Sayabouly’s Buddhist Temples & Shrines

The “Land of Elephants” hosts some of the country’s most sacred, ancient…and fabled religious sites.

 

Head to a Hongsa hilltop to see That Lak Mueang Stupa, built in 1572. Next door in Ngeun Town, ponder the wood-pillared Vat Si Boun Yeun. Travel to Ban Don Keo and the Golden Flea Stupa. Visit the 14-metre-tall That Puak in Khop Town. Ponder the 700-year-old, 27-metre-tall Xienglom Stupa. In Sayabouly Town, inspect mural-adorned Vat Sibounheuang Temple and Vat Sisavangvong, one of three top-ranked Lao temples.

Northern Sayabouly

That Lak Mueang Stupa: For a great sunset view overlooking the valley covered in rice fields, climb the hill just 1 km from Hongsa Town to That Lak Mueang Stupa. Built in 1572, the site is highly revered by locals.

Vat Si Boun Yeun: Inspect this tiny sacred Ngeun District temple with a story to tell. The tale begins in 1736, when Lane Xang viceroy, Jao Luang, was forced from Luang Namtha by his nephew, and moved to govern the area around Ngeun’s Ban Don Keo Village. After four years, Jao Luang invited craftsman, Khou Ba Khamsaen, to construct “Vat Luang”. When long-living Khou Ba Khamsaen passed away, villagers built a stupa in his honour, and named it and the temple Si Boun Yeun, which means “long life”.

The temple’s current Buddha dates to 1816. Murals cover the exterior walls of the wood-pillared temple, and patterned toung (flags)hang from the rafters, which serve as steps for the deceased to cross the “River of Death”. A small booth (haw thama) once acted as the Lane Xang viceroy’s office for giving orders to his troops.

Location: Vat Si Boun Yeun is located in Ban Luang Village in Nam Ngeun Town centre.

The Golden Flea Stupa: Steeped in legend, the Golden Flea Stupa (Prathat Mudkham) is the “soul” of Ngeun’s ethnic Tai Lue. Historians suggest migrating Burmese, who had settled in present-day Nam Ngeun Village, built the stupa in 1576. According to lore, the ancient villagers saw a silver-skinned elephant walking along the river, when it suddenly vanished. They investigated and discovered the elephant had fallen into a sinkhole and was buried alive. They tried to dig the elephant out, but they reached the bottom only to find a massive swarm of golden fleas, which covered their bodies. They raced from the hole, and built the stupa to cover it.

Centuries later, thieves raided the stupa, and according to local elders, American bombers damaged the site, but villagers renovated it in 1968 and again in 1997. The district also constructed a centre to celebrate special occasions and Buddhist ceremonies, one of which is the annual ceremony coinciding with April’s Pii Mai (Lao New Year)

Location: Travel 3 km north of Ngeun municipal centre to Ban Don Keo Village. The stupa is located on a hill on the eastside of the road.

Xienglom Stupa: Check out this 700-year-old stupa at Wind City. Ethnic groups migrated from southern China to Xienghone municipal centre hundreds of years ago, and established villages united by the Lane Xang Kingdom into Xienglom (City of Wind). According to lore, the locals’ ancestors were hunting, and stumbled into a 27-metre-tall stupa on a 40 m2 square base.  A stone inscription, housed inside Vat Xienglom Temple, states the Burmese-style stupa was built in 1304. Every year on the full moon of the Buddhist calendar’s 5th month, ethnic Yuan and Tai Lue from 10 surrounding villages pay homage at the site, and celebrate for seven days.

Location: You’ll find the stupa in Xienghone District Centre. From here, a 2–km drive heads to Ban Kham, a river crossing, and a little slope to Vat Otoumkham. Explore the Ban Kham cave and stay at the forest for a meditation session.

That Puak Stupa: Venture to a stupa where birds found Buddha’s bones. That Puak Stupa is Khop’s most sacred monument dating to 1538 and the Lane Xang Era. Legend claims eagles from India left some of Buddha’s remains on a don pho tree, and went to nearby Nong Tao Lake. When they returned, Buddha’s bones were missing. Thousands of birds joined the eagles in scouring the forest for the remains. A local hunter noticed the birds and investigated.

