This is considered to be the most magnificent temple in Luang Prabang -- the "Golden City" or "Golden Tree Monastery." This is saying something since standards of breathtaking beauty and serenity in temple building in Luang Prabang are very high. Xieng Thong is situated on an embankment above the Mekong near the point where it joins the Nam Khan River and it often served as the gateway to the town. Visitors from Siam, which long controlled the region, would end their journey at Ban Xieng Mene on the right bank and be ferried across to the city. This was also the entry point for the king to be on the eve of his coronation after the customary 3 days of prayer and meditation at Wat Long Khun. It was the site of coronation of Lao kings and also the center of numerous annual festivities. The sim, or ordination hall was first built by King Setthathirat in 1560 and it remained under royal patronage until the Communists broke the link in 1975. The Triptaka library was not added until 1828 and the drum tower as recently as 1961.
Here there is little history of the damage that scarred so much of the city and caused the need for so much renovation and restoration under the French. Wat Xieng Thong was spared the destruction visited on the rest of the town by the rampaging Chinese Haw in 1887. The wat was desecrated but not destroyed. Their leader, a Vietnamese ethnic White Thai from what is now northern Vietnam, had studied there as a novice monk. With Wat Xieng Thong he somehow managed to get in touch with his feminine side, something notable by its absence when he destroyed everything else in sight, and used this temple as his headquarters.
Its name translates as "golden city monastery," echoing a pre-Buddhist era when the area was known as Muang (municipality) Xieng Thong. Wat Xieng Thong is a perfect example of the Lao style with a low, majestic, sweeping roof with stylized naga boards. Inside, there is a magnificent Buddha image and overhead is a naga-shaped wooden channel that carries the water for the new year and ordination ceremonies before it flows out through the trunk of a carved elephant.
Outside, on the rear wall of the temple, there is a "tree of life" in mosaic. Inside the richly decorated wooden columns hold up an elaborate ceiling on which "dharma wheels" are portrayed in gold. Other buildings in the complex include what the French called "La Chapelle Rouge" or the Red Chapel. This contains a rare and beautiful black reclining Buddha that was most likely carved at roughly the same time King Setthathirat ordered the construction of the original sim. This is a very unusual image indeed since it breaks from the predominantly Lanna- and Thai-oriented styles that one normally sees on reclining Buddhas in Laos and was made in a pure Lao classical manner.
Like other Buddha images from Laos that ended up elsewhere, this image is fairly well traveled. The French took it to Paris for the city's 1931 exhibition and, when it was returned to Laos, it stayed in Vientiane before finally being returned to Wat Xieng Thong in 1964.
Another remarkable sight is the imposingly enormous (12m/39-ft. high) funeral carriage that was paraded through Luang Prabang, carrying the ashes of royalty as part of the funeral rites. There are funeral urns containing the ashes themselves. They are protected by yet another fearsome naga.