Question: Where did a ferocious rebel leader spare a temple on his hit list because it felt homey?
Answer: Wat Xieng Thong, the Golden City monastery of Luang Prabang, Laos
16th-century Wat Xieng Thong is a sprawling 20-building complex near the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was built as a royal temple and its most important ceremonial function was the coronation of Lao kings. With depictions of the people’s legends adorning the outer walls, it was an epicenter of Lao culture almost immediately.
Naturally, this would make it a prime target for enemies of the Lao kingdom, of which there were many. In the late 19th century, one such group was the Black Flag army, comprised of Haw rebels who had emigrated from China into Tonkin (part of which would become Vietnam). The Black Flag used Tonkin as a base for excursions into French-controlled territories as they tried to thwart colonial rule in Southeast Asia.
When France annexed the region that had newly established itself as the Kingdom of Laos, the French named Luang Prabang the royal capital (with the blessing of the royals themselves). This was akin to putting a bullseye on the capital’s back, and in 1887, Black Flag seized the city, somewhat wantonly destroying nearly every temple and royal building. Wat Xieng Thong was both—and yet it survived unscathed.
That’s because Black Flag’s leader Deo Van Tri had a soft spot for the “Golden City,” as it was known. He had studied there as a boy, and had such fond memories of it that he couldn’t bear to do his old school harm. Instead, he set up Black Flag headquarters there, and used it as a base for his army’s anti-Lao excursions, until they fled back to Tonkin to avoid capture. When he abandoned the temple, its rare reclining Buddha, elegant carved ceilings, and gilded ceremonial barge remained behind looking as beautiful as ever.
Thanks in part to the rebel leader’s nostalgia, the temple is now just a few decades shy of celebrating 500 years as the pride of Lao culture. To this day, it trains young men as monks, who spend their youth here learning to understand scripture—and to appreciate the temple.
A Day in a Monk’s Life in the Golden City
- In the morning, the boys and young men who train here gather alms along a route that they have been following for centuries, interrupted only rarely during occupations by outsiders like Black Flag.
- Tourists often think that “alms” means money, but the monks are collecting food, as the temple does not feed them independently of what they gather. The novices eat only twice a day, morning and noon.
- As monks pass through the neighborhoods, locals wait with rice and vegetables to feed them. If the novices gather more than a specific amount of food, they do not eat more; the overage is donated to the poor.
- Before the temple opens, the monks attend morning classes, during which they study ancient Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves.
- For morning prayers, the monks assemble in rows, seated lotus-style before the Buddha statue, facing it and not each other.
- Once the doors open, visitors may enter (leaving their shoes behind). The monks go about their chores during this time, including washing the statuary with holy water that pours from the trunk of an elephant sculpture.
- Novices get free time after study and chores, and this is when they most act like kids. One favorite activity is floating down the river on inner tubes—still dressed in their saffron robes—and another is playing with the many local dogs.
- If you see a monk taking a selfie, he is probably not from Golden City, but one of the thousands who come from around Asia every year to visit the temple, which is one of the most revered.
- The novices who live here only see their families once a year, but they can call them as much as they wish, a habit that typically wanes as they grow older and begin to think of the temple as home.
- The day ends with a last round of prayers before the Buddha, after which a monk pulls the doors closed, shutting out visitors, the temple a sanctuary only for its devoted young men once again.
Experiences centuries of beauty and tradition at the Golden City Temple during O.A.T.’s Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos & Vietnam adventure.