Thanks to the internet, prior to heading off to some as yet undiscovered spot like Luang Prabang you can load up on info about what to see, what to do, and when the best time is to see or do it. That knowledge can be useful. It can also result in a schedule that disallows for just exploring the site on your own and on your own time schedule. Stumbling across a place you weren’t aware of in advance is a lot more about what travel is supposed to be, though granted that attitude can mean missing out on what every other touri in town already knows about. But that’s why you should spend your evenings at a local pub. It’s always good to pick your fellow touri brains over a few brews.
Luang Prabang is touri friendly. There’s not a big need to plan a visit out in advance. Especially when it comes to wats. There are a few thousand in town, all brimming with monks, and since you can’t take a five minute walk without running across a few, listing out those you just have to visit is an exercise in futility. Especially since the spelling of their names changes drastically from one guidebook or internet site to the next. The only temple I was aware of prior to our visit was the Golden Wat. Which isn’t golden. But which every guidebook, internet site, and guide in town says is a must-see. I was much more taken with Wat Siphouthabath, which we found one morning while looking for somewhere to have breakfast. And thanks to the internet, after the fact, I’m told the best time to visit that temple is for the sunset. Huh.
Sunsets are popular among the touri crowd. Sunrises not so much. The only problem in following the herd to a locale’s best sunset viewing spot is that you get to battle with every other touri for the prime seat once you get there. As sure as I am that Wat Siphouthabath is a great place to watch the sun go down – ‘cuz everyone says it is – doing so with the town’s entire touri population would ruin what attracted me to the wat in the first place. Serenity just doesn’t stand a chance once the tour buses pull up.
I’m guessing all of the packed tours that include the temple as their sun set viewing spot expect you to climb the hundreds of steps up the hill since all you’d see looking westward otherwise is the back of a bunch of buildings along Sisavongvang Road. Wat Siphouthabath’s stairway to heaven is a bit shorter than the set leading up to Mt. Phousi, just down the street and opposite the Royal Palace Museum. But they too lead to the top of Mt. Phousi. Where your large group of touri can join with the other large group of touri who decided the official Mt. Phousi climb was the best place to catch the sun’s act. The bonus of making the trek from Wat Siphouthabath is that at the top landing you see the footprints of the Buddha. If you climb the traditional route instead, you have a five minute walk along the spine of the hill to see those puppies.
For travel, the internet is a wonderful font of knowledge. For example, to quell the skeptic in your heart, you can discover that natural indentation in a rock that is shaped like a foot print and painted gold everyone is telling you is the footprint of the Buddha really isn’t. Though it – and the others that can be found all over South-East Asia – are believed to be the footprints of The Buddha when he touched the ground after attaining enlightenment. It’s representational of The Buddha’s presence and shows that the teachings of Buddha have been reached and are respected.
Thanks to Google, you can also discover that the footprints in Luang Prabang are considered part of Wat Phra Buddabhat. Which they are. But only if you are in Thailand where Wat Phra Buddabhat is located. You can also discover that both the name of Wat Phra Buddabhat and Wat Siphouthabath translate into English as ‘Temple of the Buddha Footprint’. Which may explain the confusion by some travelers in mistaking one for the other. Though there’s a good chance neither actually translates that way since that little bit of info comes from the same fount of knowledge that has you walking from Laos to Thailand within a mere five minutes. But that’s what you can expect from a source of info that can’t decide whether ‘font of knowledge or ‘fount of knowledge is correct.
A digression longer than the flight of stairs up Mount Phousi you say? Not at all. Because knowledge is what Wat Siphouthabath is all about. The buildings within its terraced grounds are unassuming. Even its wiharn is a bit on the small size and its Buddha imagery lacks the gilded splendor that you are used to seeing in Thailand. But the wat’s compound is huge, and a good deal of it is taken up by classrooms and residences for the hundreds of young monks who study there.
From what little I could find out about the wat, the school seems to be its main reason for being. Largely funded by private French citizens, it offers a free education to the (male) school-age children of Laos. Many of its students come from the country’s outlying regions. While there is no scarcity of young novice monks in Luang Prabang, the sheer volume of saffron on display at Wat Siphouthabath is astounding.
The grounds stretch from the stairs leading up to the Buddha’s footprint at its southwest corner to a small soi unnamed and unmarked on most maps at its northeastern boundary, an expanse spread over several levels (Luang Prabang is big on stairs). Most of the religious buildings are on the lower level while residences and facilities for eating and temple maintenance – along with the odd statue and small shrine – take up the upper terraces. The classrooms too are on the first level and run along the temple’s length. Between classes, it’s easy to get into a conversation with some of the young monks; English is one of the school’s subjects and the kids are eager to practice their skills.
Even with all the kids running about, there are numerous small nooks and crannies tucked away throughout the compound where you can find a bit of peace and quiet. And occasionally a young monk off studying by himself. It’s a picturesque setting with the town and the mighty Mekong on view from the upper levels looking westward and the slightly more sluggish Nam Kahn winding its way through the hills looking toward the east. As tranquil as the setting is, you’d think it’d be a more popular spot for touring, but you can easily spend and hour or two here without ever seeing another white face. At least until the sun gets reading to go down.
If you are looking for impressive Buddhas and richly carved temples soaring into the sky, Wat Siphouthabath is not the answer. If you are looking for a glimpse at the daily life of school children in Laos and have a few hours to kill meandering among a forested and fading Buddhist wat, it’s the perfect place to begin your day. And if you want to rush up a long flight of stairs with a bunch of your fellow touri, it’s a nice place to watch the sunset too.
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