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Wat Phou

10th century Khmer temple in the South of Laos

The main sanctuary of the Wat Phou temple near Pakse, Laos
Main sanctuary

On the West bank of the Mekong river South of Pakse are the ruins of an ancient Khmer temple named Wat Phou. The temple and associated settlements are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Wat Phou or Vat Phu, which translates to “mountain temple” was built during the late 10th to early 11th century, which makes it older than Angkor’s best known monument, the Angkor Wat, which was built during the first half of the 12th century. Over the following centuries structures were added to the temple until the 14th century when the Angkor empire went into decline.

The Wat Phou was a temple dedicated to Shiva, one of the Gods of the Hindu Trimurti. In the 13th century it was converted into a Buddhist monastery. Even today the temple is still a place of worship for local Buddhists.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The well preserved temple complex is oriented towards the East. South of the main sanctuary is the ancient road to Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire. Apart from the Wat Phou itself, the UNESCO site consists of the Phu Kao mountain and the remains of two ancient cities named Lingapura and Shrestrapura, of which very little remains. The oldest is the ancient 5th century (pre Khmer) city of Shrestrapura, which was built on the banks of the Mekong river, about 6 kilometers from the temple. In the 12th century the Khmer built Lingapura, meaning “The city of lingas”, an ancient city South of the temple.

Lingaparvata, “Linga Mountain”

The Wat Phou is located at the base of Phu Kao mountain, overlooking the plains towards the Mekong river. In ancient Khmer times the mountain was named Lingaparvata, which translates to “Linga Mountain”, because of the pillar like stone formation on top that resembles a linga, the representation of the Hindu God Shiva. Because of the natural linga on top of Phu Kao mountain the Khmer considered the mountain as well as the water from the spring originating on it as sacred.

Hindu carving in stone at the Wat Phou
Hindu depiction carved in rock

Structures of the temple complex

The various structures of the Wat Phou are built on seven terraces, aligned on an axis from the Mekong river bank towards the mountain. Starting at the river bank the visitor finds two large barays, a long processional walkway, two palaces and finally the main sanctuary.

The Khmer built several large barays, some of which are now dry. The barays are huge water reservoirs that symbolize the oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the center of Hindu mythology.

A long processional walkway with boundary markers on either side leads from the barays towards the main sanctuary. Halfway the walkway are the remains of two palaces, the Ho Thao South of the processional walkway and the Ho Nang to the North. Although called palaces, their function is not known with certainty. It is believed that the 11th century buildings were used during Hindu ceremonies. The lintels and pediments on the two large buildings are adorned with intricate carvings of Gods and mythological creatures like Shiva and his consort Uma on Nandi, the sacred bull. Near the South palace is a shrine dedicated to the sacred bull Nandi, the mount of Shiva.

Between the palaces and the main sanctuary are the remains of several structures, including six small brick towers that used to contain a linga on the 4th terrace and a Dvarapala guardian on the second terrace.

The main sanctuary

The highest terrace measuring 60 by 60 meters contains the main sanctuary dedicated to Shiva. The terrace lies about 70 meters higher than the barays, offering great views over the plains, the walkway and the large barays.

The main sanctuary enshrined the linga, the representation of Shiva. The water stream from the mountain spring was channeled towards the linga in the main sanctuary, its holy water constantly bathing the linga. Today the sanctuary contains a much more recent large seated Buddha with three smaller Buddha images in front of it, all dressed in saffron robes.

Much like the Angkor temples of the same period, the building is adorned with sculptings of Devatas, Apsaras, Dvarapala guardians and Kalas, a monster usually depicted without lower jaw. Its lintels and pediments are adorned with various sculptings including Vishnu on Garuda, Krishna killing Kansa, Indra riding the three headed elephant Airavata, Krishna defeating the Naga Kaliya and stories from the Ramayana, like the abduction of Sita.

Near the main sanctuary are a small library, two large boulders carved to resemble an elephant and a crocodile and a rock with a carving of the Hindu Trimurti of the three Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

One of the Palaces of the Wat Phou temple complex
One of the two Palaces
Interior of the main sanctuary
Main sanctuary with Buddha image

Wat Phou festival

Every year the temple is the scene of the Wat Phou festival, locally called Boun Wat Phou Champasak. The festival is held at Makha Bucha day, during the full moon of the 3rd lunar month. During the 3 day festival thousands of Laos people flock to the grounds of the Wat Phou temple to pay respect to the Buddha and bring offerings. The grounds are filled with food and drink stalls, there are traditional Laos dance and musical performances, games and other entertainment.

How to get to the Wat Phou

The temple is located on the West bank of the Mekong river, some 45 kilometers South of Pakse. Perhaps the most comfortable way to get there is by taking a 3 day Vat Phou Mekong cruise, that also stops at several other destinations. Travel agents in Pakse offer day trips to the temple by minivan.

Getting there using public transport involves several steps. The first is taking a songthaew, which leaves from Daoruang market in Pakse following Route 13 South, towards the Champasak East Terminal at about 60,000 Kip. From there, cross the Mekong river to Champasak district at about 20,000 Kip per person. From Champasak the 8 kilometer trip to the ruins can be made by tuk tuk or rented bicycle. Alternatively, rent a motorbike in Pakse for about 80,000 Kip per day. The drive to Wat Phou takes around 1 hour.

Entrance fee & opening hours

The temple complex opens daily from 8 am until 4.30 pm. Admission is 30,000 Kip per person. A 45,000 Kip ticket includes a ride by golf kart to the entrance gate of the temple, less than 1 kilometer away.