Perhaps more so than even in neighbouring Thailand, Laos is the home of so many Buddhist monks. Not one day went by where you were not greeted with the sight of robed men on the streets of Luang Prabang or Vientiane praying or collecting alms. Usually, monks pray at temples known across the region as ‘wats’, and here in the Lao capital there are a handful of major wats and stupas that you should be aware of, which are all tourist attractions as well as places of worship (this could be a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view).
Buddhism is the primary religion of Laos. The Buddhism practiced in Laos is of the Theravada tradition. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada Buddhism and is at the basis of Lao culture. Buddhism in Laos is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas.
The percentage of the population that adheres to Buddhism in modern Laos is estimated at 65%, however this estimate is complicated by the paucity of information made available by the Laotian Government.
Pha That Luang is a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa in the centre of Vientiane. Since its initial establishment, suggested to be in the 3rd century, the stupa has undergone several reconstructions as recently as the 1930s due to foreign invasions of the area. It is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol. I will blog more about this stupa at a later date.
Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 on the order of King Anouvong (Sethathirath V). Wat Si Saket was built in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture, with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, rather than in the Lao style. This may have kept it safe, since the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane following Anouvong’s rebellion in 1827 used the compound as their headquarters and lodging place. It may be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The French colonial government restored Wat Si Saket in 1924 and again in 1930. Wat Si Saket features a cloister wall with more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images, as well as a small museum.
Wat Si Muang is a Buddhist temple in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, built in 1563. Located near the eastern entrance to the city centre, on the road leading from the Friendship Bridge to Thailand, the small temple was built on the ruins of a Khmer Hindu shrine, the remains of which can be seen behind the ordination hall. Inside, the sim is unusually divided into two rooms. The front room of the sim is quiet with usually a monk on hand to give blessings and the rear room houses the large main altar, which is crowded with Buddha images. There is the legend that pregnant women at the time of construction were given to as sacrifice to God.
Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan is a temple in Vientiane that is so-called due to the large, bronze Phra Ong Teu Buddha image that is present within – the largest Buddha in Vientiane. This temple was initially constructed by King Settathirat I in the 16th century (known as the golden age of Buddhism in Laos) when Laos was being bombarded by the Burmese, but was later demolished during a foreign invasion. Thus, it has gone through many reconstructions during the 19th and 20th centuries to attain its contemporary appearance.
The Vientiane Buddha Park is a green space close to the Thai border that contains hundreds of stone-carved Buddhist and Hindu statues, from a giant Reclining Buddha, to three-headed elephants, to depictions of Shiva, Garuda, and many more religious deities. It is not exactly a ‘wat’ or a temple, but I have included it in this list anyway as it remains arguably the most visited tourist attraction in Vientiane.
Vientiane has more impressive wats overall than the famous northern tourist trap of Luang Prabang, however Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang (which I think is the most impressive ‘wat’ in South East Asia) seemed to be the inspiration for some of the designs in Vientiane.