Translating as “Temple of the Golden City,” the 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong sits on the end of the peninsula of Luang Prabang’s historic center, wedged between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.
It is considered one of the most important of Lao monasteries, and the temple remains a significant monument to Lao religion, royalty, and traditional art.
With its prime location and historical and religious significance, it has been immaculately preserved. Prior to the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, the Wat functioned as a place for kings to be crowned, a place of worship for monks and the laity, a shrine to Buddhist relics, a celebration space of religious rites and festivals, a library for ancient scripts, and a showcasing of traditional architecture.
Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Wat Xieng Thong was built under the rule of King Setthathirath between 1559 and 1560. Setthathirath oversaw the Lan Xang kingdom, which is now Laos.1 During his rule, Setthathirath moved the capital from Xieng Thong to Vientiane, claiming dislike for the lack of flat land in Xieng Thong. Nevertheless, Luang Prabang remained a royal capital until 1975 when the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.
Architectural Features of Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong represents typical Laos art and craft. The Sim is the central shrine hall of a Laotian temple. Wat Xieng Thong’s Sim is composed of nine cascading roofs and is decorated by gold stenciling. The roofs are a central element of the structure, sweeping downward in an elaborate array. Along the center of the roof is the Dok So Fa, small pagodas covered in gold that hook upwards to the sky. The number of pagodas and overall detail of this floral sculpture signifies the relative importance of a Laotian temple, not unlike how the number of minarets on a mosque help signify its significance.
On one side of the Sim, there are small halls and stupas that contain Buddha images of the period. There is a reclining Buddha sanctuary that contains an especially rare reclining Buddha that dates back to the construction of the temple. In 1931, the image was taken to France and displayed at the Paris Exhibition. It was kept in Vientiane until 1964 when it was returned to Luang Prabang.
In the near compound’s eastern gate stands the royal funerary carriage house, where it houses the funeral carriage.
Photos of Wat Xieng Thong
What to Know Before You Go to Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is easy to visit and easy to find. It’s not far from the Royal Palace, and it’s relatively hard to get lost in the compact historic district of Luang Prabang.
As usual, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering any buildings.
The U.S. State Department provided some funding for its preservation,2 and it has become a stopover for visits by visiting dignitaries such as President Barack Obama (2016) and Dr. Jill Biden (2015).3
Dive Deeper into Laos In These Books
If you’re looking to explore Laos more deeply on the written page, here are some books worth a look.
Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin
This memoir recounts the experiences of the author as he works for the Lao government in the early 2000s, providing an insightful look at the country’s culture, people, and the challenges faced by a developing nation.
Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie
A culinary travelogue that explores the rich and diverse cuisine of Laos, following the author as she samples various dishes and learns about the culture and traditions surrounding Laotian food.
- Hardcover Book
- Bie, Natacha Du Pont De (Author)
Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos, by Christopher Kremmer
This historical travelogue follows the author’s journey through Laos as he uncovers the history of the lost royal dynasty and the impact of the Vietnam War on the country.
- Christopher Kremmer (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong, by Ben Davies
This beautifully illustrated travelogue explores the diverse landscapes, culture, and history of Laos, providing a comprehensive and engaging look at the country.
- The Best Picture Book on Laos in its second edition
- All color photographs, portrait 25.5 x 27 cm, 132 pages
A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
In this adventurous travelogue, the author embarks on a daring motorcycle journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passes through Laos, providing insights into the country’s history and the challenges faced by modern-day Laos.
- Bolingbroke-Kent, Antonia (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, Vietnam, by Christopher Robbins
This memoir recounts the experiences of American pilots who secretly participated in the covert war in Laos during the Vietnam War, offering a unique perspective on the conflict and its effects on the people of Laos.
- Hardcover Book
- Robbins, Christopher (Author)
Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters, by Milton Osborne
In this travelogue, the author journeys along the Mekong River, which runs through Laos, exploring the history, culture, and natural beauty of the region.
- Lan Xang occupied the area of modern-day Laos and lasted from 1353 to 1707.
- “The U.S. Embassy Continues to Help Preserve Cultural Heritage in the Lao PDR.” Targeted News Service, Dec 16, 2014; “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Delivers Remarks to Embassy Staff and Their Families,” Political Transcript Wire, 11 Jul 2012.
- Mark Landler, “Obama Takes a Detour to Reconnect with Southeast Asia,” New York Times, 7 September 2016; “Wife of the Vice President of the United States Visits Luang Prabang.” Targeted News Service, 24 July 2015.
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Travel Advice for Laos
You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.
Health & Vaccinations
The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laoshere.
General Information on Laos
The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Laos and is updated frequently.
- Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
- Population: Approximately 7.9 million (2023 est.)
- Area: 236,800 sq km
- Capital: Vientiane
- Official Language: Lao
- Government: Single-party socialist republic
- Chief of State: President Thongloun Sisoulith (since 2021)
- Head of Government: Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (since 2021)
- Legislature: Unicameral National Assembly
- GDP (nominal): $19.57 billion (2021 est.)
- GDP per capita (nominal): $2,643 (2021 est.)
- Currency: Lao kip (LAK)
- Major Ethnic Groups: Lao (53.2%), Khmou (11%), Hmong (9.2%), other (26.6%)
- Religions: Buddhist (64.7%), Christian (1.7%), other (2.1%), none (31.4%)
- Time Zone: Indochina Time (ICT), UTC+7
Laos originated from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was founded in the 14th century under King FA NGUM. Lan Xang was influential for 300 years, extending its reach into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, and over all of modern-day Laos. After declining over centuries, Laos was ruled by Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. Later, Laos became part of French Indochina after that. The present-day Laotian border with Thailand was defined by the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a monarchy that lasted six centuries and installing a strict socialist regime that was closely aligned with Vietnam. Laos began a gradual and limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws in 1988. Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013.