Chasing the Emerald Buddha: Part Two

Last Updated on: 23rd December 2019, 11:48 am

When we last left the Emerald Buddha in Part One, it was residing relatively peacefully in Chiang Mai’s Wat Chedi Luang, a stay which lasted over 80 years. A few kings ruled over the Lanna kingdom after the death of King Tilokaracha, the monarch who first brought the Emerald Buddha to the Lanna capital. But when King Ketklao passed away without an heir, a situation would unfold that would alter the fate of both the Emerald Buddha and the entire Lanna kingdom.

The locations featured in Part Two of this story all take place in modern-day Laos, meaning that following the Emerald Buddha’s path will require a bit of international travel. The two cities mentioned below, though, are also Laos’s largest and most-visited.


Since the publication of this three-part series of articles, we’ve released a new paperback travel guide dedicated to the Emerald Buddha’s journeys.

The articles will remain online for all to enjoy. But if the Emerald Buddha’s fascinating story intrigues you, you definitely won’t regret picking up the physical book.

Unlike the articles, the book traces the story back to the statue’s first one thousand years. It takes travelers to places like South Thailand, Angkor Archaeological Park, Thailand’s overlooked Isaan region and the ruins of Siam’s former capitals.

Additional in-depth research was carried out for the creation of the book, and many of the locations were revisited to capture new and improved photographs.

Furthermore, you’ll learn the best ways to plan out your itinerary and piece your travels together. More than just an account of the Emerald Buddha’s story, the book works as a standalone travel guide to an entire region.

Learn more here.

A Young Ruler Takes The Emerald Buddha Back HOME

Luang Prabang Aerial View

Panic and confusion struck Chiang Mai, the capital of the Lanna kingdom, when King Ketklao passed away without an heir. Who would rule the kingdom and watch over the sacred Emerald Buddha statue?

Village elders and local monks thought long and hard about what to do. In the end, they decided that Ketklao’s grandson should rule Lanna, despite him being only 15 years old. Not only was he young and inexperienced, but he was also the son of King Photisan of Lan Chang, an allied yet large and powerful kingdom. It was a risky move, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

Around the year 1550, Lanna’s new ruler was summoned to his new domain. His name was King Setthathirath. 

Emerald Buddha replicas at Wat Visounnarath

Things would only run smoothly for a year or so, however. When the new king learned of his father’s passing, he decided to return to his hometown for a visit. Not only would there be relatives to comfort, but also potential squabbles over inheritance to deal with. And while there, Setthathirath decided that he might as well take the Emerald Buddha with him, as surely his family would love to get a glimpse of the famed statue. After all, he could just bring it back to Chiang Mai upon his return. But in the end, Setthathirath would never return to Lanna.

The Emerald Buddha in Luang Prabang

The Emerald Buddha only stayed in Luang Prabang for 12 years, between 1551 and 1563. During this time, King Setthathirath would also solidify his rule over Lan Chang, the precursor to modern-day Laos. He would even try to conquer his former kingdom of Lanna on a couple of occasions, but each attempt failed.

Even after repelling Lan Chang’s attacks, things ultimately wouldn’t turn out very well for Lanna. After a choosing a distant relative monk named Mekuti to rule, the kingdom would succumb to a Burmese invasion in 1558, turning into a mere vassal state. (As a side note, Mekuti happened to end up as one of Burma’s 37 Great Nats.)

While historians and various chronicles agree on the fact that the Emerald Buddha was kept in Luang Prabang, nobody seems to know exactly where. Given Luang Prabang’s history, it’s entirely possible that whatever temple the statue resided in no longer exists.

In the year 1874, many of the city’s important temples and landmarks were pillaged by Chinese invaders. Therefore, most of the temples in Luang Prabang today are dated from the late 19th century onward.

Most, that is, but not all. There are still a couple of possibilities for existing temples that may have housed the Emerald Buddha during its brief stint in the city.

