Perfectly framed by an avenue of tall Palmyra palms, the former Royal Palace was built in 1904, blending traditional Lao and French beaux-arts styles. It was the main residence of King Sisavang Vong (1905–59) whose statue stands outside. Exhibits are well labelled in English. Note that you must be ‘appropriately dressed’ to enter, which means no sleeveless shirts or short shorts.
The main palace building is approached from the south. Italian marble steps lead into an entry hall where the centrepiece is the gilded dais of the former Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism. To the right, the king’s reception room has walls covered in light-suffused Gauginesque canvases of Lao life, painted in 1930 by French artist Alix de Fautereau. A line of centuries-old Khamu metal drums leads back to the main throne room whose golden trimmed walls are painted deep red and encrusted with a feast of mosaic-work in Japanese coloured mirror glass. Side galleries here display a collection of small Buddhas, some 16th-century, that were recovered from destroyed or looted stupas.
Behind the throne room are the former royal family’s decidedly sober residential quarters, with some rooms preserved much as they were when the king departed in 1975. The children’s room, however, displays gamelan-style musical instruments and a series of masks for Ramayana dance-dramas.These were once a classic entertainment for the Lao court and have now been partly revived at the Phrolak-Phralam Theatre , albeit largely for tourist consumption.
Beneath, but entered from the western side, is a series of exhibition halls used for temporary exhibits. Separate outbuildings display the Floating Buddha collection of meditation photographs and the five-piece Royal Palace Car Collection , including two 1960s Lincoln Continentals, a rare wing-edged 1958 Edsel Citation and a dilapidated Citroën DS.
No single treasure in Laos is more historically resonant than the Pha Bang , an 83cm-tall gold-alloy Buddha for which the whole city is named. Its arrival here in 1512 spiritually legitimised the Lan Xang royal dynasty as Buddhist rulers. Legend has it that the image was cast around the 1st century AD in Sri Lanka, though it is stylistically Khmer and more likely dates from the 14th century. The Siamese twice carried the Pha Bang off to Thailand (in 1779 and 1827) but it was finally restored to Laos by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1867.
Nearing completion in the southeast corner of the palace gardens, Wat Ho Pha Bang is a soaring, multi-roofed temple designed to eventually house the Pha Bang Buddha . A project planned before the monarchy was abolished in 1975, construction on this highly ornate pavilion began in 1993. The building’s glitzy red-and-gold interior already sports a multilevel ‘throne’ space for the image and also houses a 16-man gilt palanquin on which the Pha Bang is paraded through town during the classic Pi Mai celebrations.
For now, however, the Pha Bang lives in an easy-to-miss little room surrounded by engraved elephant tusks and three silk screens embroidered by the former queen. To find it, walk east along the palace’s exterior south terrace and peep in between the bars at the eastern end. Note that persistent rumours claim that the image on display here is actually a copy and that the original is stored in a vault in Vientiane. The ‘real’ one supposedly has gold leaf over the eyes and a hole drilled through one ankle.
Footwear cannot be worn inside the museum, no photography is permitted and you must leave bags in a locker room to the left-hand side of the main entrance.
Another place to see in Laos: Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham