Justine Tyerman is surrounded by 10,000 Buddhas at a temple in Vientiane, the capital of Laos
I stood in the shade of the teak cloisters, grateful for some respite from the intense heat of the Laos sun. My eyes struggled to absorb the images surrounding me - 10,136 statues of Buddha dating back to the 16th century lined the walls of the courtyard that enclosed Wat Sisaket, a strikingly beautiful temple and museum in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Built in 1818 on orders of King Anouvong, it's the only building to have survived the razing of the city by Siamese (Thai) invaders in 1828, making it the oldest temple in the city. I was mesmerised by the statues, especially the 8000 tiny miniatures placed in niches in the walls. In front of them are 2000 larger seated Buddhas made of wood, stone and bronze, all with the same facial expression and hand position. Others are standing with hands by their sides.
On one side of the courtyard is a huge wooden trough or 'Hang Hod' in the shape of a naga or mythical serpent. During Laos New Year celebrations, perfumed water is poured through the trough and used for ceremonial cleaning of the Buddha images.
The central building or sanctuary, known as a 'sim', houses the principal Buddha image seated on a high pedestal. The temple has an ornate five-tiered roof decorated with golden naga finials. It's a tranquil place of reflection and meditation.
Nearby Wat Phra Keo, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, has a fine collection of Lao and Khmer art. Built in 1565 as a chapel for the royal family, the temple was once home to the Emerald Buddha but the Thais stole the statue in 1778. It is now a museum famous for its wood and stone carvings and Buddha collection.
Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa, is dazzling. Constructed in Vientiane by King Setthathirat in the 16th century and restored in 1953, it is the most important Buddhist monument in Laos. The golden spire or stupa is 45m tall and believed to contain a relic of Buddha. An impressive statue of the king stands in front of the stupa and there's a magnificent golden reclining Buddha nearby.
Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos, has a myriad of exquisite temples.
Wat Xieng Thong, the most revered temple in Luang Prabang, was built in 1560 by King Setthathirat. A huge golden Buddha is the centrepiece of the ornately-decorated temple, surrounded by row-upon-row of smaller Buddha statues.
The walls of the temple are decorated with magnificent glass mosaics and ornate carvings and murals depicting Lao legends. The golden frontage of the temple and the mosaic Tree of Life are gorgeous. A couple of friendly young monks were happy to pose with me in front of the temple. Laos is one of few places in the world where travellers can take photos of local people without having to pay a fee.
Among over 20 structures in the grounds is a building to house the royal funeral barge pulled by a many-headed naga. Wat Visoun, the oldest temple in Luang Prabang, dates back to 1513 and the reign of King Wisunarat (Visoun).
Once home to the Prabang Buddhas, the temple was entirely rebuilt in 1887 after being destroyed by the invading Black Flags from Southern China. It's famous for the 'Watermelon Stupa' in the courtyard. It represents a lotus flower but is nicknamed watermelon because of its shape.
Every morning before sunrise, a time-honoured ritual takes place in Luang Prabang.
Hundreds of monks from the temples walk along the streets receiving alms. The monks chant blessings to the alms-givers as they walk by with their food containers. Aged from eight years to elderly, the barefoot, shaven-headed monks are a colourful sight in their bright saffron robes.
¦Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years' experience offering the chance to explore historically and culturally unique destinations with the security of a peace-of-mind wrap-around service. innovativetravel.co.nz
Travel Companions' Club, creating new horizons for solo travellers: innovativetravel.co.nz/travel-companions.club