Icons dating back to 15th century lure visitors to Xieng Khuang

Welcoming Visit Laos-China Year 2019, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images promoting the two countries’ collaboration in tourism and hoping to inspire more people, especially from China, to experience the nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, the jewel of the Mekong.

If you’re visiting Xieng Khuang province in northeastern Laos, be sure to visit Vat Phiavat and That Foun and That Chomphet stupas in Khoun district.
These are the main cultural icons of Khoun district and the province. Khoun district is in the southwest of Xieng Khuang province. The temple and stupas are located in Siphom village, about 30 km from the provincial capital and Paek district.
I visited these sites during a recent trip organised by the Tourism Marketing Department of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to explore the development of the tourism industry.

This huge Buddha image stands amid the ruins of  Phiavat temple.

I found these places to be very interesting as people can learn a lot about the history of Laos by visiting them.
These ancient structures are part of the heritage of Xieng Khuang, left for the people by their ancestors. In ancient times, Xieng Khuang was known as the Phuan Kingdom and its people and rulers were very civilised and powerful.
The temple and stupas were built in the Phuan style, and tell us a lot about the architecture and culture of the area and the Phuan Kingdom.
Vat Phiavat is situated in the centre of Siphom village. It was the largest and oldest temple of the Phuan Kingdom and was built more than 600 years ago. According to legend, Chao Lankhamkong, who was the King of Phuan at that time, led the people in building this temple. The Phuan Kingdom was then at the peak of its power.
Beginning in 1874, the kingdom and the temple were devastated by several wars. The temple was badly damaged during the Indochina War by foreign troops, mainly Americans, and now only the ruins of one of the main structures, a large Buddha statue, some pillars and a few sections of the boundary wall remain.
After the Lao PDR was established in 1975, the main building and the Buddha statue were renovated several times while retaining their original form.
Today, there are some new buildings set around the main structure that are eye-catching and constructed in the traditional Phuan style.
However, the ruins and the Buddha statue continue to be the main attractions.
People visit the temple every day, wandering through the ruins in quiet contemplation. Local people and visitors also pray before the Buddha statue and seek blessings. They believe the image is sacred as it was only slightly damaged by the bombs that rained down on the temple and destroyed other structures.
That Foun stupa is situated outside the centre of Siphom village, not far from the temple. It is a large and tall stupa believed to contain the relics of Lord Buddha. It was built in the same period as Vat Phiavat.
According to legend, the temple’s construction was ordered by the 14th king of the Phuan Kingdom, who is believed to be the first king to bring Buddhism to the region. That Foun is considered to be sacred and its name means “the stupa that contains relics of Lord Buddha”. Many people recognise it as representing Lord Buddha.
During wars, the stupa was damaged and foreign plunderers broke into it to take away jewellery that was kept inside. But after the liberation of Laos, local authorities led people to renovate the stupa. It is now in good shape and its original form has been retained.
The stupa is located at a spot that provides a stunning view of the surrounding landscape and this has made it popular with selfie-loving visitors and amateur photographers.
There are stalls nearby selling local products, food and traditional dresses, which can also be rented for a reasonable fee so that people can wear them when posing for photos.
People come here to pray and to dress up in traditional costume with the stupa providing a dramatic backdrop, taking them back to ancient times.
After That Foun, visitors usually move on to That Chomphet, which is just a few minutes away.
This stupa was badly damaged and has not been restored. It is a large, old and sacred stupa built in the same period as That Foun and Vat Phiavat. It was once very high but the top was broken off during wartime.
The name That Chomphet means the stupa whose top contains a diamond. But foreign plunderers removed the top of the stupa and took away the diamond and other valuables stored inside.
The stupa is located on a hill surrounded by woods and fields. Visitors come to the stupa daily to pray and take photographs.
There are committees that are responsible for managing these sites. To enter each site, visitors have to pay an entrance fee, which is 5,000 kip for a Lao national and 10,000 kip for a foreigner. The fees go into a fund used for the maintenance of these sites.
Every year during the Lao New Year festivities, local authorities lead people to pour water over the Buddha statue at Vat Phiavat, That Foun and That Chomphet to preserve local traditions. They also seek blessings from the sacred icons.
Khoun district also has other places of interest that await visitors wanting to venture further afield. This area should definitely feature high on anyone’s itinerary during a trip to Xieng Khuang.

By Visith Teppalath
(Latest Update February 27, 2018)

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