Tag Archives: Wat ‘O’ the Week

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Haw Phra Kaew

I’ve driven past this temple many times and glimpsed its imposing columns and traditional roof from the road, but the tour buses parked outside the gate discouraged me from checking it out. There’s nothing less zen than trying to explore a temple with a throng of tourists.

When we returned to Vientiane from Bangkok a few weeks ago, we still had a few days off before school resumed, so I cycled over to Wat Haw Phra Kaew and met up with my friend Nikki and Michelle, her friend visiting from Canada.

Unlike most temples in Vientiane, this one actually got some internet press. Wikipedia has a good synopsis of the information I found on a variety of sites:

Haw Phra Kaew was built between 1565 and 1556, on the orders of King Setthathirath. The temple housed the Emerald Buddha figurine, which Setthathirath had brought from Chiang Mai, then the capital of Lanna, to Luang Prabang. When Vientiane was seized by Siam (now Thailand) in 1778, the figurine was taken to Thonburi and the temple was destroyed. When it was rebuilt by King Annouvong of Vientiane in 19th century it was again destroyed by Siamese forces when he rebelled against Siam to attempt to regain full independence of the kingdom. The revered Buddha now resides in Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok. The temple was rebuilt for a third time by the French in the 1920’s during colonization of French Indochina.

At the entrance to the wat.

You know I love the nagas!

Visitors leave their shoes at the bottom of the stairs when they enter the temple to show reverence.

A view of the grounds.

Some random shots.






Photography is forbidden inside the building, where artifacts were on display.

Overall, I have say there was something missing for me at Wat Haw Phra Kaew. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but now I realize that the missing element was the monks. This temple is no longer a place of worship and has been converted into a museum. I always like to see the spiritual and mundane co-existing at working temples, where monks might be eating lunch or studying in the shade of a flowering tree. Usually, one of the monks is happy to chat about the temple or share some Buddhist principles. Now I realize that’s one of the best parts of exploring the local wats.

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Chom Phet

If you’re looking for an enormous cricket, the no-evil monkey triplets, a nasty concrete crone with a chicken cage full of scared people, and a massive reclining Buddha, have I got a temple for you!

Wat Chom Phet, located at the southern edge of Vientiane, is not your run-of-the-mill Buddhist temple. Just a short bumpy ride off the busy Tha Deua Road, this place resonates a mystical, whimsical vibe.

I pedaled here with Tony and my friend, Catherine, early Sunday morning at the recommendation of a friend. Parking our bikes inside the temple gate, we were greeted by a strange collection of sculptures. A Lao man was lighting incense at an adjacent Buddha statue, so I asked him in Lao if he spoke English (an essential phrase to learn here!). He did, kind of.

We asked him to explain the unusual yard art.

Gigantic cricket with a man in traditional dress yanking on one huge cricket leg? Hmmm … he rambled about how the name of the village translated to “cricket” or something like that.

Skulls with red-painted fire and large aardvark-ish animals? Well, er, maybe those came from another temple.

Creepy looking witch with pendulous naked breasts guarding an overturned basket with three crouching captives inside? Ah, this one he could explain! The monks use this sculpture to teach that it’s easy to fall under the influence of evil people like this scary woman … or maybe not.

At least the hear-no-evil/see-no-evil/speak-no-evil monkeys were self-explanatory.

After chatting with us a bit more, the guy finished his prayers and drove off. We wandered around the temple grounds. The main attraction was the reclining Buddha, rumored to be 21 meters long and the biggest reclining Buddha in town. (I say “rumored” because nobody seems to know much about much at local temples.) I especially liked that Buddha rested his elbow on an elephant’s head; that was a creative touch.

Buddha’s bed was decorated with a menagerie of animals, including more elephants, a cat, chicken, naga, turtle, ox, dog, tiger and a couple I couldn’t identify – maybe a hyena or monkey?

There must have been some special event very early this morning. Ladies were cleaning up inside the big room, stacking trays used for eating while sitting on the floor.

Catherine and I sat down in the shade to chat, and we were soon joined by a novice monk and an old man.

The monk, named Som Chith, spoke some English and asked whether we had any questions about the temple. Turns out he didn’t have any answers, though. Fortunately, the old man, named Du Peng, had some institutional knowledge. He would relay long stories in Lao to our monk friend, who would then pause and think for a bit before giving us much abbreviated versions in English.

According to the guys, most of the temple was built on donated land in 1942, although the big gold stupa was older, maybe from the early 1900s. We asked about the crazy sculptures, and after a particularly long Lao explanation from Du Peng, the monk told us a traditional folktale about a character named Khatthanam. Catherine and I think the story goes like this: The evil witch captured people and ate them (hence the cage and the skulls on the BBQ). Khatthanam got word that some of his friends had been captured, so he came to their rescue. In an ending reminiscent of Hansel and Gretl, he tricked the witch by replacing the people with crickets. Gigantic crickets like the statue? We never got a clear answer to that. And, to be honest, we may have completely misunderstood the whole thing.

I tried to find details on (a) the temple, (b) the cricket story, and (c) the big Buddha, but as usual, I came up empty-handed. I find it very disconcerting how little of the local history and culture is documented in an accessible form. When I mentioned this to the first temple-goer, he shared my dismay. He said the government is deeply suspicious of the internet and wants to keep its secrets private. Well, they’re doing a good job.

Here are more shots from the temple:

Wats ‘O’ the Week – Luang Prabang Temples

This week’s installment of Wat ‘O’ the Week comes to you from Luang Prabang, where my sister and I celebrated Wat Wednesday. The historic little city in northern Laos boats 32 Buddhist temples built before the French showed up in 1887 for 58 years of colonization. Much to Megan’s relief, I didn’t make her visit all of them.
We were on the quest of a particular novice monk, who chatted with my friends, Tony and Rand, during their visit to Luang Prabang last fall. So we started at the temple where he was supposed to be “stationed” (or whatever verb you use to describe where a monk lives). “Novice Lai works at Blah Blah Temple now,” a monk told us. Only he didn’t say “blah blah,” and we were too intimidated to ask for clarification. I thought I heard a word that started with “K,” and the monk gestured in a direction that had only a few more blocks before we would hit the confluence of the Kham and Mekong rivers. So how hard could it be?
Unfortunately, we never found Lai. Sometimes being a girl traveler is a real disadvantage, particularly when it comes to approaching monks. They were all friendly enough, but Meg and I both worried that we were violating some patriarchal protocol by walking past the regular temple buildings to hunt down Lai in the residential areas.
However, we did enjoy visiting a few temples before heading back to Vientiane. Here are some highlights:

Wat Sene Soukharama

Built in 1714, this temple had some interesting details.
The windows were pretty flashy.

In the Buddha chapel, I loved that someone put a tiny elephant on one of Buddha’s big toes.

This funky guy with a fish in his claws was a nice touch.

Wat Sop Sickharam
These monks picked a perfect spot for studying.

Rice cakes were drying in the sun at the temple.

Wat Sirimounkhounsayaram
We walked around this temple, but I didn’t take any photos. It wins the prize for longest name, though.

Wat Xieng Thong
This is Luang Prabang’s most famous temple. Construction on the sim (ordination hall) started in 1560 right on the banks of the Mekong River, and other buildings were added over the years. The sim’s sweeping roof is considered a hallmark of traditional Luang Prabang temple architecture.

The back of the sim features a spectacular “tree of life” mosaic, and similar mosaics cover the exterior walls of other buildings on the temple grounds, as well.

I always enjoy seeing daily life depicted in art like this detail of villagers cutting rice, particularly meaningful next to the offering of sticky rice that someone had placed on the ledge.


Inside the temple’s carriage house, we saw a 12-meter-high (39-foot-high) funeral carriage.

Pretty detail on the carriage house door.

We also liked this Buddha in the carriage house. He’s standing in the posture that’s often associated with making peace with relatives, but the expression on his face suggests he’s thinking, “Seriously, I have to break up another squabble? Come on, people! Where’s the love?”

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Sithan Neua

I’m cheating a little bit with this Wat ‘O’ the Week post. I actually visited this temple on the same day I went to Wat Phia Wat with Catherine.
We had hoped to visit with a monk she knew here, but unfortunately, we were told that he had gone to the States to study for a year.
Wat Sithan Neua is tucked in a back alley just a block from the Mekong River. The monks were hard at work landscaping the temple grounds.

Sithan Neua Monks Working

We found a monk who spoke a little English and asked him about the temple’s “sim” (ordination hall). He said it was about 70 years old, but he refused to indulge our request to unlock it.

Wat Sithan Neua's Sim

The small sim featured muted colors and delicate designs, but the building was in serious disrepair. A peek through the crack in the ornate front door revealed restoration work underway inside.

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Door

A flashier new addition to the temple stood nearby with rickety scaffolding rising out of piles of sand and up to bright red and gold paintings. The old sim literally paled in comparison.


Wat ‘o’ the Week – Wat Phia Wat

I’ve been stalking one of our second-grade teachers, Catherine, an Aussie who has lived in Laos for several years and shares my love of the local temples. She seems to know everyone in town, and she has some beautiful stories about her experiences here. So I tagged her to be my tour guide today – Laos National Day – on my visit to the Wat ‘o’ the Week. I rode my bike to Catherine’s house, which is next to Wat Si Muang (a temple you may recall from the fabulous That Luang Festival “wax castle procession”). From there, we crossed the street, rode down an alley and popped in to a side gate of Wat Phia Wat, a temple overlooking the Mekong River.
We immediately noticed the presence of many military men, including a few camped out on the steps of the temple’s “sim.”
After poking around the temple grounds a bit, we were greeted by On Aye, a friendly temple resident. He told us that he’s living at Wat Phia Wat while he completes his medical residency in family medicine at a nearby hospital. (Side note: Some of you know about my former career working for the American Academy of Family Physicians, so it was interesting to hear On Aye explain that family medicine is a relatively new specialty in Laos.)
On Aye gave us a primer on some of the temple’s features. We walked to a collection of gilded sculptures, and he explained that they depict Buddha’s life:
First, there’s Buddha’s mother.

