Imagine for a moment…. a multi-tiered, exceptionally preserved, 1000 year-old complex of ruined palaces and temples, a Hindu turned Buddhist sanctuary, nestled in the mountains in the Mekong valley.
As I mentioned in my previous post, many people venture to (mostly) remote southern Laos to visit the Khmer-era ruins of Vat Phou Champasak (also spelled: Wat Phu). This UNESCO World Heritage Site (#481) dates back to the Angkorian period and is one of the most impressive and important archeological sites in Laos.
The site sits picturesquely at the base of a mountain and may be reached via Pakse (two hours), or you may opt to stay in sleepy, one-street Champasak or Don Deng, as we did. Wat Phu is divided into an upper and lower parts, joined by a steep and precarious stairway (more on that steep stairway in a bit).
Lower Level Palaces
Two ruined palace buildings reside in the lower portion at the edge of a large rectangular pond. The temple sanctuary sits atop the upper portion, which once contained a large shiva phallus. Originally Hindu, the site was converted into a Buddhist temple, although the Hindu sculptures remain.
Climbing Up, Up, Up
You know how I mentioned those precarious stairs earlier? Well, I nearly broke my ankle, at least ten times. It would have been nice to know not to wear flip flops (come on, it’s HOT in southern Laos!) on this little expedition. If I only I knew then….
These were some seriously saggy, steep, and uneven stairs. Wear your trainers (sneakers, tennis shoes, running shoes, whatever you prefer to call the athletic-purpose foot-gear with laces) not your flip-flops!!
Upper Level Temples
UNESCO describes Vat Phou Champasak as a “remarkably well preserved planned landscape” for it’s 1000 year-old existence, and that it is an “outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings.”
Many make the pilgrimage to Wat Phu for religious and spiritual reasons. This is a sacred Buddhist site, after all.
I’m reminded, here, of the jungle temples in Cambodia’s ruined Angkor city. Just add some serious climbing and a mountain backdrop, and voila: Vat Phou Champasak!
I wonder if the sticks are intended to hold up the massive rock-face? Hmmm….
And here I am, your narrator.
Wat Phu was created to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between humanity and nature, expressly apparent in the use of an axis from mountain top to river bank, filled out with a geometric pattern of shrines, temples, and water formations.
Once at the top, you are rewarded with spectacular views of lower Wat Phu and the Mekong valley. It’s definitely worth the climb!
Stunning Stone Carvings
Also located on the upper sanctuary level are the enigmatic crocodile and elephant stones!
This one looks like snakes to me, a naga maybe?
Tips and Takeaways
Heading down was not much easier than trucking it up the stairs. Again, I was wishing for sneakers here instead of flip flops!
If you’re planning on visiting Vat Phou Champasak (or Wat Phu):
- Allow half a day (or at least four hours) to enjoy the site. It takes over an hour (maybe two) to leisurely walk to (and through) the lower level palace ruins from the entrance and then climb to the upper level temple complex. Once you are up there, you definitely need some time to explore the temples and walk the short distance to the elephant and crocodile stones. Then just sit, catch your breath, and enjoy the sweeping views of the Mekong valley below (or maybe you do this first!!). Then you have to climb back down! There’s also a museum at the entrance, which you may want to allow time for exploring. If you have a smart phone, guess what? There is free wi-fi at the entrance lobby! It was perfect to relax with a cold drink, checking email in the shade, while waiting for the rest of the group to return.
- Be prepared. Seriously, wear closed-toed shoes, athletic shoes if you have them. And bring plenty of water. You will definitely need it.
- Add a stay on the island of Don Deng to your trip for a truly culturally authentic experience.
As always, thanks for stopping by!