Setthathirath Statue
A statue of Setthathirath in Vientiane, Laos

Wat Visounnarath

A temple known as Wat Visounnarath is one of the only major temples left from the 1500’s. It was founded in the year 1512, several decades before the Emerald Buddha arrived in the city. While none of the temple’s official records seem to comment on the Emerald Buddha one way or the other, a few replicas can be found inside.

Emerald Buddha replicas, of course, are fairly common throughout the region. But we do know that Wat Visounnarath was once home to another highly significant Buddha image, the Phra Bang, which was placed here in 1513. Could Setthathirath have decided to make these two highly revered statues roommates? If so, it wouldn’t be the last (and maybe even not the first) time they shared a temple together.

Wat Visounnarath Statues

Despite its history and significance, many tourists to Luang Prabang overlook Wat Visounnarath, as it’s outside of the main peninsula area that contains most of the town’s landmarks. With that said, the temple is no more than a 15 minute walk from the Royal Palace, making it easily accessible from most hotels and guest houses.

This old temple also doubles as a museum. Walking behind the main altar, you can find plenty of ancient artifacts, many of them either Laotian or Khmer in origin. If you’re coming from Thailand, you’ll notice a stylistic difference in the Buddha images from Laos, as they tend to be tall standing figures as opposed to seated ones.

The temple is a little bit dark and dirty, with construction tools and cleaning supplies lying all over the place. But as it’s one of the oldest temples in the city, this rustic feel seems fitting.

The temple was originally built by Setthathirath’s grandfather Visoun, after whom the temple was named, and its original purpose was to host the Phra Bang. It would be home to the Phra Bang on two separate occasions: from 1513 until the early 18th century, and then again in the 19th century. The temple is one of the few that survived the ransacking of Luang Prabang by the Chinese Black Flag Army in 1887, but it did get badly damaged. Fortunately, it was rebuilt and restored a decade later.

The temple's exterior
Wat Visounnarath Chedi
The stupa known as 'That Phatum'

One of Wat Visounnarath’s defining characteristics is the large stupa, or chedi, across from the main wooden temple. It was built by King Visoun’s wife in the Sinhalese style and is known as either That Pathum or That Mak Mo. ‘Mak Mo’ translates to watermelon, which is a reference to the stupa’s shape. Curiously, this isn’t the first time a watermelon has appeared in the story, but it’s likely just a coincidence. Or is it?

The stupa on the temple grounds is the only one built in the Singhalese (Sri Lankan) style in all of Laos. The Emerald Buddha’s home in Chiang Mai was at Wat Chedi Luang, a temple also known for its large Singhalese stupa. Could Setthathirath, then, have seen this temple as the Phra Kaew’s logical new home? 

Furthermore, it’s also been recorded that Setthathirath took many other Buddha images from Lanna with him upon his return to Luang Prabang (including the golden Phra Sihing). Wat Visounnarath’s stupa collapsed one time in 1917, revealing all sorts of Buddha images that were being hidden inside. Could some of these have been brought over from Lanna together with the Emerald Buddha?

Of course, this is all just speculation. There’s still the possibility that the Emerald Buddha’s former home no longer exists at all. Then again, there is also one other potential candidate for where it might’ve stayed.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong, at the eastern edge of Luang Prabang’s central peninsula, is one of the city’s most visited landmarks. Depending on which historical record you look at, the temple was either completed in 1559 or 1560. It was commissioned by none other than King Setthathirath himself. And the Emerald Buddha would remain in Luang Prabang until 1563.

While the Emerald Buddha was already in the city from 1551, could it have moved here for its last couple of years? As King Setthathirath was very fond of the statue, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Setthathirath would not just be the one to take the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang in the first place, but he’d also be the one to take it away.

Before following the Emerald Buddha to its next destination, let’s take a moment to learn more about the Phra Bang. Not only does the Phra Bang have its own fascinating backstory, but its history will forever remain intertwined with that of the Phra Kaew.

