Haw Pha Kaew

This former rayal temple (Thanon Setthathilat; admission US$0.12; open 8 am- noon & 1pm-4pm daily, closed public holidays), about 100m south-cast from Wat Si Saket, has been converted into a museum.

According to the Lao, the temple was originally built in 1565 by command of King Setthathirat, who on inheriting the Lan Xang throne moved the capital of Lan Xang to Vientiane and brought from Lanna the so- called Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew in Lao, which means Jewel Buddha Image - the image is actually made of a type of jade). Wat Pha Kaew was built to house this image and to serve as Setthathirat's personal place of worship. Following a skirmish with the Lao in 1779, the Siamese stole the Emerald Buddha and installed it in Bangkok's Wat PhraKaew. Later, during the Siamese-Lao war of 1828, Vientiane's Wat Pha Kaew was razed.

Between 1936 and 1942, the temple was rebuilt, supposedly following the original plan exactly. Herein lies the problem in dating the original temple. If the current structure was restored in the original style, it seems unlikely that the original could have been built in the mid-16th century, as it doesn't resemble any known structure in Siam, Laos, Myanmar or Cambodia from that period. In fact it looks very much like a 19th-century Bangkok-style sim. On the other hand, if the architects chose to use the more common 19th-century style because they didn't have the original plans after all, then it's possible the original 'was constructed in 1565 as claimed.

At any rate, today's Haw Pha Kaew is not particularly impressive, except in size. The rococo ornamentation that runs up and down every door, window and base looks unfinished. But some of the best examples of Buddhist sculpture found in Laos are kept here, with' a dozen or so prominent sculptures displayed along the surrounding terrace. These include a 6th-to 9th-century Dvaravati-style stone Buddha; several bronze standing and sitting Lao-style Buddhas - including the 'Calling for Rain' (standing with hands at his sides), 'Offering Protection' (palms stretched out in front) and 'Contemplating the Tree of Enlightenment' (hands crossed at the wrist in front) poses; and a collection of inscribed Lao and Mon setae. Most of the Lao bronzes are missing their usnisa (flame finial).

Inside the sim are royal requisites such as a gilded throne, more Buddhist sculpture (including a wooden copy of the Pha Bang, the original of which is in Luang Prabang), some Khmer stelae', various wooden carvings (candle stands, door panels ,lintels), palm-leaf manuscripts and bronze frog drums. A bronze 'Calling for Rain' Buddha, tall and lithe, is particularly beautiful; also unique is a 17th- century Vientiane-style bronze Buddha in the 'European pose', ie, with the legs hanging down as if seated on a chair or bench.

A stone Khmer Buddha, a marble Mandalay Buddha and several other figures stand at the front altar. Visiting Thais worship here and, although the place is no longer used as a wat, they lay offerings of money on a small platform atop a wooden naga image from Xieng Khuang.

The sim is surrounded by a nicely landscaped garden. A French- 'and English speaking guide is occasionally available