Over 60% of the population of Laos are Buddhist. Monasteries, temples, pagodas and stupas (shrines) are dotted throughout the countryside and towns alike. In the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang there are over 30 temples along with religious and historical monuments. Luang Prabang has especially strong ties with Buddhism, being a traditional destination for novices and students of the faith. The town itself is named after the large golden Buddha, the Prabang, centrepiece of the Royal Palace Museum.
Wat Xieng Thong
Built in the 16th century, this masterpiece of Buddhist architecture boasts a tiered roof, glittering golden facades, richly coloured mural paintings and the glass mosaic of the Tree of Life. Also known as the Golden City Temple, it was originally used for coronations and ceremonies for kings of the ancient Lane Xang kingdom, of which Luang Prabang was the capital. The royal funeral carriage, with its three naga (dragon-like river spirits) heads, can be seen in the grounds of the temple. The wat is bordered on one side by the Mekong and on the other by the Nam Khan tributary, creating an oasis of calm. It is a working monastery and monks' quarters are located within the temple complex.
The largest and most richly decorated of all Luang Prabang temples, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham is known for its intricately carved designs, in black lacquer and gold leaf, depicting the penultimate reincarnation of Buddha. Located near the Royal Palace Museum, it was built at the turn of the 18th century and has been restored and extended since then. An emerald Buddha statue sits inside the red and gold interior and the Prabang is brought to the temple during the New Year (in April) for three days, encouraging an influx of pilgrims to the wat.
Wat Aham, the Monastery of the Open Heart, is a serene temple which once played an important role in Luang Prabang's religious life. The intertwining of Buddhist and animist religions is shown very clearly here, with many animal forms featuring as protectors of the temple. It has some beautifully executed gilt stucco which, as this is one of the less visited temples of the region, can be enjoyed in peace and calm.
Mount Phou Si
Temples and stupas stud the sides of Mount Phou Si, which rises from the very centre of Luang Prabang. These include Wat Tham Phousi, with its fat-bellied Buddha - unusual in this part of Asia - and Wat Pu Huak, possibly Luang Prabang's oldest temple, with unrestored wood carvings and mosaics. Wat Phra Bat Nua has a metre-long Buddha footprint, which is a symbol that the teachings of Buddha have reached the location. On the top of Mount Phou Si is the golden shrine of That Chomsi Stupa, a popular site for visitors. The walk up the mountain affords spectacular views over the town of Luang Prabang, particularly enjoyable at sunrise and sunset.