The most historic and enchanting Buddhist monastery in the entire country, Wat Xieng Thong, the Golden City Monastery, should not be missed. Near the northern most tip of the peninsula, the temple compound alone is a delight to wander through, especially early in the morning before the tourist crowds descend on it. The main temple or sim was built in 1560 by King Setthathilat and it is this wonderfully graceful building that dominates the monastery.
Unlike nearly every other temple in Luang Prabang, this sim was not razed by Chinese marauders in the nineteenth century or over enthusiastically restored in the twentieth. Indeed, an old photograph taken under Auguste Pavie’s direction shows the temple to have changed little in the last century.
You’ll need to stand at a distance to get a view of the roof, the temple’s most outstanding feature. Elegant lines curve and overlap, sweeping nearly to the ground, and evoke a bird with outstretched wings or, as the locals say, a mother hen sheltering her brood. The walls of the sim are decorated inside and out with stencilled gold motifs on a black or maroon background. As you enter the dimly lit temple and your eyes adjust to the lack of light, the gold-leaf patterns seem to float on the blackened walls.
Besides stylized floral designs, the motifs depict a variety of tales, including the Laos version of the Ramayana, scenes from the Jataka and stories about the lives of the Buddha, as well as graphic scenes of punishments doled out in the many levels of Buddhist hell. In one of these punishment scenes, on the wall to the right of the main entrance, an adulterous couple is being forced to flee a pack of rabid dogs by climbing a tree studded with wicked thorns. Other unfortunate souls are being cooked in a copper cauldron of boiling oil (for committing murder) or are suspended by a hook through their tongues (guilty of telling lies).
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