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?