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Pha That Luang or Grand Stupa
We spent a couple of very wet days in Vientiane when we were in Laos and during one of the days we visited a number of stupas and temples and this was one we carried our umbrellas to visit. This is the most important national monument in Laos and so you could not really come to Vientiane and not visit this site.
Initially we had to cross a huge empty square that looked a bit like a very clean car park but I assume it is used for parades and large groups of people gathering on high days and holidays. We walked across this huge empty area and on the way took a few photos. We had to pay to enter and this is a sort of museum as well as the stupa being a significant religious site.
This beautiful stupa really stands out in Vientianeas there are very few high buildings in the city and the stupa is 45 metres high . It dates back to the ancient Khmer civilisation, when Vientiane was inhabited by people known as the 'Cham'.
This was originally built as a place to worship and pray to idols and some researchers believe the structure was originally a four-sided stone obelisk. Apparently in the 16th century the stupa was even bigger than it is today and it is from that time the name That Luang, or Grand Stupa came.
After walking across the huge empty area we arrived at an entrance and paid our money. Our guide explained that this was now a museum although still considered a religious site as it is believed to be a shine for a relic of Buddha. The stupa is covered in a gold paint and so had the sun been shining we would have been dazzled as it was raining we could tell it was painted gold but were far from dazzled.
This stupa is a multi layered one with each level representing a different stage of Buddhist enlightenment. The lowest level is said to be the material world; the second level represents the world of appearance while the highest level signifies the world of nothingness.
It is a very attractive building with lots of ornamentation around the roof edges. It is kind of similar to the Thai temples but at the same time it is distinctly Laos. I loved the little Buddhas settled in the sort of decorative banisters around the temple. In fact there were Buddhas everywhere all around the cloisters under the roofs around the cloisture square. All around the first level roof were small stupa decorations and various nga or snakes along the stair case banisters all beautifully painted. And full of intricate detail
It was interesting to learn that the most recent and most comprehensive restoration was completed by the French in the 1930s. I do find it odd that the French destroy so many of their former colonies and yet do something like restore this stupa.
Within the stupa grounds it was quiet and had that special feeling that you only get from visiting religious buildings. We walked around trying to keep out of the rain as much as we could but of course we wanted to see as much of this beautiful building as we could so we did have to dash out or rather walk very carefully as the floor was wet and VERY slippery. I found walking on my toes helped as every time I went heel first I nearly ended up on my bottom.
It has had a very varied history starting as a Hindu temple as far back as the 3rd century. Buddhist missionaries during the Cham era are said to have brought a holy relic of Buddha to the stupa which according to legend is supposed to be his breast bone but obviously no one can prove this story. Then it was rebuilt as a stupa in the 13th century as a Khmer temple which became a ruin and has since been rebuilt so many times that in fact the present structure is not actually that old. It was most recently rebuilt by the French using old pictures and designs it is however quite impressive none the less.
King Saysetthathirath built this grand stupa when Vientianne became the capital and in front of That Luang is a smaller stupa with a statue of King Saysetthathirath sitting with a Laos hat on and a sword across his knees.
King Saysetthathirath wanting to be an enlightened one ordered that thirty smaller stupas called Palami (fulfillment of goodness) stupas be constructed around the main stupa. On each small stupa there was a gold plate inscribed with the four noble truths f Lord Buddha's teachings. These gold plates can be seen in the cloister That Luang still if you have a guide they will point them out.The fourth line of plates states not very modestly "This stupa contains the ashes of Lord Buddha and was built by King Saysetthathirath. May it last for more than 5,000 years." Sadly the temple was destroyed many times over the centuries but at least the gold plates survived.
After visiting the main stupa we came out and saw a ceremony was taking place in the temple on the left hand side if you look from the front of That Luang. We were invited in and it was like a kind of party but quiet and religious . Families sat in groups around the temple eating food. Monks were praying and eating and one was even vacuuming which amused me. Some families invited us to join them but we didn't want to intrude and we didn't speak Laos so it would have been us smiling at them and them smiling back which I find rather uncomfortable. Prayer flags hung in stream around the temple and music played through speakers. It looked like a party and there were enough people for a party but it was all rather subdued and polite.
Going further around the stupa we came across another temple with a huge reclining Buddha sort of hidden behind partial scaffolding so I am not sure if he was being built or just touched up. Inside the temple grounds were many more Buddhas in various positions as well as mini stupas or monuments of wealthy local people who have contributed to the temple.
We spent a good two hours or more in this area wandering around in the rain sheltering under roofs or in temples and despite the weather we were impressed with the beauty of the buildings. I bet in the sun they are even more impressive with the sun shining on the gold. We only had two days in Vientiane and it absolutely poured down on both days so we spent a lot of the time with our shoes off paddling through floods which detracted a little to the enjoyment.
If you are in Laos and visit Vientiane you will visit this stupa as it is a national monument that the Laotian people are very proud of. I hope you get better weather than we did!
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