Wat Phu (500 kilometers south of Vientiane on the east bank of the Mekong River in Champasack province, near the Cambodian border) is one of Laos’s great architectural treasures. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries, it is a marvelous set of Khmer ruins featuring graceful galleries and pavilions that extend for 1,400 meters (1,530 yards) over six natural terraces on the lower slopes of a richly forested mountain, facing the Mekong River. The mountain is believed to have been sacred to local people long before a temple was built on it. The Khmer temple was dedicated to Siva and is regarded as one of the earliest Khmer sanctuaries. Located at the northernmost portion of the Khmer Empire (A.D. 800-1200), it was established by the same king who built Angkor in Cambodia. It was most recently renovated by King Suryavarman I in the 11th century.

Perched on three artificial terraces built in the side of a plateau above the Mekong River, Wat Phu (Vat Phou) covers one and half square miles and encompasses a main sanctuary, six ancillary shrines, two "palaces," a monumental staircase with processional path, Hindu and Buddhist stone carving, and two large reservoirs. Two smaller sanctuaries are connected by a paved road. A third sanctuary is on the opposite of the Mekong River. The view of the Mekong River and valley from the temple is stunning. Sometimes monkeys climb around on the ruins.

Wat Phu means "Mountain Temple." It is reached by a walkway that passes several platforms with smaller temples. The archeological site is divided into three main levels joined by a promenade: 1) a rectangular pavilion built in the 20th century and used by the Lao monarch to watch the Wat Phu Festival; 2) two rectangular pavilions in the middle-level with original 6th century sculpted lintel with images of Siva, Vishnu , Kali, Mandi bulls and Khmer monarchs; and 3) a sanctuary that encloses a large linga, (Shiva phallus). A lintel in the sanctuary depicts Krishna killing his uncle. Sections of a stone pipe that carried water from a sacred cave to the sanctuary are visible.

Champasak Town: Gateway to Wat Phu

Champasak Town (a few hours south of Pakse by truck or boat) is a town with 40,000 that was once an important French colonial town. It has a few dilapidated French colonial buildings and some wats. It is mainly a jumping off point for the Champasak Cultural Park and Wat Phu. Some artifacts from these site are sitting in an office next to the UNESCO office and there is some discussion of making a museum for them.

Champasak District lies 500 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, on the west bank of the Mekong River and is surrounded by Kao Mountain. Because of its location on the terrace of Kao Mountain, you can see the beauty of town, fields and the Mekong River wonderfully from the Mountain. From Wat Phou down to ancient road (this ancient road probably led from Wat phou all the way to Angkor there are several historical sites where travelers can visit. There are also many fine examples of traditional Lao homes and buildings from the colonial period. If you are in Champasack during February, don't miss the Vat Phou Festival

Getting There: Wat Phu and the Champasak Cultural Landscape Area is 8 kilometers south of Champasak. To reach it visitors should turn off National Highway 13 some 32 kilometers south of Pakse and continue 4 kilometers to the Mekong River ferry; Wat Phou Champasack lies 14 kilometers south of the ferry terminal on the other site.

Wat Phu and the Champasak Cultural Landscape Area

The Wat Phu temple complex is a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Around Wat Phu are well preserved remains of a sophisticated ancient city. Human sacrifices may have been conducted here. Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor.

In the early 1990s archeologists began excavating around Wat Phu in Chamasak, near the border of present-day Cambodia in southern Laos, and unearthed the well preserved remains of two sophisticated ancient cities: 1) Shrestrapura, which dates back to the 5th century and is regarded as a cradle of the Angkorian empire of Cambodia; and 2) Lingapura, which thrived from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the ancient city of Shestrapura and many little known but interesting archeological sites along the banks of the Mekong River .

Shrestrapura had a rectangular plan and measures 2.3-by-1.8 kilometers and was surrounded by double earthen walls on three sides and the Mekong River on the other side. Other remains include circular foundations, traces of an irrigation system, Hindu statuary, stone tools and ceramics. The site was dated to 5th century by stelae with Sanskrit inscriptions, the oldest of their kind in Southeast Asia. There is evidence of a Hindu shrine that may date to A.D. 3rd century.

The site is being studied by a team lead by Italian archeologist Patrizia Zolese of the Lerici Foundation. Interesting finds include beautiful and well-preserved stone reliefs, ancient ramparts, irrigation canals and a road leading to Angkor. The site is very fragile and preservationist worry about the effects of nature and tourism on it. Major restoration work has yet to be done but there are concerns it might be done in a shoddy, haphzard way. The site welcomed 50,000 visitors in 2000.

Wat Phu: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape was designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 According to UNESCO: The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou [Wat Phu] Temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. It was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 kilometers. Two planned cities on the banks of the Mekong River are also part of the site, as well as Phou Kao mountain. The whole represents a development ranging from the 5th to 15th centuries, mainly associated with the Khmer Empire. [Source: UNESCO]

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of Southeast Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire which dominated the region in the 10th–14th centuries. The site is also an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings. Contrived to express the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity, Vat Phou exhibits a remarkable complex of monuments and other structures over an extensive area between river and mountain, some of outstanding architecture, many containing great works of art, and all expressing intense religious conviction and commitment.

