Wat Phou: What the Khmers did before they reached Angkor

Wat Phou (“mountain temple”) is a ruined Khmer temple complex that is situated on a hillside and offers stunning views over the surrounding land and Mekong River. Even older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the historic Wat Phou has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Wat Phou is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos. One temple in the site was constructed around the 5th century but most buildings found in the complex are from the 11th to 13th centuries. Like other notable Khmer architecture in Southeast Asia, it was constructed using sandstone. Among many of the outstanding carvings there are the Indra, the Hindu God of War, riding a three-headed elephant, and Vishnu riding a Garuda.

Wat Phou has been an active temple for Buddhist religious practice for quite some time because Buddhism replaced Hinduism in Laos in the mid 13th century. There is an altar at the front section of its sanctuary featuring four big Buddha images with more Buddha images around the ruins.

If you visit Wat Phou on the full moon of the third lunar month (usually in February), you will come across the temple’s biggest annual festival with many impressive ceremonies and fun activities going on during the week-long period. These include monk-blessing ceremonies, elephant racing, cock-fighting, live music, and traditional Lao dancing.

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Other features of the temple complex are interesting and intricate carvings: a Buddha’s footprint on the cliff-face, and boulders shaped to resemble elephants and a crocodile. The crocodile stone has acquired some notoriety as being possibly the site of an annual human sacrifice described in a 6th century Chinese text; the identification is lent some plausibility by the similarity of the crocodile’s dimensions to those of a human.

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Being a huge fan of Angkorian architecture (in fact FASCINATED by it), I was very interested in visiting this rare sight in the middle of nowhere in Southern Laos. I was also fascinated to learn that there used to be a main road that stretched south west from Wat Phou all the way to Angkor! Now that’s a journey I would love to take one day (on horseback or elephant-back, just for the added realism, you’ll understand)! Unlike, the thousands of visitors you will at Angkor Wat on any given day, I was happy to notice that there were only 3 other people here at Wat Phou with me. It was like being part of the wilderness, and it provided a great calming atmosphere to such an important UNESCO World Heritage site.

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As I was staying in a guesthouse in Champasak, and not the larger city of Pakse, I just hopped on a bike and rode down to Wat Phou early one morning, so my 30 minute journey to this ruined temple complex was completely free (if a little tough on the legs). It makes me want to go back to Siem Reap and explore the Angkorian temples again – only this time on bike rather than tuktuk! Admission to the Wat Phou complex is 30,000 Kip per person and although it might seem a small site, I actually spent near enough 2 hours walking around and looking in the little nook and crannies.

It was an enchanting experience and yet another reason why southern Laos should be included more prominently on backpackers’ itineraries.

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8 thoughts on “Wat Phou: What the Khmers did before they reached Angkor

    1. I’m not an expert on the Khmer Empire’s history, but it’s something I always try to learn about when I get the chance. Have you been to Siem Reap? That’s the best way to learn. Just hire a guide to show you around the major temples there. 🙂

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      1. Yeah I’ve been twice and I find the whole place fascinating. It’s incredible to think that Angkor was the most populous city in the world at the height of its powers. It’s hard to picture when amongst it but all those trees stand where one there was city streets and houses.

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  1. I recently visited Wat Phou and then Angkor Wat a few days later. While the ruins at the latter are more extensive and better preserved, the Wat Phou site left more of an impression on me, because of the story of it having been the original Khmer capital well before their move to Angkor Wat, and the road running between the two. I would like to learn more about the road itself; a brief search of the internet didn’t turn up much, but I plan to pursue it.

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    1. Yes the ruins of Wat Phou do enchant people, as it as well as its beauty, there are hardly any tourists here, which makes it more enjoyable overall.

      I don’t know much about the road to Angkor either. It would be cool to learn one day. And Also what made the Khmers stop at Angkor anyway?

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