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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The main courtyard held several Buddha images, all swathed in robes and surrounded by many offerings.
Perhaps most impressive were the array of carvings that had survived many centuries of neglect to remain fully intact.
I was also really taken by the areas of the structure that had fallen apart, which made for some very interesting photo oppprtunities!
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?
What About You?
Have you visited Wat Phu? What did you think?
24 replies on “Photo Essay: Wat Phu, Laos’ Khmer History”
Looks gorgeous! This place will definitely be going on my list of places to visit when I get back to South East Asia.
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.
What a cool place!
Indeed it is quite a cool little place!
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!
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).
I passed right by this going from Don Det to Pakse – had no idea it was there! Agreed on the overnight bus. uuggghhh
Aw shucks! I hope Don Det was worth it though! I sure tought so!
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!
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).
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!
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!
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.
Stunning images. The close-ups are excellent.
Incredible! Love this type of architecture, we saw similar at Ayutthaya while in Bangkok
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.
Oh Thanks Aaron, I guess Aytthaya is all I have to compare with 🙂
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?
Yeah I did, Unique is the right word! Incredible!!
Now you just have to go and see the real thing… 😛
Very true! It is on our ever growing “to visit” list!
Ah the ever growing list! Mine is so long I don’t think I’ll ever be able to complete it!
HHAHAHA! I know the feeling!