He stopped at the don pho tree where termites were building a dirt mound around mushrooms (puak), and removed the soil to find the sacred bones. The termites, prohibited from touching the remains, quickly rebuilt their hill. The hunter told the viceroy, who ordered villagers to build a 14-metre-tall stupa over the termite mound. To this day, locals make merit at That Puak to pray for spring rains. Before departing on a trip, locals take soil from around That Puak for good luck. 

Location: Located south of the Khop municipal centre (Ban Phabong) between Ban Don Moun and Ban Keung Villages.

While in Khop District, visit That Mann, a little know stupa that sits about 4 km from Ban Tham Village, where villagers have been worshipping for generations. Archaeologists believe the stupa was built by Burmese centuries ago.

Sayabouly & South

Vat Sibounheuang: Admire a 7-metre-long reclining Buddha, the province’s largest, in Sayabouly’s oldest temple. Built in 1456, Vat Sibounheuang sits on a hilltop overlooking the Nam Houng River in Sayabouly municipality. The mural-adorned temple attracts locals, who come to ask for blessings before a trip, and go to make merit upon their return. Also visible are the remains from the original temple.

A stupa on the grounds sits on a singkhone with four spirit-ghosts – two small and two large – who are honest and strong. The village ghost also resides at Vat Sibounheuang, and each year in mid-March, the district’s 3-day Boun Phavet (Ghost Festival) procession begins there. Held in remembrance of Phavet, the parade starts at the cemetery and ends with the burning of clothes and throwing them in the river.

Location: Vat Sibounheuang is located in the centre of Sayabouly municipality.

Vat Sisavangvong: Enter one of three Lao temples regarded as of the highest rank, with the other two being in Sayabouly’s Pak Lay District and Attapeu Province. It is considered a privilege for aspiring novices to study, meditate, and be ordained for the monkhood at Vat Sisavangvong, as only some 100 are chosen for the honour at one time.

The temple stands out for its long decorative Naga banisters, which represent the guardian water serpent, and tiger figures, which are the earth’s protectors. According to legend, if a male wants to be a monk, he must first ask Naga and make merit by presenting it with gold. Then the resident monks decide on admission.   

Location: Vat Sisavangvong is located in the centre of Sayabouly municipality next to the Governor’s building.

Vat Natornoy: Explore this unique temple, originally constructed in 1950. A fire razed the wooden temple in 1959, but a local villager rebuilt the hilltop Vat Natornoy the following year. Inside, villagers hang baskets to make merit to Phavet. A 100-year-old don pho tree rises over the well-landscaped compound’s religious structures, including a curiously-configured “Heaven’s Tower”, which plays a prominent role during Pii Mai (Lao New Year) in mid-April. Locals carry perfumed water and flowers for merit-making, climb its stairs to pray, and pour the water down a wooden trough into a small hut and the hands of an awaiting Buddha image. Back downstairs, the faithful bow under Buddha’s hands, allowing the holy water to drip on their heads for good luck.

Location: From Sayabouly municipality, head south towards Pak Lay, pass the airport, and then turn left at the junction. Continue along the road to the temple.

Vat Siphoume: Take in a temple built by a woman warrior. Ms Phengsi honoured her grandparents by building Vat Siphoume, the district’s most sacred site, on the Nam Heuang Riverbanks, and a visit to the 15th century temple reveals a stupa for Phengsi. Known for her strong and distinct character, Phengsi was more interested in weapons than weaving. With no male successor to the throne, Phengsi was crowned, and word of the new ruler quickly spread. According to custom, any man fighting and defeating Phengsi would become king, but no one succeeded. Phengsi never wed, as her love for her father’s cousin was considered taboo, and she died childless.

Location: Vat Siphoume is located in the centre of Kenthao Town.

 

Sayabouly: The Land of Elephants

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