sukhothai style rather than Lao or Khmer. The sitting statue weighs over 2 tons and is 6m high. The image is in the "victory over Mara" pose with one hand touching the earth. It is the oldest large Buddhist statue in Luang Prabang and for much of its history it sat outside the sim. It was heavily damaged during the rampages of the Haw in 1887 and also during the Franco-Thai war in the late 19th century, when its arms were destroyed. This piece of wanton theft and destruction was most likely perpetrated by the French although they reaped their karmic reward as their boat sank in the Mekong. They forgot a part of the Buddha's forearm and that can now be seen at the base of the statue in the sim. When the sim was rebuilt in 1972, the statue was enclosed in the sim and the arms were reconstructed from cement. The wat has the largest number of monks and novices of any monastery in Luang Prabang and there is also a primary school. A new wall encircling the grounds of the wat was completed in 1995.

Taking Refuge: Making Friends at the Temple -- There is little that's spectacular on the sleepy peninsula of Luang Prabang. Rather, time spent here is about soaking up the atmosphere and taking leisurely walks along dusty roads lined with French colonial buildings. Another great local activity is to stop in at a temple -- any temple, really -- and meet with the monks or young novices. The monks are great sources of information and insight into Laos culture, Buddhism, and the vagaries of human existence. Language is a big part of their training, and they study Pali and Sanskrit as well as English and French (and even Chinese and Japanese). Novices like to practice their English or even get help with their homework. Women should be careful not to touch or sit too close to monks and novices, but all are welcome in the temple. Don't give in to any pleas for sponsorship (unless you want to); monks live through the generosity of the sangha, or monastic community, and don't need sponsors.

Make Merit -- Picture Sunday Mass at a typical church somewhere: Everyone is seated, ready for the ceremony to begin. The priest and altar boys start to walk down the aisle. Suddenly, visiting tourists rush to the end of the pews and start photographing like paparazzi, flashes and all. Sound crazy? Well that's what happens at Luang Prabang's Tak Bat, or Make Merit, a living religious ritual that occurs at dawn each day. The procession of saffron-clad monks walking down the streets of Luang Prabang to collect the food offerings of devout, kneeling Buddhists is a breathtaking sight. But it is disrespectful to treat it as a tourist show. When I watched, several travelers were chatting while they were giving food and thrusting cameras uncomfortably close to the monks. One man, after he had given away all his sticky rice, hollered across the street to his companions, "All right, should we move on to the outdoor market then?" Monks were still walking past him. Put your best foot forward here and observe these local customs (as laid out by the National Tourism Authority) before you take part in or simply watch the act of Tak Bat:

  • Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so respectfully.
  • Buy the rice at the local market earlier in the morning rather than from street vendors along the monks' route.
  • If you are not making an offering, keep an appropriate distance and be respectful. Don't get in the way of the monks' procession or people giving alms.
  • Do not photograph the monks too closely; camera flashes are very disturbing for both the monks and those giving alms.
  • Dress appropriately; your shoulders, chest, and legs should be covered.
  • Do not make physical contact with the monks.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.