Architecture / Laos / Travel

Unadulterated Eye Candy: The Temples of Luang Prabang

As a child of the predominately Christian west I learned the stories of Mary’s virgin birth, the life of Jesus, the crucifixion and resurrection – all themes that have dominated Christian art and architecture for hundreds of years. And on my visits to cathedrals around the world, this knowledge helped me appreciate and enjoy at least a part of the devotional art and complex religious symbolism.

But for pure, unadulterated eye candy, even the flashiest Christian church can’t hold a candle to the intricate explosion of color and art of the most basic of Buddhist temples (aka “wats”).

Green Temple

As the former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang has been an important spiritual center for centuries. We lost count, but according to selectiveasia.com, this small town has 32 temples! Which explains why, on our strolls through the village, we were surprised to find another astonishing wat around every corner.

Nagas

Each of the temples has its own unique color palette. And with a bit of attention to the details, a discerning eye can see subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) changes in architectural style. But what they all share are vivid colors, intricate engravings, lotus columns, multi-headed naga dragons, extensive gilding, tiered roofs, and a bunch o’ Buddhas.

Buddha in Pavillion

Some of the buildings are as old as the 16th Century; their age and hand-painted murals making them historically significant – while others are more modern.

And thanks to fire damage and the vicissitudes of time a few have been renovated.

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The interiors were just as extravagantly embellished as the exteriors. Every wall, ceiling, doorframe, and column was awash with gold and brilliant, contrasting colors. In fact, an undecorated surface was the exception.

Columns 3

All the temples were exceptional and it was hard to pick a favorite. But to my eye, the combination of deep burgundy, black, and gold was the most striking.

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LP is known for its pleasant, small town ambience and its fusion of Buddhist and French Colonial architecture. Unesco recognized it as a World Heritage City, and this regional gem should be on every SE Asia travelers’ bucket list. It’s unique in the world and definitely deserves a detour.

Happy Trails,
James

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50 thoughts on “Unadulterated Eye Candy: The Temples of Luang Prabang

  1. Luang Prabang is certainly one of my favorites cities I’ve ever been to, and the Wats were unforgettable! I loved how the murals told elaborate stories.

    • Brittany, we probably saw the same murals you did in the one ancient temple, and it was easy to see that the story was complex. As with Christian art, knowing the story is essential to really appreciating the art. But as I said, even without knowing Buddhist theology, I get a big kick just seeing the complex and colorful buildings. ~James

    • Thanks Wilma. I’m sure that an artist like you, who works in such vivid color palettes can truly appreciate Buddhist (and Hindu) temples. To our Western eyes, the color combinations are sometimes unusual, and always eye-catching. ~James

    • One interesting thing that varies from culture to culture is the color combinations that each one finds appealing. What some cultures would call dull and dreary, others call conservative and appealing. And what some would call gaudy, others would call festive and the norm. There’s probably an interesting Ethnographical paper written on this very topic. ~James

  2. In all my travels around southeast Asia, I’ve still somehow managed to miss Luang Prabang. I guess I’m going to have to return to Asia once again to see the gems I’ve missed. These temples are gorgeous. I like those black, burgundy and gold temples too. They look so rich! Thanks for taking me along. 🙂

    • Cathy, I’m surprised that a road warrior like you hasn’t been to LP, but I certainly understand. We’ve spent lots of time in SEA, and have still not visited Vietnam. But one thing we know about ourselves is that if we talk about visiting a place long enough, we eventually get around to visiting. Go if you can, it’s way cool. ~James

  3. James we have not yet been to Asia ( and we call ourselves travellers)! These photos definitely turn up my travel radar. Agreed I don’t know of a Christian church that compares. I especially like that last photo. Not sure a Christian church would be so keen on having you sit in one of their statues. 🙂

    • These nagas are all over the place and are great fun to photograph. The symbolism changes from country to country – sometimes they represent good, sometimes bad. But they’re always colorful. As to never having been to Asia: have you two active travelers forgotten about Everest? 😉 ~James

  4. With even large fabric pieces being manufactured through huge printing machines, it’s easy to forget that these intricate patterns are largely (or all?) hand-made. My eyes are spinning. Thanks for the virtual-visit.

