That Dam, or black stupa, is located on a quiet roundabout not far from Talat Sao (the morning market) and the American Embassy. That in Laotian refers to an inverted bell shape (or unopened lotus flower) structure that usually contains relics of the Buddha.
Legend has it that a seven-headed water serpent – a ‘Naga’ lived here to protect the stupa that was once covered in pure gold. During the Siamese-Laotian war in the 1820s, the gold was pillaged and taken to Siam, now Thailand, leaving the legacy that is the black stupa today.
Known as the ‘Black Stupa’, many locals believe this mythological structure was once inhabited by a seven-headed dragon (now dormant) that stood to protect the city from the threat of the Siamese. Another tale that does the rounds says that the gold that once graced the surface was taken when the Siamese army ransacked Vientiane back in 1828.
As if to serve as a memorial to that terrible act, the crumbling and weather-worn That Dam stands forlorn, neglected and un-loved. There are no glittering embellishments typical of similar establishments in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries; no worshippers come here to pray.
Nevertheless, the Lao still regard That Dam as the city’s guardian spirit. Legend, folklore, and history all combine to make this structure a curious and charming place to visit. It makes a change from most religious sites in nearby Thailand, for example, where stupas and temples are endlessly renovated and rebuilt, and history, at best, is lost and buried deep within them.