Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, or the "New Monastery" is actually one of the oldest surviving monasteries in Luang Prabang. Like Wat Xieng Thong it was spared the ravages of the Chinese Haw invaders of the 1880s. It is also is one of the biggest, most beautiful, and most photographed of all the wats in the city. It is located right on Sisavangvong Road where all the restaurants and Internet cafes can be found.
The wat was founded by King Anourout (1795-1817) in about 1796. No one is exactly sure of the exact year. Most of it dates from the 19th century. Restoration of the wooden sim possibly started in 1821 or 1822 during the reign of King Manthatourat (1817-36), when it was given the name of the New Monastery. There were also major restorations in 1943 and 1962, as well as more recently. The sim is built in the traditional Luang Prabang style with a sweeping roof and porches on two sides.
Wat Mai served as a temple for the royal family and long has been the residence of the Pra Sangkharat, the patriarch of Lao Buddhism. In 1887 the Haw spared this temple. Historians say it was because they found it too beautiful to destroy. If so they get zero points for consistency given what they did decide to set fire to. Wat Mai became the repository of the Pha Bang until, in 1947, the gold statue was moved to the royal palace, now the Royal Palace Museum. During Pimai, or Lao New Year, the Pha Bang is ceremoniously brought from the museum to a temporary pavilion in front of the sim and for 3 days there is ceremonial washing of the image and opportunities for the faithful to make offerings.
A previous abbot of Wat Mai also took a part in the opening of Luang Prabang to the world outside of Asia. In 1887 Auguste Pavie, who had a strong admiration for the region, arrived in Luang Prabang as the first French (and European) vice-consul in Laos. At the time the city and region were under Siamese control. They tried to prevent Pavie and his group from getting access to the king, Oun Kham. The abbot, however, a confidant of the king, served as a courier for messages between the king and Pavie and invited the Frenchman to stay at the monastery. French influence grew and by 1893 Siam was forced to secede Laos to the protectorate of the French. Pavie was also allowed to examine the extensive palm leaf manuscripts of the Wat Mai and used them to write the first history of Lao in a European language.
The sim has a magnificent five-tiered roof. It also contains a superb relief, which actually dates only as far back as the late 1960s. The cement reliefs were first covered with a black lacquer and then gilded. This relief depicts scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara-Jataka, the Buddha's penultimate reincarnation, all taking place in countryside that is reminiscent of the surrounds of Luang Prabang. During the 3-day festival of Pimai in April Buddhists outnumber tourists, reinforcing just how important Wat Mai is to the Lao.