Wat Si Saket

This temple (Wat Sisaketsata Sahatsaham; Con Thanon Lan Xang & Thanon Setthathilat; admission US$0.12; open 8am-noon & 1pm-4pm daily, closed public holidays) sits opposite the Presidential Palace. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou, it is perhaps the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane.
Chao Anou, who was educated in the Bangkok court and was more or less a vassal of the Siamese state, had Wat Si Saket constructed in the early Bangkok style but surrounded it with a thick-walled cloister similar to - but much smaller than - the one that surrounds Pha That Luang (see the special section in this chapter). The stylistic similarity to their own wars may have motivated the Siamese to spare this monastery when they crushed Chao Anou's rebellion against Siamese rule. though they destroyed many others. The French restored the temper in 1924 and again in 1930. Today it is a favored spot for Lao art students making sketches.

In spite of the Siamese influence, Wat Si Saket has several unique features. The interior walls of the cloister arc riddled with small niches that contain over 2000 silver and' ceramic Buddha images. Over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying, sizes and materials (wood, stone, silver and bronze) rest on long shelves below the niches, most of them sculpted or cast in the characteristic Lao style (see the Arts section in the Facts about Laos chapter for details on Lao religious sculpture). Most of the images are' from 16th- to 19th-century Vientiane but a few hail from 15th- to 16th- century Luang Prabang. A slightly damaged Khmer-style Naga Buddha - in which the Buddha is seated on a coiled cobra deity whose multithreaded hood shelters the image - is also on display; it was brought from a Khmer site at nearby Hat Sai Fong. Along the western side of the cloister is a pile of broken and half-melted Buddhas from the 1828 Siamese-Lao war.

The sim (ordination hall) is surrounded by a colonnaded terrace in the Bangkok style and topped by a jive-tiered roof. The interior walls bear hundreds of Buddha niches similar to those in the cloister, as well as beautiful - but decaying - jataka murals depicting stories of the Buddha's past lives. Portions of the Bangkok-style murals arc unrest red 1820s originals, while others are a 1913 restoration. In the early 1990s, Unesco announced it would fund a restoration but so far the murals are still fading.

The flowered ceiling was inspired by Siamese temples in Ayuthaya, which were in turn inspired by floral designs from Versailles. At the rear interior of the sim is an altar with several Buddha images, bringing the total number of Buddhas at Wat Si Saket to 6840. The standing Buddha to the left on the upper altar is said to have been cast to the same physical proportions as Chao Anou. The large, gilt wood candle stand in front of the altar is an original, carved in 1819.

On the veranda at the rear of the sim is a 5m-long wooden trough carved to resemble a naga (serpent deity). This is the haang song nam pha (image-watering rail), which is used during Lao New Year to pour water over Buddha images for ceremonial cleansing.

To the far left of the entrance to the cloister, facing Thanon Lan Xang, is a raised haw tai (Tripitaka library) with a Burmese-style roof. The scriptures that were once contained here are now in Bangkok.

The grounds of the wat are planted with coconut, banana and mango trees, plus pots of bougainvillea along the eastern wall. Thaat kaduuk. (small stupa-shaped monuments containing the cremated remains of temple devotees) line the northern and western walls.

A Lao guide who speaks French and English is usually on hand to describe the temple and answer questions. There is no charge for the guide's services.

This 1.6km walk will take you past some of the city's most historic attractions as well as a few lesser- known spots of interest. Starting at the Lane Xang Hotel, Vientiane's premier hotel during the 1975-89 socialist era, begin strolling south-east along Thanon Fa Ngum parallel to the Mekong River. Almost immediately on your left stands a very large, rambling colonial-style administration building that served as the National Treasury until the Revolution. The neglected and decaying structure holds great architectural potential; a Thai company had plans to develop the derelict building as a hotel, but these plans seem to have fallen through.

On the opposite side of Thanon Fa Ngum begins a modest, brick-paved riverside promenade. A few concrete benches offer support for the weary or the romantic and, during the rainy season, views of the river. During dry months the river recedes hundreds of meters towards Thailand and the emerging floodplains are planted with vegetable crops. Walking along, the promenade, or along the pavement opposite, you'll pass two very old banyan trees and farther on over 25 tall, wide girthed teak trees - each of them at least 200 years old - standing on either side of the street. A few coconut palms and acacias are mixed in. If you like banyans, turn the corner left onto Thanon Chanta Khumman, where you can't miss an extremely large banyan threatening to overturn a brick wall surrounding the ex-National Treasury.

Back on Thanon Fa Ngum heading south-east, on your left you'll see a high brick and iron fence that surrounds the Presidential Palace, a vast Beaux Arts-style chateau originally built to house the French colonial governor. After independence King Sisavang Vong (and later his son Sisavang Vatthana) of Luang Prabang used it as a residence when visiting Vientiane. Since the banishment and death of the royal family in the late 1970s it has been used for hosting guests of the Lao government and for ceremonial government occasions. The Presidential Cabinet meets in a smaller building towards the north-western end of the compound. Neither building is open to the public. Next on the left, and housed In another old French colonial building on Thanon Fa Ngum, is the headquarters for the Lao People's Revolutionary Youth Union, the Communist Party's equivalent of the Boy Scouts.

Starting near the foot of Thanon Mahasot and running along the riverbank opposite Mahasot Hospital, a string of vendors sell food and drinks beneath colorful umbrellas. Turn left at Thanon Mahasot and after one block turn left again onto Thanon Setthathilat; almost immediately on your left you'll come to the entrance for the Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple that now serves 'IS a national museum for religious objects. It's the only temple in Vientiane with a veranda around the entire perimeter of the building. Continuing north-west along Thanon Setthathilat, look for the ochre-painted Wat 51 Saket on your right. Considered the oldest surviving 8uddhist monastery in Vientiane, Wa! Si Saket contains many old Buddha figures and some fading temple murals.

Continue walking north-west along Thanon Setthathilat, past the northern side of the Presidential Palace and across Thanon Chanta Khumman. On your left you will pass two sizable former French colonial homes that have been used on and off by various commercial concerns as offices , since 1989. These are among the best-restored two-storey colonials you'll see in central Vientiane (to see five more restored colonial homes nearby, make a detour north to Thanon Samsenthai between Thanon Chanta Khumman and Thanon Lan Xang). Farther along, on the opposite side of the street, an alley leads not quite 100m to the Jame Mosllue, a pseudo-Moghul prayer hall where you can hear the daily calls to prayer in Tamil, Arabic, Lao and English.

A littlie farther ahead on the corner of Thanon Pangkham and Thanon Setthathilat stands the French-built and recently French-restored National library. The large fountain (nam phu) diagonally opposite is partially surrounded by restored colonial shop houses now housing the Vietnamese Cultural Centre, Restaurant-Bar Namphu and other businesses. The tall abandoned building looming over the fountain's western side was once the French Cultural Centre. The top three floors were reportedly never used, as the building had no lift. Vientiane's original Morning Market once flanked Thanon Pangkham north of the fountain. The former market area is now occupied by newer shop houses, several of them tailoring businesses.

Thanon Setthathilat continues north-west into the heart of central Vientiane's temple district. Along the way, turn right onto Thanon Nokeo Khumman and walk a few dozen meters to Lao Textiles, housed in another well-restored colonial home. Back on Thanon Setthathilat, a short walk north-west will take you past four of central Vientiane's major wats: Wat Mlxai, Wat Ong Teu, Wat Hal Sok and Wat In Paeng.