There is no doubt the golden Pha That Luang – also known as Great Stupa – is the single most important national monument in Laos, with its symbolic stupa recognisable throughout the world. Pha That Luang was built to cover the original small stupa that was believed to enshrine a breast bone of the Buddha. Officially named Pha Chedi Lokajulamani, which translates to World Precious Sacred Stupa, Pha That Luang has the biggest stupa in Laos and it serves as the main gathering place for national Buddhism ceremonies.
Pha That Luang initial establishment has been suggested to be in the 3rd century. The local legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from the Indian Mauryan Empire sent out by the Indian Emperor Ashoka to spread Buddhism, erected the Hindu stupa to enshrine a sacred relic – a piece of Buddha’s breastbone, a rib to be exact – at the spot where the That Luang currently stands.
Pha That Luang ruins were then rebuilt in the 13th century as a Khmer temple. The pride of the city of Vientiane, the temple has since undergone several reconstructions as it was looted and destroyed whenever the city of Vientiane was invaded and plundered by the Burmese, Siamese and Chinese.
In the mid-16th century, after winning a war over the Burmese, King Setthathirath armies were ordered to relocate the Laos capital of Lan Xang Kingdom from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, mainly for strategic reasons. But Vientiane lacked votive places, so King Setthathirath ordered the construction of palaces, temples and monuments, amongst which was Pha That Luang, at the time covered in gold leaves. It was named Pha That Luang after the road where it was located, That Luang, 4 km from the centre of Vientiane.
Dutch East India Company envoy Gerrit van Wuysoff visited Vientiane in 1641 and was received in a magnificent ceremony by King Sourigna Vongsa at Pha That Luang, where he was “impressed by the enormous pyramid, and the top was covered with gold leaves weighing about a thousand pounds”. The Kingdom of Siam invaded Laos in 1828, destroying Pha That Luang and looting it of the gold covering the stupa. Left heavily damaged and without gold, Pha That Luang was eventually left abandoned until in 1900 the French decided to restore the great stupa to its original design based on the detailed drawings from 1867 by French architect and explorer Louis Delaporte. However, the first attempt was not successful, so the French redesigned and reconstructed it in the 1930s. Pha That Luan was heavily damaged during the war of independence of Thailand against France in 1940, and was again reconstructed after the end of World War II.
Pha That Luang has been submitted to the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Pha That Luang architecture is a symbol of Lao nationalism as it includes many references to Lao culture and identity. The 45m-high stupa is surrounded by a high-walled cloister measuring 85m on each side. The cloister tiny windows contains various Buddha images and ancient Laos and Khmer artefacts like statues – many of them badly damaged and in need of restoration -, inscribed steles and other sculpting, including a statue of King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer empire. This cloister reminds us to some extent of the cloister and Hall of Wat Srisaket.
Today’s Pha That Luang stupa consists of three levels, each conveying a reflection of part of the Buddhist doctrine. Visitors can stroll through the cloister, contemplate the remains of sculptures and paintings and make offerings at different altars. Access to the different levels is denied. The first level stairs are guarded by Naga snakes. The second level hosts hundreds of Sema boundary stones that mark the sacred area, where there is a double-roof open structure containing a Buddha image and 30 small stupas. Arched gates lead to the third level which contains the 45 meter high stupa (from ground to pinnacle), the upper part of which resembles an elongated lotus bud topped with a multi tiered parasol.
The large gardens and grounds surrounding Pha That Luang comprise gardens, temples, monuments and Wat Neua That Luang palace, with an impressive facade but an uninteresting interior. At the time of visiting, a young monks ordination ceremony was taking place. The statue of King Setthathirat, founder of the monument, is located on the way to the main entrance, at the small park in the middle of the complex called Saysettha Gardens. Of the four temples constructed around Pha That Luang in the 16th century, only two remain: Wat That Luang Tai, an open-sala-like building with a three tiered roof, to the South, and Wat That Luang Neua, the temple where the supreme patriarch of Laos Buddhism resides, to the North. All structures in the outdoor complex have free access to public. Monks live and study in the temples in the Pha That Luang vicinity.
Pha That Luang is the scene of the most important Buddhist festival. During Boun That Luang, held during the full moon of the 12th lunar month, thousands of Buddhist devotees flock to Pha That Luang for three days to pay respect to the golden stupa and to give alms to hundreds of monks. Traditionally, they walk around the That Luang three times, holding incense sticks to pay their respect. Pha That Luan grounds are filled with hundreds of stalls selling food, clothing and various crafts during several days prior Boun That Luang festival, where activities include carnival rides, games and rides for children, musical performances, parades of people wearing traditional costumes playing traditional music, candlelight procession and fireworks.
Pha That Luang is located in Ban Nongbone, on the outskirts of Vientiane, 4 km North-East of the city centre at the end of Thanon That Luang, and 500 meters East of Patuxai Monument.
The area around Pha That Luang is gated and there is a large parking area in front of the main entrance. The easiest way to get there is by tuk-tuk; a one-way trip should cost you around 50-60,000 Kip.
Admission to the golden stupa is 5,000 Kip per person. Entrance to the surrounding buildings and temples is free. Best visiting times are in the early morning, when only a few people is around.
Asian Itinerary was kindly accommodated by Ibis Vientiane Nam Phu Hotel during their whole stay in Vientiane.