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Wednesday, 20th July 2016

Your guide to Pha That Luang - the golden stupa in Vientiane

The Pha That Luang stupa in Vientiane is a symbol of Buddhist devotion and a monument of national pride for the people of Laos. It’s an incredible site to visit and one worth knowing more about so that you can make the most of your trip.


Dating back to 1566, the stupa was commissioned by King Setthathirat, who wanted to build it on the site of a previous Hindu temple from the third century. Its purpose was to be the home of a Buddha relic – a rib that had been transported to Laos from India by missionaries of the Emperor Ashoka’s court. So large and ornate was the design that Pha That Luang took six years to construct.

Rising from the ashes

Despite being a focal point of Vientiane to this day, the stupa has had a troubled past, having been looted and damaged on many occasions. During an invasion from the Kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand) in 1828, for example, it was nearly entirely destroyed.

It wasn’t until 1900 that it was decided by the French that Pha That Luang should be restored to its former glory. As well as the building itself, work was carried out on the internal decoration. This was adapted and enhanced once more in 1930 to ensure a thorough job had been accomplished. Much of this was in vain, however, as it was destroyed again in 1940 as Thai forces battled the French and would not be rebuilt until after Word War II.

Vital statistics

It’s impossible to miss the stupa, not only because it reaches 45 metres into the air, but also because it is covered in shining gold leaf. The layers that have been applied over the years add up to no less than 500 kilos of the precious metal. Arranged in a pyramidal shape and surrounding by 30 smaller stupas, Pha That Luang is instantly recognisable.

As with much religious architecture, the structure of the stupa is symbolic as well as functional. It has been built with three levels at its core, representing the spiritual ascent from earth to the sky. On the bottom is the underworld, with the 30 perfections of Buddhism in the central one and finally, the top is the kingdom of heaven.

Planning your visit

Your visit to Pha That Luang can be split into two parts – perfect if you wish to take a break from sightseeing for lunch or a drink in the middle. The first part of your day is likely to be the exterior portion of the site – this includes looking at the facades of the stupas and the palace, as well as a selection of pretty gardens and monuments. Doing this is entirely free.

To enter the stupa itself, you must pay a small entrance fee, but once in, this will form the second part of your day. Here you will find a series of altars and the remains of sculptures and paintings in various states of disrepair.

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