A replica of the Phra Bang statue at Wat Xieng Thong

The Journeys of The Phra Bang

As important as the Phra Kaew is to the Thais, the Buddha image known as the Phra Bang is revered as the palladium of Laos. The 83 cm high statue is believed to be Sri Lankan in origin, having been created sometime between the 1st and 9th centuries. Some people believe, though, that the Khmer may have made it much later.

What we do know is that the Khmer were in possession of the Phra Bang until 1359, when they gifted the statue to Laos in an effort to spread Theravada Buddhism in the region. Fascinatingly, the Emerald Buddha is also believed to have been possessed by the Khmer at Angkor Wat at around the same time. Angkor was attacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand in 1353, when legend has it that they took the Emerald Buddha statue with them. We don’t know why the Siamese didn’t also take the Phra Bang, but the two statues’ time together in Angkor is just one of several times that their paths would cross.

Wat Mai Phra Bang

Phra Bang replicas at Wat Mai, Luang Prabang

After receiving the statue as a special gift from the Khmer, the capital of the Lan Chang kingdom changed its named from Muang Saw to Luang Prabang. The fact that a capital of a large and influential kingdom would name itself after an 83cm high statue reveals the deep importance that Southeast Asian cultures place on particular relics. Ever since the 1300’s, the Laotians have considered possession of the Phra Bang to be symbolic of a king’s divine right to rule.

Wat Visounnarath Phra Bang
A small Phra Bang replica at Wat Visounnarath

Like the Emerald Buddha, the Phra Bang has done its fair share of moving from temple to temple, but It’s hard to determine exactly each place that it’s been kept since the 1300’s. We know that the image was housed in Wat Visounnarath from 1513 – 1707. After that, the Phra Bang was taken from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which had already been the capital for around 140 years by that point.

From there, the Phra Bang would spend some time with the Emerald Buddha in a temple in Thonburi. But after numerous fires and other disasters struck the city, it was returned to Vientiane after just a few years. It’s believed, in fact, that that the energies of the Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang don’t mesh well with each other. Keeping them together in the same city is bound to end in catastrophe.

 The Siamese did test their luck one more time, though. They even captured the Phra Bang a second time in the 1800’s, finally returning the statue after 39 years, citing the same disastrous results as before. 

The Laotians, on the other hand, put less of an emphasis on the Phra Bang and the Emerald Buddha not getting along. Rather, it’s simply the statue’s removal from its home of Luang Prabang that’s bound to result in disaster, they believe. The fact that even Vientiane was invaded and razed to the ground multiple times while possessing the Phra Bang gives some credence to the legend.

Wat Pha Bang Luang Prabang Laos
The Phra Bang's current home
Wat Mai Emerald Buddha
Emerald Budda replicas at Wat Mai

After the Phra Bang’s second stint in Siam, the statue finally returned to Luang Prabang. It once again sat in Wat Visounnarath from 1867 until 1887. In 1887, as mentioned, most of Luang Prabang was ravaged by Chinese invaders (the city has also had its own share of bad luck!) Wat Visounnarath was a target of the attack, yet was one of the few temples to not be completely destroyed. Nevertheless, following the incident, the Phra Bang was moved to the nearby temple of Wat Mai in 1887.

Wat Mai was home to the Phra Bang image throughout most of the 1900’s. Visitors today can find replicas of both the Phra Bang and the Emerald Buddha, though we know that the temple was built long after the jade Buddha’s time in the city. Wat Mai is just one of many examples, though, of temples around the region which display replicas of both palladiums.

Wat Pha Bang Exterior
Wat Pha Bang sign

From around the year 2006, the Phra Bang was then kept in Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace Museum, just a short walk from Wat Mai. The Laotian government then decided to build a brand new temple specifically to house the Phra Bang, just next to the museum.

Known as Haw Pha Bang, construction actually began as far back as 1963, but was not completed until 2006. After a several year delay, the Phra Bang was finally transferred to its new home in the year 2017. Visitors with knowledge of the fascinating history of this ancient relic can get a close-up look of the statue, but only from the outside. And as is the case for the real Emerald Buddha, photography of the actual Phra Bang is prohibited.

