Truc Lam

Discover Wat Phou, a hidden gem in Laos’ southern Champasak Province

While Luang Prabang attracts many international visitors, Laos’ southern provinces remain relatively undiscovered. This is a shame, as they have so much to offer: Visitors who venture out to Champasak province can explore 4,000 islands in the Mekong River and try to catch a glimpse of the region’s famous freshwater dolphins. They can also visit Wat Phou, built in the 5th century and renovated between the 11th and 13th centuries. Originally built as a Hindu shrine, Wat Phou was converted into a Buddhist site in the 13th century, yet still preserves architectural elements inspired by the Angkor Civilization. From Champasak town, it takes more than one hour by bus to reach the outer reception hall, where visitors find a clear river and rows of trees that beckon them to explore this ancient site.

Despite the ravages of time, Wat Phou arouses strong emotions. Rows of linga pillars on both sides of the Divine Axis lead to the interior compartment where two symmetrical temples stand, adorned with edged pedestals, sandstone bas-reliefs and large stone window shutters. In terms of the materials used, construction techniques and fine art motifs, Wat Phou is very similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, although this temple is much smaller and lacks Angkor Wat’s colossal stone bas-reliefs.

The skill of the ancient builders and artisans leaves modern visitors in awe, admiring the accurate joints and solidity of the structures. Outside, the largely intact statue of a sacred Naga snake attracts offerings from locals, who adorn this sacred snake with fresh flowers. According to both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, the sacred Naga is a divine being that guarded Buddha on his journey to enlightenment. Nagas are popular motifs in temples throughout Southeast Asia.

Climbing a cobbled track to Phu Cao Mountain, visitors will reach the upper temple, which retains some outstanding sandstone bas-reliefs. Statues of Apsara dancers flank the entrance, intriguing visitors with their century-old smiles. A statue of the solemn Guardian God Dvrapala protects the site. Astonishingly, while the roof of the upper temple is partially ruined, the reliefs near the entrance remain intact. Visitors can admire ancient flowers, dancing fire and clouds carved in sandstone. Inside, a Buddha statue clad in a gold kasa robe is always surrounded by swirling incense. Although the roof is in partial ruin, the temple’s interior feels like a sacred space, encouraging visitors to worship.

Seen from afar, the compound appears imposing, spacious and symmetrical. This magnificent site is full of mysteries. Who could imagine that, one thousand years ago, workers could mine, transport and arrange huge rocks on a high hill to build this sacred temple? As with the riddles of Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the pyramids in Egypt,  the construction techniques of ancient people puzzle later generations, leaving many unanswered questions.

Wat Phou charms visitors with its harmonious blend of elements from two major religions and local touches. Each year in Lunar March, Wat Phou hosts a major Buddhist festival.  At this event, visitors throw countless liters of water to celebrate the joy of life. Elephant races and rowing competitions are held and performers sing joyful chants. There’s no better time to discover this sacred land by the Mekong River.