When visiting Southeast Asia, you will find a dazzling assortment of different religious buildings. None are more iconic than the stupas built to hold relics. In Thailand they are called chedis, in Myanmar, zedis… and in Laos, that. They are remarkable structures worthy of further investigation.
Stupas trace their history back to pre-Buddhist burial mounds, but they came into their own and developed after the passing of the Buddha, whose remains were buried in ten mounds. Later, more permanent structures started to be built to house relics such as the 3rd century BCE Great Stupa at Sanchi in India.
The original meaning was retained and the Sanskrit word stūpa literally means heap.
The Burmese, Thai and Lao all have styles that come as a result of the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism from Sri Lanka. One of the most common style of chedi in Thailand is the Lanka-style bell chedi. Interestingly, this bell shape is not much seen in Sri Lanka, where the original round Sanchi-style stupa remains the most usual. Looking at the great sites of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, we can observe some interesting styles that give us good reference points for stupas we see on our travels through Southeast Asia.
In Myanmar, there is a clear progression of styles. The earliest stupas were built by the Pyu people and this Pyu-style can be found at the 7th century Bawbawgyi Pagoda at the ancient city of Sri Ksetra near modern day Pyay.
This bulbous, but elongated version of the simple mound is the beginning of the Burmese stupa.
When was the last time you came across a city which was entirely considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? That’s right, the beautiful blend of well-preserved French colonial style buildings with Lao traditional architecture in Luang Prabang makes it one of Indochina’s most beautiful cities and an official heritage site since 1995.
Luang Prabang is located in the highlands of northern Laos at the confluence of the Nam Khan River and the infamous Mekong. A legend says that “Buddha smiled and rested here during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city [1 ].
The city became very influential due to its strategic location near the Silk-Road and the Mekong. It was the capital of Laos under a few different reigns, most notable under the kingdom of Lane Xang until 1560 and from 1707 under the independent kingdom of Luang Prabang.
Pha That Luang is a Buddhist stupa located just 5km from the centre of Vientiane in Laos.
It is believed that the current principal stupa of Pha That Luang was built in the 1566 century and to this day is the national symbol of Laos. Pha That Luang was built when King Setthathirat decided to move the capital of Laos from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and ordered the construction of a magnificent stupa. He believed that creating Pha That Luang would help to achieve his own enlightenment.
The main stupa was designed to resemble a pyramid and is protected by 30 more smaller stupas at the base. The stupa is around 69 meters long and approximately 45 meters high: builders were said to have used a thousand pounds of gold leaf in weight to decorate it.
Visiting Vientiane might be first a bit of a shock when arriving from cities like Bangkok or Hanoi – not in terms of traffic or crowds, but more because of its refreshingly laid back atmosphere!
Unlike most of the Southeast Asian capitals, Vientiane remains far away from the atmosphere of an overcrowded city. A population of just close to 800,000 citizens – in comparison to multi-millions in Bangkok for example, speaks for itself.
Besides of the population, what else makes Vientiane different? Due to its size, it is quite easy to do sightseeing and navigate yourself around the city, which is even possible by feet or your own bike.
Let’s dive into a city which still keeps the charme of French colonial times, blended with Southeast Asian hospitality – Vientiane!
Wat That Luang
Open: Daily from 08:00-12:00 and 13:00-16:00
Entrance fee: 5000 Kip per person, Laotians: 2000 Kip per person
That Luang Road
Pha That Luang is the most sacred monument in Laos as it is believed that the shrine houses a breastbone of Buddha. A local legend says that the original temple has been built around the 3rd century by an Indian missionary who brought the relict of Buddha to Laos. The current structure however was built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer temple ruin. It contains an impressive 45m high stupa.
Vientiane’s most important festival ‘Boun That Luang’ is held here in November on the night of the full moon to pay respect to the stupa and to enjoy the colourful event that includes parades, live music and religious ceremonies.
Note: there are two temples beside Pha That Luang, the one being Wat That Luang Neua to the north and Wat That Luang Tai to the south.
Located in the heart of Siem Reap, in the Old French Quarter only 8 kilometres from the extraordinary Angkor Wat temple complex, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is the ideal place to explore the spiritual and archaeological masterwork. Relax and revitalise beside a magnificent pool inspired by Angkorian architecture or take a short stroll along the riverside to discover the vibrant local markets.
Located steps from the Opera House in Hanoi’s French Quarter this legendary property brings guests into intimate contact with the opulence of another era. Surround yourself in heritage as you stroll stately corridors and explore a dramatic past. Behind its classical white façade green shutters original wrought iron details and stately wood panelling reside over a century of stories. Stand on the walkways that grace its lush courtyard lawn and immerse yourself in the hotels rich traditions.
Temple sites nearby:
Tran Quoc Pagaoda – 4km
Chua Dau Pagoda – 30km outside of Hanoi, Thuan Thanh district
Temple of Literature – 2.5km
In the heart of bustling Vientiane stands a remarkable hotel. Built in the early part of the last century, circa 1932, and painstakingly restored to its former imperial glory, the Settha Palace Hotel serves as testament to the long lost era of classical elegance, gracious service and French colonial charm.
Temple sites nearby:
Pha That Luang – 3.5km
Wat Sisaket – 800m
Wat Mixai – 1km
Declared “the finest hostelry East of Suez” by John Murray in his Handbook for Travellers written in the early 20th century, the 1901-built three storey 5 star hotel in Yangon remains one of Southeast Asia’s few grand hotels and one of its most awe inspiring.
The Siam is the newest addition to, and crown jewel of, the growing portfolio of independently owned and operated properties that make up Sukosol Hotels. The Siam spirit is to create a luxury experience embracing every moment and every individual with sincerity and integrity and a passion for service.
Temple sites nearby:
Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing – 11km
Wat Arun – 8km
Wat Pho – 6km
Located in the heart of Yogyakarta, near the popular Malioboro district, the historic Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta, a member of theMgallery Collection, is a colonial landmark dating back to 1918. With 144 elegant rooms and suites, each boasting a balcony and a fusion of Asian and European décor, The Phoenix Hotel features a restaurant, wine bar and terrace bar overlooking an open courtyard. An inviting swimming pool, indulgent day spa and modern conferencing facilities complete the exclusive experience.
There are so many options for tours around the countries featured in our Golden Lands Buddhist architecture book: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. All the big international companies offer readymade tours for a range of budgets, but for each country there are also more specialized and local tours available, if you search a bit deeper. There are also tour companies offering packages for adventure travel, culture, diving, pilgrimage, and rail journeys.
To help you discover some of the best options for SE Asia travel, we’ve researched and put together a mind map of the tour companies.
The following image is a preview of our mind map, and see the link below for the full web page.
Some of the tour companies have Twitter accounts, and we’ve gathered the ones which are more focused on these particular countries (not big generalists) into a Twitter list of Southeast Asia Tour Companies here, so you can subscribe to all their feeds with one click.
The first ever art historical survey focusing comprehensively on the Architecture of the Buddhist World