Despite having been built just recently, most visitors to Laos would never guess that the Haw Pha Bang was not another historical temple like all the others. The gorgeous temple was built in the traditional Laotian style and fits perfectly with its surroundings in the UNESCO World Heritage town.

Today, special Laotian New Years ceremonies take place in which the Phra Bang is paraded around the city and ritually cleansed at nearby Wat Mai, perhaps so it doesn’t get too homesick.

According to a number of Laotians, that’s not quite where the chronicle of the Phra Bang statue ends, though. A couple of conspiracy theories regarding the Phra Bang continue to circulate around the internet. Some are convinced that the current Phra Bang statue in Haw Pha Bang temple is a fake, while the real Phra Bang was removed from the city decades ago. Some theories claim that the statue is locked in an underground vault of the Laos National Bank in Vientiane. Meanwhile, a large number of people even seem to believe that the Phra Bang is located in, of all places, Moscow, Russia. If true, this would surely have something to do with the former USSR’s relationship with Laos, which remains a socialist state to this day.

Considering the fact that possession of the Phra Bang has long been regarded as symbolic of a government’s right to rule, the various theories may reveal less about where the Phra Bang actually is, and more about people’s feelings towards their own government.

Wat Pha Bang Phra Bang Original
The real Phra Bang as seen from afar. Photography is forbidden up close.

How to Spend Your Time in Luang Prabang

Many of Luang Prabang’s main attraction are temples, and the most significant ones have already been mentioned above. Another popular activity is making the easy climb up the mountain in the center of town, Mt. Phousi, and taking in spectacular views of the city. 

Just next to Haw Pha Bang is the Royal Palace Museum, which houses many artifacts and chronicles the history of the royal family that once ruled from there. To learn more about the region’s various ethnic cultures, try visiting the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center.

Popular day trips from Luang Prabang include the Kuang Si Falls, the Pak Ou Caves and a day of farming sticky rice with Living Land. All in all, the main attraction of Luang Prabang is often said to be the laid-back pace of the city itself. Take your time as you walk through the markets, appreciate the colonial architecture and enjoy sunsets over the Mekong.

The Emerald Buddha only remained in Luang Prabang for 12 years until King Setthathirath, fearing danger, took it with him to his new capital.

the Emerald Buddha Moves into a new, Custom-Built Home

The Burmese were growing stronger and getting closer. They’d already taken over Lanna, Setthathirath’s former kingdom. How long before they attacked Luang Prabang, too? Setthathirath didn’t want to wait around and find out.

It was time to switch capitals entirely, he decided. And so, Sethhathirath, along with the Emerald Buddha statues, made their way south to the city of Viang Chang, now known as Vientiane.

The transition, apparently, had been planned out well in advance. A temple specifically intended for the Emerald Buddha was already under construction a few years before the move was finalized in 1563. And the Emerald Buddha would remain there far past Setthathirats’s lifespan.

The temple grounds of Haw Phra Kaew

A lot happened in the region over the course of the Emerald Buddha’s 215 year stay at Haw Phra Kaew temple. Setthathirat’s fear of the Burmese, it turns out, was justified. Like Lanna, Luang Prabang became a vassal state of Burma. Eventually, the Lan Chang kingdom dissolved, with the new ‘Kingdom of Vientiane’ taking its place in 1707. But Vientiane would end up as no match for the resurgent Siamese, who had come back strong after centuries of back and forth struggle with Burma. And when the Siamese arrived, they still hadn’t forgotten about the sacred green relic that they’d once possessed centuries before.

Visiting Haw Phra Kaew

Haw Phra Kaew remains one of the Laotian capitals most visited landmarks to this day. Though feeling somewhat empty without the Phra Kaew, the interior now contains a museum consisting of all sorts of ancient Buddha relics. A replica of the Emerald Buddha’s altar was even installed as recently as October 2016, though it can’t be shown here due to the photography ban inside the temple.

