Photo Essay: Wat Phu, Laos’ Khmer History

Deep in the forests of southern Laos, a place where few travelers venture, lies an ancient relic. A relic that is instantly recognizable as the work of the Khmer Empire, who ruled over much of Southeast Asia during the Middle Ages. They left behind some very impressive religious sites, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia. But as you venture a few kilometers from the mighty Mekong River near the Laotian town of Champasak, you come across quite a site: Wat Phu Champasak (also simply known as Wat Phu or Vat Phou).

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

Nestled on a hill, symbolically topped by a natural lingam (a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva), this temple dates back to somewhere within the 11th to 13th centuries CE. And approaching from the road, you’d almost never know anything was here, especially considering how tough it is to get here! I’d already taken a miserable overnight bus from Vientiane to Pakse, then a songthaew and a boat across the Mekong to Champasak and then a bicycle to get here!

Ticket Sales at Wat Phu Champasak

Upon entering, the site looks rather lackluster, which left me thinking…did I come all this way for this? I had a feeling though that UNESCO, who declared this to be a World Heritage Site in 2001, wouldn’t let me down. On either side of the path lay a couple of reflecting pools, only one of which still contained water. Beyond them some ruins of what were once palaces.

Overlooking the lower Wat Phu Champasak Site

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

Ahead lay what appeared to have once been a staircase, though now it lay in such a state of disrepair that a ramp may have been a better way of describing it. Like the Temples of Angkor, this place had multiple levels, though here they were built into a hill.

Stairs to Wat Phu Champasak

Along the way, it was hard to miss the offerings people had left, a reminder that, for many, these ruins are still an active religious site.

Flower at Wat Phu Champasak

Flower at Wat Phu Champasak

Wat Phu in Photos

The top level held what I came here to see. This was the sanctuary, in all its glory. Sheltered by trees and obstructed from below, it is in a strikingly well-kept state.

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

The main courtyard held several Buddha images, all swathed in robes and surrounded by many offerings.

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

Perhaps most impressive were the array of carvings that had survived many centuries of neglect to remain fully intact.

Carvings at Wat Phu Campasak

Apsara at Wat Phu Champasak

Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Carvings at Wat Phu Campasak

I was also really taken by the areas of the structure that had fallen apart, which made for some very interesting photo oppprtunities!

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

Ruins at Wat Phu Champasak

I’ll leave you with strange carving I encountered on my way down. Can you figure out what it may be? Some sort of reptile perhaps?

Reptile Carving?

What About You?

Have you visited Wat Phu? What did you think?


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24 Responses to Photo Essay: Wat Phu, Laos’ Khmer History

  1. Sam March 14, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    Looks gorgeous! This place will definitely be going on my list of places to visit when I get back to South East Asia.

    • Aaron March 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

      Indeed it is. I think it’s better visited before you visit Angkor Wat, as it’s a much smaller site. I visited after Angkor Wat and was not nearly as wowed as my friend who was seeing Khmer ruins for the first time.

  2. Talon March 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    What a cool place!

    • Aaron March 15, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

      Indeed it is quite a cool little place!

  3. Ian Ord - Where Sidewalks End March 16, 2013 at 12:49 am #

    That’s an awesome find, Aaron! I’ll be heading in to Laos next month, so this will be a perfect spot to check out and snap some shots of my own! 🙂 Thanks for sharing, mate!

    • Aaron March 16, 2013 at 10:20 am #

      Sure thing! Enjoy! And be forewarned, it’s not particularly easy to get here, but you can stop on the way to 4,000 Islands (which I would also strongly encourage you to visit).

  4. Kristin Addis March 16, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    I passed right by this going from Don Det to Pakse – had no idea it was there! Agreed on the overnight bus. uuggghhh

    • Aaron March 16, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Aw shucks! I hope Don Det was worth it though! I sure tought so!

  5. Maria March 16, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Sad to see such a place in such a state but it does offer more opportunity for exploration and close-up investigation. Once found, I doubt it’s a place easy to leave. Wow!

    • Aaron March 16, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      Well, it’s a fairly small site and, for Laos, it’s fairly well kept. I actually really enjoyed the ramp-like staircase as I prefer to see ruins the way they were found as opposed to all rebuilt and nice (it’s one of the reasons I hated Luxor, Egypt actually).

      • Maria March 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

        Oh yeah! I’d imagine feeling like an explorer at a new discovery. way to go Aaron and thanks again for bringing it to me. Feels like Xmas!

  6. Neil Barnes (@packsandbunks) March 19, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    This looks incredible. As Maria said, it kind of sad that parts are falling down, but at the same time I adds a little something, as if you stumbled upon something untouched in X number years. Either way, great post!

    • Aaron March 22, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

      You know I’d actually rather see ruins this way, as opposed to all nicely renovated. It’s one of the many reasons that I disliked Luxor, Egypt as the ruins were so renovated that they actually felt fake! When they’re in this conidion, it also adds a nice atmosphere.

  7. Lane April 2, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    Stunning images. The close-ups are excellent.

    • Aaron April 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm #


  8. Sam @ May 9, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    Incredible! Love this type of architecture, we saw similar at Ayutthaya while in Bangkok

    • Aaron May 9, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

      Actually, this is Khmer-style architecture, so it’s much closer to the temples of Angkor and to Lopburi in Thailand than it is to Ayutthaya.

      • Sam @ May 9, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

        Oh Thanks Aaron, I guess Aytthaya is all I have to compare with 🙂

        • Aaron May 9, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

          Haha no worries! The Khmer architectural style is pretty unique and their empire was centered in Cambodia. Did you see the model of Angkor Wat at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace?

          • Sam @ May 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

            Yeah I did, Unique is the right word! Incredible!!

          • Aaron May 9, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

            Now you just have to go and see the real thing… 😛

  9. Sam @ May 9, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    Very true! It is on our ever growing “to visit” list!

    • Aaron May 9, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

      Ah the ever growing list! Mine is so long I don’t think I’ll ever be able to complete it!

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