Nestled in the foothills of the Phu Pasak mountain range of southern Laos, the ancient ruins of Wat Phou (also spelled Wat Phu or Vat Phou), which literally means “Temple of the Mountain,” have a special atmosphere to them, inspiring serenity and bliss in those who walk the sacred grounds.
Surrounding the temple complex is the province of Champasak, once a bustling region of enormous historical significance, both political and spiritual, as it was a seat of Khmer imperial power. Today, however, within a stone’s throw of Wat Phou, the little colonial town of Champasak, a quaint village with French colonial-era buildings, sees little intrusion from outsiders and displays none of the area’s immense 13th-century splendour. The ruins nevertheless continue to attract pilgrims and visitors, who marvel at the ancient stone sculptures and majestic carved boulders.
A Well-Deserved Status
In 2001, due to their unique cultural significance and beauty, the Wat Phou ruins were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This status sparked renewed interest from the Lao government, and, since 2007, both the Lao Information Ministry and the French Cultural Ministry are engaged in archaeological studies, as well as renovation of both the structures and their decorative engravings.
The 390-square-kilometre complex – which includes the smaller Tao Tao, Nang Sida and Tomo temples – is exceptional testimony of the Khmer practice of Hinduism. In addition to the surviving stone-carved evidence of this dating back to the 6th century, the site itself perfectly portrays the Hindu vision of symbiosis between nature and the human soul, the temples being isolated within the confines of the forest.
This unique natural sanctity is enhanced by the alignment of the edifices at the lower and middle levels of the complex with the mountain summit. Nowadays, the bottom-to-top climb holds tremendous spiritual significance to Buddhists, who leave prayers and offerings on the way up and at the temple on top of the hill.
Divine Natural Manifestations
The great Phu Kao Mountain looms over the site and is believed to be one of the primary reasons for the establishment of Wat Phou. The mountain’s silhouette is said to resemble a linga, a universal symbol of Lord Shiva, and a river descending from the mountaintop symbolises the stream of life that flows from Lord Shiva’s head (mimicking the reasons for the reverence of Mount Kailash in Tibet). Fittingly, an abundance of tales and folklore illustrates the divine powers that lie in these grounds: the temple is said to have cured people made wretched by illnesses and brought prosperity to those who sought blessings.
After so many centuries, the surrounding voracious forest seems to be reclaiming what once belonged to it; trees and dense vegetation encroach on and around the grounds of the site. The effect is incredible, full of unexpected beauty. “From a tourist perspective, you walk up the centuries-old stone staircase of Wat Phou, under the frangipani trees that push directly out of the rock, to emerge before panoramic views of the surrounding area,” recalls Lee Sheridan, General Manager of Teamworkz, the whl.travel local travel connection in Laos. “The bird’s-eye view from the top of the hill takes in the temple ruins below, which are assumed to be prayer rooms. Beyond this you have two lakes, beyond which the Mekong River drifts silently past.”
Definite Must-See in Laos
In addition to the site’s clear historical appeal, a trip to the ruins is essential for visitors with spiritual inclinations: the calm surroundings, the inherent mysticism and few visitors make it a great place to meditate. “Wat Phou is primarily a pilgrimage place,” explains Alexandre Tsuk, Managing Director of the Inthira Group, which manages the Inthira Hotel, an excellent-value lodging set in a former Chinese shop house in Champasak town. “You can buy flowers to offer at the temple and you don t have the impression you’re in a tourist site at all.”
After exploring the ancient ruins, a visit to the on-site museum reveals sculptures and relics removed from their original locations in the complex to avoid destruction from erosion.
Travellers with a few days to spare might enjoy arriving at the site after three tranquil days on a Mekong River boat cruise to Wat Phou. A full moon at Wat Phou is also special, as 10,000 candles are spread at night over the ancient ruins. This is in contrast to the first week of February, when the annual multi-day Wat Phou Festival brings the normally quiet site alive with ceremonies, games and processions of monks. Throughout the year, more adventurous travellers can join guided explorations of caves found on Phu Kao Mountain.