Though constructed specifically for the Emerald Buddha, the jade statue wasn’t the temple’s only famous resident. The Phra Bang was taken here after the Kingdom of Vientiane’s formation in 1707. Phra Bang replicas can be spotted both inside and outside of the temple. 

Haw Pha Kaew Exterior

A visit to Haw Phra Kaew likely won’t take up a whole lot of your time, as there is only one structure to see. Be sure to walk all around the building, though, as there are also some interesting relics kept out back.

How to Spend Your Time in Vientiane

As a city, Vientiane is not nearly as charming as Luang Prabang. To put it bluntly, the city is dull, gray and just plain ugly. But its prominent landmarks, when looked at in isolation, could be considered equally as stunning as any of the temples in Luang Prabang.

Literally just across the street from Haw Phra Bang is Wat Sisaket, an old temple known for, well, having lots of Buddha statues. But the temple is also one of the few to survive Vientiane’s numerous foreign invasions.

Also be sure to also make a visit to Pha That Luang, another temple commissioned by King Setthathirath. It’s quite a distance from the Haw Phra Kaew area but well worth seeing. Known for its trademark golden stupa, the large complex features plenty of other buildings and outdoor areas to explore.

In the center of town you can find the city’s most iconic landmark, the Patuxai monument. And be sure to schedule an entire afternoon to take a bus over to the otherworldly Buddha Park.

Next in Part Three, a brave general and future king gets his hands on both the Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang . . .

Haw Pha Kaew Phra Bang

Additional Info

There are a number of convenient ways to get to Luang Prabang.

People traveling in northern Thailand prior to their visit to Laos often take a Mekong river cruise to get there. This is an option best suited for those with plenty of time on their hands. The journey takes at least a couple of days, and most cruises stop in a town somewhere at night. There are a number of river cruise options out there, so it’s best to do extensive research if you’re interested.

Luang Prabang also has an international airport with direct flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Riep and Kuala Lumpur.

At the airport, you can get a visa on arrival for $35 USD. To save yourself some hassle, it’s best to have the cash on hand in advance, as the ATM’s are actually outside the airport.

Traveling from within Laos, you can take a domestic flight, but bear in mind the domestic flights in Laos tend to be considerably pricier than in neighboring countries.

The bus is another option, but many complain of the poor roads and overall uncomfortable ride. Coming straight from Vientiane by bus is too much for many people, solots of travelers break up the journey by stopping at the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng in between.

Luang Prabang is small and easily traversable on foot. Simply staying anywhere on the main peninsula would be ideal, as this gives you easy access to most of the town’s main landmarks. There are also some hotels and guest houses a little bit south of the peninsula, right by Wat Visounnarath.

Vientiane is a popular overland destination for people traveling in Thailand. Either they use it as an entry point to explore the rest of Laos, or simply renew their Thai visa at the embassy before heading back. In any case, if you’re coming from Thailand, the town on the Thai side of the border/river is known as Nong Khai. Nong Khai is accessible from Bangkok by train or bus, and it’s not too far from Udon Thani airport, either.

From Nong Khai you can take a bus straight into Thailand. However, keep in mind that even though Laos has a visa-on-arrival system, many bus operators demand that you get your Laos visa in advance to avoid any potential slowdown.

Vientiane, of course, has an international airport which you can reach from most major cities in Southeast Asia or from within Laos. However, flights to and from this airport, whether international or domestic, tend to be pricier than other routes in the region.

One way to save money if you’ll be traveling in Thailand first would be to fly to Udon Thani airport from either Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Then, just take a bus over the border to Vientiane. You can do this for roughly a third of the price for what a direct international flight to Vientiane normally costs. The same also applies in reverse.

Vientiane, while not huge, is a lot more spread out than Luang Prabang. While Haw Phra Kaew and Wat Sisaket are right next to each other, landmarks like Pha That Luang and the Buddha Park are in completely different parts of the city.

I would recommend staying somewhere within walking distance of Vientiane Bus Station, which is right behind Talat Sao shopping mall. This is where the buses for both the Buddha park and the Thai border depart from.

Chasing the Emerald Buddha: Part Two

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