The site along with other outlining temple was inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage List as Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasack Cultural landscape. An Exhibition Hall funded by the Japanese government was opened at the main entrance area to the site in 2003; this houses important artifacts recovered both within and nearby the complex. A major festival is held at the site in February each year.

History of Wat Phu

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of South-East Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire, which dominated the region in the 10th-14th centuries. It is an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings, expressing the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity. [Source: UNESCO]

The origins of the site lie before AD 600, at least at the city of Shrestrapura, where archaeological research has produced evidence of pre-Angkorian times (until c . AD 900). The evidence from its inscriptions has shown that Champasak region was one the old kingdom of Sethapuora in the 5th century A.D., governed by King Thevanika who may be a Cham person. The location of this old Kingdom is about 6.5 kilometers to the east of Wat Phou and share a border with the Mekong River near Wat LaungKao and Phanonneau village, which 400 hectares. The development of the site as a whole, however, was intimately bound up with the origin, development and zenith of the Khmer Empire between the 7th and 12th centuries.

A new line of kings probably centred in the Champasak region expanded its authority from its capital at Isanapura from the 10th century onwards, until it encompassed not only most of modern Cambodia but also much of what is now eastern Thailand. The floruit of the elaborate landscape at Vat Phou occurred during these centuries. Its historical significance lies in its role as an imperial center and its demonstration of Indian rather than Chinese influence in the clear evidence of Hindu religious belief. The last major developments to the Champasak cultural landscape were in the 13th century, just before the collapse of the Khmer Empire.

There is no evidence of any maintenance of the monumental buildings since then, although various other occupations and events have occurred on the site. Vat Phou itself, in contrast to what it represented in the first millennium, was converted to Theravada Buddhism and remains a local center of worship today. Essentially, however, the area reverted to secondary forest, which covered most of it when the first Europeans arrived in the 19th century. An annual Vat Phou Festival demonstrates the continuing place of the site in the lives of the local community.

Wat Phu Complex

Wat Phu Complex and Champasack Heritage is an excellent example of early classical Khmer architecture, dating from the 7th to 12th centuries AD. At the foot of Wat Phu is the ancient city of Shestupura, which was settled in the 5th century AD, and is believed to be the oldest urban settlement in Southeast Asia. Besides the main Wat Phu Temple Complex, there are several archeological and nature sites nearby that can take some time to explore.

Wat Phu Champasack is the most famous Hindu temple complex built in Laos under the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of Southeast Asia from the 10th to 14th century. Ancient stone inscriptions found at the complex, describe how it was first built in the 5th century, its gradually began to fall into ruins, before it was finally restored to its former glory in the early 11th century. The temple was further expanded in the 12th and 13th century, with the addition of a new section designed to support the east-west axis, which runs from the foot of a dramatic hillside known as Mount Phou Nak, to the impressive Pathan Palace.

Wat Phu Champasack is distinguished as much by its dramatic and symbolic environmental setting as it is for its masterful architecture and iconographic arts. The temple nestles at the foot of the 1,408- meter Phou Khao Mountain, known in Sanskrit as LingaparWata or ‘Linga Mountain because it is said to resemble the Linga of the Hindu god Shiva. Reputed by legend to be Shiva’s birthplace, this has been a sacred site since in least the A.D. 5th century, when near by Setapura is believed to have been a capital of the proto-Khmer kingdom of upper (Land) Chenla. Construction of the Wat Phu temple as begun as early as the 7th century - under Jayavarman I, though most of the surviving building date from the reigns of Jayavarman VI (1080-1107).

The use of a natural mountain-top eye-catcher (elevation 1,416 meters) and the relatively high degree of survival of landscape and its structural components, assist present-day appreciation of the grand concept of the original design of what was always intended to be a 'cultural landscape'. Much of it continues in use now as shallow paddy-fields for rice.

Buildings and Features of the Wat Phu Complex

The complex is enormous and includes several large reflection pools and statues of various ruling kings. All these figures are designed to reflect the ethos of goodness and strength behind the Khmer Empire. A planned pre-Angkorian ancient city (4 ha) on the banks of the Mekong appears to have been replaced as the urban center by another planned city immediately south of Vat Phou itself in the Angkor period. A probably contemporary road leads southwards from it, past quarries and other industrial works. Many of these features exist in a carefully planned landscape laid out to reflect its sacred character as perceived by the builders of Vat Phou. The terraced Temple Complex lies at the foot of Phou Kao, stretching west-east to a freshwater spring on a rock Vat Phou temple complex, a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Shortly after the collapse of Khmer power, Buddhism became the dominant religion in most of Southeast Asia-yet remarkably. The temple remained largely unchanged. Only a few alterations were commissioned to better serve Buddhist practices, as well as the restoration of several ruined structures.

Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor. terrace where the shrine was built. An axial line from the natural linga (phallic-like point) on the mountain summit through the shrine was used as the basis for the layout of the temple complex: it is 1,400 meters long, with lakes as well as buildings to either side, bisected by an axial processional way.

Traces of the Khmer road were clearly identified though examination of a series of aerial photographs covering the area from Wat Phu to Angkor. Some extensive sections of the road are still clearly visible at ground level. The road was built after the Khmer Empire was unified, when traveling through provinces was no longer too dangerous. The connection from the Wat Phu temple complex to Angkor again points to the enduring sacred significance of the temple and the LingaparWata or Linga Mountain. The road was built of compacted earth and looks like a causeway. It can be easily recognized in some sections, but other are in poorer condition. Chapels or resting place were built at regular distances along the road; an inscription at Preah Khan (a 12th century temple at Angkor) mentions 121 rest houses (dharmasala) along the route, and ruins of several of them have been found. Today there are a number of villages as well as other ancient monuments along the road, and bushes and trees have grown on it. It is often possible to make out its base, but the track is not always easy to follow without the assistance of an archaeologist. The road starts from the Nandin Hall at Wat Phu Champasack, leading some scholars to suggest that this building was originally a sacred chapel or resting house where pilgrims arriving via the road would stay for their first devotions. A walk of one hour south along the road through open country and woodland leads first to Nang Sida and further to Ban That (18 kilometers from Wat Phou).

Wat Phu: a Living Temple

Converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 14th century Wat Phu still plays an important role in local religious life today. The temple complex measures 1,400 meters in line running east to west up the lower part of the Phou Khao Mountain. It is built on six different levels or terraces, connected by steps and central walkway. Most are man-made, but the uppermost level is a natural terrace where a spring flows out of the mountain. The water from this spring was channeled so that is flowed through the main sanctuary and over the central Shiva linga (the place of which is now occupied by a statue of the Buddha). From there the sacred stream flowed down the artificially terraced mountain slope in to two sacred reservoirs or barays and finally in to the Mekong River, whose life-giving waters were believed to sustain the whole of the ancient Khmer Empire. Standing structures within the temple complex include quadrangles, a Nandin Hall, small pavilions, brick towers, stairways and the main shrine, which was dedicated to Shiva.

Near the sanctuary is a wat with a few resident Buddhist monks. The view from here is said to be the best. A path leads to a boulder with a stylized crocodile on it. Some believed that human sacrifices were held here in the pre Anglor era. Within a few kilometers are three other Khmer sites that need some serious restoration work. In recent years, with the help of many international organizations and neighbouring countries, the complex has seen almost continuous renovation projects aimed at keeping what is left of the existing structure from collapsing.

Ever since Buddhism recognized Wat Phou as a site of huge religious and cultural importance, local authorities, together with several other organisations and local people, have organized Boun Wat Phou (Wat Phou Festival) on 15th day of the 3rd month of Lao lunar calendar. Designed to commemorate all those who have contributed to this wonder of ancient architecture and based on traditional Buddhist practices, the festival is held for either three days and three nights or seven days and seven night. It hosts displays of traditional music, dance, sports and a variety of local produce. Most importantly of all, on the final day, senior dignitaries and religious figures from around the country, come to take part in a traditional Taak Baat (alms ceremony). The festival also includes a parade of elephant or horses, a crafts fair and demonstrations of ancient traditions passed down by generations of people living off the surrounding land.

Coffee-Growing Area of Champasak Province

Paksong District (near Pakse) has coffee plantation, where visitors can learn how to grow great great coffee. The natural sites consist of Hao Soa Natural Preservation area, Sinxai hill, Nong Louang hill, and Thevada Mountain, an old volcano that exploded many thousands of years ago. There is also Huoay Hor Dam and Non Soung Agricultural Center located at thirty-five Etou village and Dao Heuang .

The Paksong area still has scars from the war such as bomb craters .In Ong Kea Ong Kommadam at Thong Wai village there is an old dam and army office which were built Laos was colonized by the French . Paksong is also well know for many its beautiful waterfalls, for example Houay Xang waterfall, Xang Set Khot waterfall, Xekatam tok waterfall Chetxanh waterfall andothers due to its geography, which consists of thick forests. A plateau and many streams, Tad fan and TAD Champy are fascinating waterfall only 38 kilometers from Pakse.

Coffee Research Center (35 kilometers from Pakse, en route to Paksong) offers Coffee tasting upon request during regular office Hours (8:30 am – 16:30 pm) Monday through Friday. Here You can also purchase fresh coffee or check out experiential coffee plots on the grounds. Coffee and tea are for sale. Nearby are major waterfall sites on the plateau, selected stores such as The Sala Bolaven near kilometers 12, offer a superb variety of local farmer’s products ranging from fruit jams to organic wine. To visit coffee plantations in the area and learn about production process, either hire a guide from tour company in Pakse or visit villages directly.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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