Haw Phra Kaew was built in 1565–1566 on the orders of King Setthathirath after he moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The temple was built on the grounds of the royal palace to house the Emerald Buddha figurine, which Setthathirath had brought from Chiang Mai, then the capital of Lanna, to Luang Prabang. The temple was used as Setthathirath's personal place of worship, and because of this, there were no resident monks in this temple unlike other temples in Laos. After that, it had several rebuilt a few times.
Haw Phra Kaew is now used as a museum where some of the best examples of Laos religious art is displayed. A number of Buddhas are placed on the terrace, including stone Buddhas dating from the 6th to 9th century, and bronze standing and seated Buddha of later periods. More Buddhas images are displayed in the sim - the sim is the main ordination hall where the religious ceremony is conducted. The ornately carved wooden doors to the sim are original to the old temple. The Buddha images displayed include a wooden copy of Phra Bang, the palladium of Laos. There is also a gilded throne for the Emerald Buddha, Khmer stone steles, wood carvings, bronze frog drum, and Buddhist manuscripts inscribed on palm leaves.
The building is set in a landscaped garden, and among the items on display in the garden is a 2,000 year old stone jar from the Plain of Jars of Xieng Khouang Plateau.