Luang Prabang‘s best-known and most visited monastery is centred on a 1560 sǐm that’s considered a classic of local design. Its roofs sweep low to the ground and there’s an idiosyncratic ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on its west exterior wall. Inside, gold stencil work includes dharma wheels on the ceiling and exploits from the life of legendary King Chanthaphanit on the walls. During 1887 when the Black Flag army sacked the rest of the city, Xieng Thong was one of just two temples to be (partially) spared. The Black Flag’s leader, Deo Van Tri, had studied here as a monk earlier in his life and used the desecrated temple as his headquarters during the invasion.
Dotted around the sǐm are several stupas and three compact little chapel halls called hŏr . Hŏr Ɖąi , shaped like a tall tomb, was originally a ‘library’ but now houses a standing Buddha. The other two sport very striking external mirror-shard mosaics depicting local village life and the exploits of Siaw Sawat, a hero from a famous Lao novel. The Hŏr Pa Maan (‘success’ Buddha sanctuary) remains locked except during the week following Pi Mai. The Hŏr Ɖąi Pha Sai-nyàat (reclining Buddha sanctuary) was dubbed La Chapelle Rouge – Red Chapel – by the French. It contains an especially rare reclining Buddha that dates from the construction of the temple. This one-of-a-kind figure has an exquisitely sinuous upper body with a right hand seeming to gesture ‘Oh, whatever!’. The contrastingly rectilinear feet emerge on die-straight legs from beneath monastic robes that curl upward like rocket fumes.
Fronted in especially lavish gilt work, the Hóhng Kép Mîen is a garage for a ceremonial carriage designed to carry the huge golden funeral urns of the Lao royalty. This glittering vehicle is festooned with seven red-tongued naga snakes that contrast amusingly with the prosaic Bridgestone tyres of its undercarriage.