Wat Xieng Thong

Near the northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan is Luang Prabang's most magnificent temple, Wat Xieng Thong (admission US$0.60). King Setthathirat built Wat XiengThong's sim in 1560, and the compound remained under royal patronage until 1975. Like the royal palace, Wat Xieng Thong was placed within reach of the Mekong. The Tripitaka library was added in 1828, the drum tower in 1961.

Along with Wat Mai Suwannaphurnaham this was the only Luang Prabang wat spared any damage by the Black Flag Haw sacking of the-city in 1887. The Black Flag's leader, Deo Van Tri (a Thai Khao or While Thai from the north Vietnamese province of Lai Chau), had studied here as a monk earlier in his life, and he used the desecrated, if not destroyed, temple as his headquarters during the invasion.

The sim represents what is considered classic Luang Prabang temple architecture, with roofs that sweep low to the ground (the same style - part of the Lan Xang-Lanna legacy - is found in northern Thailand as well). The rear wall or the sim features an impressive 'tree of life' mosaic set in a red background. Inside, the elaborately decorated wooden columns support a ceiling that is vested with dharma wheels. Other gold-stenciled designs on the interior walls depict the exploits of legendary King Chanthaphanit, about whom there exists no verifiable written history

To one side of the sim, towards the east, are several small halls (haw) and stupas containing Buddha images of the period. The reclining Buddha sanctuary; dubbed La Chapelle Rouge or Red Chapel by the French contains an especially rare reclining Buddha that dates from the construction of the temple. This one-of-a-kind figure is exquisitely proportioned in classic Lao style (most Lao recliners imitate Thai or Lanna styles), with the monastic robes curling outward at the ankle like rocket fumes. Instead of merely supporting the head, the unique right-hand position extends away from the head in a simple but graceful gesture. In 1931 this image was taken to Paris and displayed at the Paris Exhibition, after which it was kept in Vientiane until its return to Luang Prabang in 1%4.

Gold-leaf votives line the upper walls of the sanctuary on either side of the reclining image. In front of the image are several seated bronze Buddhas of different styles and ages, and on either side of the altar are small embroidered tapestries depicting a stupa and a standing Buddha. A mosaic on the back exterior wall of this chapel was done in the late 1950s in commemoration of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's attainment of final nirvana, or passing away. The mosaic is unique in that it relates the exploits of Siaw Sawat, a hero from a famous Lao novel, along with scenes of local village life, rather than a religious scene. .

Near the compound's eastern gate stands the royal funerary carriage house. Inside is an impressive funeral carriage (crafted by local artisan Thit Tanh), which stands 12m high, and various funeral urns for the members of the royal family. (The ashes of King Sisavang Vong, the queen and the king's brother, however, are interred not here but at Wat That Luang at the southern end of Luang Prabang.) Glass cabinets hold royal puppets that were once used for performances of la-khawn lek. Gilt panels on the exterior of the chapel depict semi-erotic episodes from the Ramayana epic.