The Enduring Buddha at War-Ravaged Wat Phia Wat, Laos

Wat Phia Wat and its focal point — a war-scarred Buddha statue — are located in Muang Khoun, only 30 kilometers from Phonsavan, Laos. Muang Khoun was previously the region’s capital city, but all that remains of the capital today are the fragments of Wat Phia Wat, as well as a few stupas.

Given rugged dirt roads we’d encountered just days earlier on a tour of the Plain of Jars, we were not eager to hop back into a tuktuk and endure more bumpiness to get to Wat Phia Wat. (During that earlier drive, we’d felt like kernels of corn being tossed in a popcorn popper!) Nevertheless, to better understand the American Secret War in Laos, Shawn and I felt it was important to see Wat Phia Wat, so we pressed on. 

Once underway, we were pleasantly surprised by how smooth the asphalt road actually was. We were also rewarded with pleasant views, catching glimpses of what rice paddies look like during the dry season.

Arriving in Muang Khoun, we found ourselves moved by the sight of the Buddha statue, which has endured so much over the centuries. Sadly, only the temple’s brick foundation and a few columns survive.

Wat Phia Wat is said to have been constructed in 1322, but since that time it’s faced numerous bouts of destruction.

When the Chinese invaded In the 14th century, the structure was damaged, leaving the Buddha statue’s arm severed. It was soon rebuilt.

In 1953, during the First Indochina War, Wat Phia Wat was again destroyed — this time by the French.

In 1966, after Wat Phia Wat had been rebuilt a second time, the temple was once more shattered — this time by American bombing raids.

Today, with a missing eye, scarred right cheek and lip, the Buddha statue looks rather melancholy. Nevertheless, it is revered by worshippers, who still pray here. You can see tiny Buddha statues they’ve left behind, as well as the remains of incense sticks.

I can only hope that Wat Phia Wat will be spared future ravages of war.

A damaged Buddha rises from the ruins of Wat Phia Wat in Laos.
Close-up of the damaged Buddha at Wat Phia Wat
A close-up of the torso of a damaged Buddha statue at the Wat Phia Wat in Laos.
Two women pray at the foot of a damaged Buddha at Wat Phia Wat in Laos.
A close-up of the damaged Buddha statue at the Wat Phia Wat temple in Laos.
A close-up of the hand of the damaged Buddha statue at the Wat Phia Wat Temple in Laos.
A glimpse of the damaged Buddha statue at Wat Pia Wat in Laos. The photo is taken through a broken-out hole in the brick wall.
A damaged wall and Buddha statue at Laos' Wat Phia Wat Temple.
A donation box at the damaged Wat Phia Wat Temple in Laos. The writing on the box is English and Laotian. The English says, "Donations Please."
A woman climbs the steps at the ruined Wat Piha Wat Temple in Laos.
The remains of a reddish-orange brick wall at the Wat Phia Wat Temple in Laos.
A pile of orange-red bricks at the Wat Phia Wat Ruins in Laos.
A ruined column and the damaged Buddha statue at Wat Phia Wat in Laos.
A close-up of a Buddha statue's damaged head at Wat Phia Wat in Laos. The statue's right eye is chipped.

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

8 thoughts on “The Enduring Buddha at War-Ravaged Wat Phia Wat, Laos

    1. Hi Indiaphare – thanks for your comment. The sites in Laos are amazing, but this one was particularly haunting considering the temple’s destruction. We’re happy to now be in beautiful gem, Luang Prabang!

  1. Tricia, I can’t get enough of your gorgeous pictures in Laos! I am so excited and feel tremendously lucky to have the opportunity to live there for several years. Though I’ll be based in Vientiane, I hope to get out to some of the places you’ve shared with us here. Thank you.

    1. Wanderlustress, as they say in Laos, “khawp jai lai lai.” So happy you enjoyed the images! My visits to Laos were very special and we’re considering projects to help there – if even small.

      It’s exciting that you and your family will soon be heading to Vientiane. During my two visits, I really enjoyed the city’s vibe. Your little ones might have fun exploring Buddha Park – a place I’ll be posting on soon. (Yes, after 5 months of an Asian sabbatical, I still have thousands of photos and tales to share!)

      I look forward to hearing about your new life chapter – so glad our paths crossed!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing Lao history,bring tears to my eyes. I can’t imagine what they went through. The Buddha statue represent the strong people of Laos.

    1. Hi Annie, I’m happy to hear that you found this post touching. Since the people of Laos are still being gravely impacted by this unexploded ordnance (UXO), I was elated to hear recent news of the $90 million U.S. commitment to removing UXO in Laos over the next 3 years. It seems a bit late in coming, but here’s hoping it will make a difference! Are you thinking of traveling to Laos soon?

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