  5. Quite a stairway entry. The nagas suit you well, James. LP was my favorite place in SE Asia, but we just didn’t have enough time to even begin to see all the wats that you beautifully shared through your photos. I have a friend who has gone three years in a row just to LP, rents a place for 4-6 weeks and immerses herself in the culture and spirit of the place. That concept is on my bucket list and I could go right back.

    • Lynne, I can see LP as a place to settle in for a while. It’s position between the two rivers, and surrounded by mountains make it incredibly scenic. And compared to the rest of SEA, it’s pretty cheap … and the food’s great. It certainly has all the requirements for a pleasant place to kick back. ~James

  6. Love the explosion of colours and shapes. In Scotland, traditional thinking was that decoration and images were bad and had to be shunned. Austere surroundings (the colder and more uncomfortable the better) and uncomfortable pews were good for the soul. So our churches may have a few bits of carved wood, some stained glass windows, and a runner of carpet in a muted colour, but otherwise we accept their austerity as we’re told that’s what is good for us. Recently, however, a little more ‘frivolity’ has been emerging. Long may it continue.

    • I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Scotland Dorothy, and it’s a lovely place. But a bit of color other than green couldn’t hurt much. As to hard pews and austere surroundings (I probably shouldn’t open up a can of worms here, but I will anyway.), are we still paying for that original sin? But I think that in these days of instant, global communication and access to infinite information, the church is going to have to loosen up a bit; at least if they want bums on those hard pews. ~James

  7. First of all, I love the title for this post! Totally enticing!
    And thanks for sharing the definition of the word “wat”! I never knew but now it all makes sense!
    These photos are breath-taking and you wouldn’t even need to edit them and increase the saturation factor on them! They are colorful and bright on their own!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us and your appreciation for all cultures, religions and beliefs.
    Have a great start to your week to you both!
    *Lia

    • Thanks for your kind words Lia. Before arriving in LP, we’d been in Bangkok for a couple of weeks. As you may know, Bangkok has its share of colorful wats and we’d been doing lots of posts on Thai wats. At the time, we were concerned that our readers might be tired of seeing the umpteenth Buddhist temple, so we didn’t publish much from LP. We were going back through our photos and realized there were lots of very nice shots that hadn’t been published – hence the new series on LP. I’m glad that you’re enjoying it. Have a great week in the Big Apple. ~James

      • I’m glad you published this post with the temple photos because I can never grow tired of ornate detail and the colorful energy these wats emit! (no pun intended!)
        I’m enjoying the summer in the city, thanks. I’m sure that Kentucky is gorgeous this time of year..and always!
        Best to you both,
        *Lia

  8. There is something about the grand, gracefully swooping architecture and the tiny, intricate details that sets temples apart from anything I have ever experienced. Thank you James and Terri!

    • Thanks Martha. One of the fun things about Buddhist (and Hindu) temples is that you don’t really have to know the complex religious stories to appreciate the art and architecture. ~James

    • Well put Cindy. It’s interesting to me that Buddhist rooftops always seem to be reaching for the heavens – just like the Gothic cathedrals in the middle ages … umm… I’ll have to think about that one. ~James

  9. Hi James – I am surprised they didn’t cover roofs in gold too. 🙂 This reminds me of one of the halls in Paris opera house. Every inch was covered either in gold or an amazing painting. On the top of that huge crystal chandeliers.
    – Ruta

    • Ruta, it’s easy to get overload in any of these very colorful and highly decorated places. Prior to visiting Luang Prabang, we had spent a couple of weeks in Bangkok, which also has tons of Buddhist temples. Which is one of the reasons that while we were actually visiting LP, we didn’t publish anything on the temples. ~James

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    • Thanks Sarah and Nigel, for linking to our Luang Prabang post. After a week there, we added it to our favorites list for Southeast Asia. As your post demonstrates, it truly is a special place. ~James@Gallivance.net

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