Buddha's Mom

Next, we see newborn Buddha taking his first seven steps and lotus flowers blooming in his footsteps.

Buddha's First Steps

Here, On Aye tells us about Buddha’s first meditation experience.

On Aye and Meditating Buddha

Here, Buddha is teaching.

Teaching Buddha

And, finally, people pay their respects to Buddha after his death.

Dead Buddha

On Aye walked us to a banyan tree, surrounded by more Buddha sculptures. These were similar to the ones Tony and I saw last week at Wat Hai Sok. “You can see everywhere the temple usually have this tree,” On Aye said. Turns out the Buddha statues are “Days of the Week Buddhas.” Many people like to leave special offerings or make a donation to the Buddha that represents the day they were born.
The Monday Buddha says, “Stop, in the name of love!” in his peace-making pose, also known as (seriously, I’m not making this up) his “Pacifying the Relatives” pose.

Monday Buddha

The reclining Tuesday Buddha symbolizes the moment he entered Nirvana. I loved the little clumps of sticky rice left by worshippers on Buddha’s arm and hand. (If I only had a dollar for every time I woke up to find rice stuck on my arm … or in my hair …)

Tuesday Buddha

On Aye and I were both born on a Wednesday. The Wednesday Buddha takes two forms, both related to accepting gifts of food! No wonder I felt an immediate connection with my birthday Buddha. Wat Phia Wat’s Wednesday Buddha is holding an alms bowl under his lovely shawl.

Wednesday Buddha

The Thursday Buddha also speaks to me … ommm. He is sitting in a lotus position for meditation, seeking enlightenment.

Thursday Buddha

Friday’s Buddha is standing at the Banyan tree, contemplating how he will explain the suffering in the world to his followers.

Friday Buddha

Saturday’s Buddha is again sitting in meditation, but this time the Naga King is protecting him.

Saturday Buddha

Sunday’s enlightened Buddha stands still for seven days under the tree to contemplate his achievement of complete knowledge.

Sunday Buddha

As we meandered back to our bikes, On Aye explained that the military was using the temple as a sort of base camp to provide extra protection and help keep the peace until after the Southeast Asian Games – a biennial multi-sport event involving participants from the 11 countries of Southeast Asia, which will take place in Vientiane Dec. 9-18.

When Catherine and I pedaled out the gate, On Aye had joined some of the soldiers for a game of bocce ball.
Just like last week, I am coming up empty-handed in my online search for information about this temple. Darn. So in the absence of information, here are more photos!

Wat ‘o’ the Week: Wat Hai Sok

Welcome to The Guide Hog’s new “Wat ‘o’ the Week” spotlight on Buddhist temples in Vientiane! I’ll try to visit a different temple each week with the goal of finding a unique angle or tidbit of information.
All wats comprise a “sim,” the actual temple building where people pray and make offerings, as well as a housing area for the monks, various sculptures, and ornate monuments with the cremated remains of temple-goers. Although visitors are free to walk around the temple grounds, the sim at most wats stays locked unless monks are using it for a ceremony.
Today Tony and I poked around Wat Hai Sok, a small easily overlooked wat that sits in the shadow of a bigger, more important temple. Here’s a view from the street.
From the street

The humble entrance was partially obscured by thick bundles of electrical wires that run the length of the road.

I couldn’t find any substantial information online about Wat Hai Sok. Every website lists the same paragraph:

Wat Hai Sok’s soaring five-tiered roof, topped with elegant golden spires, can be seen all the way from Thanon Setthathirat. It is worth stepping just off the main road to enjoy the atmosphere of this neighborhood temple. The windows and facade are beautifully carved in wood. Gilded multi-headed nagas (mythological snakes) flank the steps. There are usually children playing football in the shaded courtyard. Food sellers serve customers from the surrounding wooden houses, sitting at stalls beside the numerous funeral monuments.

There were, in fact, children playing in the sand next to a small bell tower. As we walked around the sim, we met two more youngsters tussling with a couple puppies. They eagerly showed us their dogs and happily posed for a couple pictures.
Kids and puppies

The sweet little boy was a tiny bit rough with his puppy.

The temple’s sim had ornate windows on all sides.
Detail on the sim

I always love the guardian nagas.

Another naga

Another interesting attraction was a tree surrounded by golden Buddhas in various poses.
Tony and the Buddhas

Other than the kids and the puppies, the wat was deserted and peaceful. No tourists. No monks. Pretty mellow.