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Wat Sisaket (Vientiane, Laos)

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Historic temple in Vientiane, Laos.

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      29.06.2012 17:40
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      A lovely old Buddhist temple, the oldest in Vientianne

      Wat Si Saket, Vientiane, Laos
      Adress: Cnr Th. Lan Xang and Th. Setthathirat
      Admission price: about 35p (2000kip for locals and 500kip for foreigners)
      Opening times : 8am - noon then 1pm -4pm

      While we were in Vientiane we visited several temples and after a while despite the fact they are all really beautiful you do begin to get 'templed out'. This temple does stand out from the others because of its age and the sheer number of Buddha statues within the temple.

      This is in fact the oldest temple in Vientiane built in 1818 by Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang Kingdom, in 1818.It was built in the Thai style as at this time Laos was a vassal of Siam. Fortunately the temple was spared in the ransacking which took place during the Thai invasion of Vientiane around 1828 when many other temples and older buildings were destroyed. According to stories it is said that the Thai invaders were so impressed with the beauty of this building and that is the reason they left it alone.

      Wat Si Saket was as I said built in the Thai style with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof which is different from the tradition Lao style. Maybe this was what saved it from destruction when the Thai army sacked Vientiane. It is said that the invading army used this beautiful place as their Headquarters and living quarters during their attack.

      The temple is home to the head of the Lao sangha, the Buddhist order of monks in Laos but it also houses a museum and we were told that within the temple we would find well over 6480 Buddha images dating back to the 18th century and some even earlier.

      As we entered this temple complex the thing that struck me was that it did look old. It was not bright and shiny with lots of gold but rather it looked varying colours of brown with sort of light terracotta coloured pillars holding up the beautiful tiled sort of flying roof. When walking around within the complex you can have your shoes on but once you enter any of the buildings then you need to remove your shoes and leave them outside.

      Wat Si Saket looks old and the centralism or ordination hall stands in the middle of a walled sort of cloister. As you walk around this cloister area the inside walls are full of small niches and in each of these little holes sit a Buddha statue. Apparently they are about 2000 in all and some are made of silver while others are clay but they date back to the 18th and 19th century. Not being a Buddha statue expert, to me they looked pretty similar to the many other images we had seen on the stalls outside but I am sure someone with more interest and expertise would be impressed.

      As well as the Buddha images in the holes in the wall there were long shelves below these niches with another 300 Lao-style Buddha images and these were made of wood, stone and bronze. Many of them were draped with gold cloth across their shoulder and bodies but I am not sure why this was. Apparently Buddha usually wears a garment over his left shoulder with the fabric in stylized folds and a bare right shoulder. When you look at Buddhist monks the novices had a bare shoulder too. Also when we were giving offerings to the monks in Luang Prabang we had to wear a scarf or similar over our left should and across our body. It must be the way Buddha wore his wrap I guess.

      On the western side of the cloister you can see evidence of the Siamese/Thai attack on Vientiane as there is a pile of broken Buddha images left as a reminder of how lucky it was that the temple was saved the same fate. When I asked our guide why the Thais had destroyed the Buddhist temples seeing as they are also Buddhist he explained that the temples in Laos were the centre of the community and so by destroying the temples they broke up the community spirit as well. Many of the Buddha images in this temple were brought from the other temples that were destroyed at this time which is why there are so many I think.

      Having spent time in Luang Prabang we were interested in looking for the Buddha images that were typically Laotian. They have a "praying for rain" Buddha as rain is so important to their agricultural way of life. This Buddha stands with his arms up and palms facing forward. Another Laos Buddha is the "stop fighting" or "calling for peace" Buddha. The pose this one has is with his right hand pointing downward rejecting evil and a calling to mother earth for wisdom and help. The other thing that makes Laotian Buddhas a bit different is that they have rather exaggerated nipples and square noses which shows that Buddha is no longer human.

      All around the edge of the cloister are potted plants especially bougainvillea bursting with flowers. Within the temple sanctuary, if you look really carefully on the interior walls you can just about see the painted murals which are fading but minutely detailed and tell tales of battle and devotion in pictorial form. They tell of Prince Pookkharabat who won numerous battles using his magic fan before becoming a bodhisattva

      When you enter the sim or ordination hall you do have to take off your shoes. It has a number of entrances or windows that are all open to the outside. The sim itself is painted a sort of ochre colour but with gold decorations and nga ( snake heads) on the corners or the roof. All around this building are pots of flowering bougainvillea which lift the look of the place and bring colour into an otherwise fairly monochrome building. Around the outside of the building there were several information panels explaining the importance of each of the different buildings in the temple area.

      Inside the sim is a Khmer-style Buddha who is seated on a coiled cobra for protection. Inside the ceiling is decorated with relief mouldings and inside each geometrical design is a lotus flower symbol. This sort of decoration was new in Laos in the early 19th century and is very attractive and rather French looking in my view.

      Around the outside of the temple are a number of stupas which are monuments which contain the ashes of important temple devotees such as important monks. There are also now some very elaborately decorated monuments which are built by family to remember important members after they have died. I believe that money is a factor recognizing your importance so if you have enough money to contribute to the temple and have the monument built then I think you are allowed to have it built.

      The library or Ho tai is where Buddist texts were kept in a special wooden cabinet. This rather small building had a four tired roof and inside was a huge wooden cabinet that reached up to the ceiling. I'm not sure how they ever got the texts out of it really. The cabinet is now pretty sad looking and is empty but in its heyday it was lacquered red inside and black outside with golf leaf stenciled designs. The doors and windows of this small building were decorated with gold stenciled designs directly onto the bare wood.

      The Kuti are the monk's sleeping quarters and are constructed of wattle and dab and painted white. They are built raised on pillars in a typical Laos stye but they also have brickwork pillars as well copied from French Colonial architecture. The roof is three layers and decorated at the corners and the apex of the roof too. I thought they looked lovely from outside but I suspect they were fairly Spartan inside.
      Around the outer are of this temple were the most beautiful Buddha images in various shapes and sizes all pained in gold with red trim set in lovely gardens which we only discovered as we went around to see the monk's quarters..

      I love looking at temples are although many features are the same they each have unique qualities. They are like churches and mosques in that way, with a special atmosphere of peace and tranquillity found in places with religious significance. This was particularly lovely as the colours were more muted inside the cloister area which contrasted with the rather garish colours found just outside the inner area.
      Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.


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