Discover Wat Phu, the Khmer ruins of Laos!

by Deborah Durrfeld

Are you interested in history and archaeological sites? Without too many other visitors around? Then you definitely should check out the Khmer ruins in Laos. Where you will need to share Angkor Wat in Cambodia with thousands of other tourist, in Laos you will only meet a few fellow visitors. Wat Phu was built by the Khmer in the 12th century. It is said that this complex would have been the inspiration for Angkor Wat. Wat Phu is a must-visit for those interested in art, culture, history and “off the beaten track” sights. In this article I will tell you more about this beautiful temple complex.

History & background information Wat Phu, Laos

Wat Phu, also known as Vat Phou, is located near the city of Champassak, at the foot of the holy mountain Phu Passak in Laos. It is said that this place already existed in the 6th century. By that time, there must have been a shrine where sacrifices were made to Bhaderesvara, an appearance of Hindu god Shiva. When the region became part of the Khmer Empire in the 9th century, Wat Phu was also established. The most important parts were built in the 12th century, under King Suryavarman II, also responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat.

As with many ancient cities and complexes, little is known about the history of this site and much research is still being done. The exact reasons why and how the site was eventually abandoned are unknown to me. At the end of the 19th century the site was discovered by a French explorer who found the ruins by accident, overgrown by the jungle. Wat Phu has been on the UNESCO World Heritage site List since 2001 and can be visited nowadays.

A visit to the archaeological site Wat Phu, Laos

From the parking lot you will be taken to the entrance of the complex with a golf cart. You will be impressed by the beautiful and serene location of the site immediately. It is hot, there are only a few people and the area is surrounded with beautiful white frangipani-like trees, also called temple trees. You will pass a gigantic pond with water lilies and you arrive at a platform, that used to be the place for the king during important ceremonies. At the entrance, a long road, the former process, leads to the heart of the complex. This is a a square with a pavilion on each side. The process and stones immediately remind you of Angkor Wat and the Khmer style.

The pavilions of Wat Phu in Laos

These pavilions were used as a shelter for pilgrims, one for men and one for women. Nowadays only the outside walls are still standing. These walls contain numerous decorated windows and beams with beautiful images of Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Parvati.

The stairs to the temple of Shiva

Then you reach a long staircase. This staircase leads to the main temple of Vat Phu, dedicated to Shiva. This staircase is not for everyone. The steps are uneven, narrow and the road goes up steeply. There seems to be no end to it. Especially on the last part, it can be a lot of scrambling. In the burning sun this is can be a bit hard. However, for anyone with a normal physical condition, it is absolutely doable. I would recommend to put on good shoes and bring enough water.

The best view of Wat Phu

Halfway up the stairs you come to a plateau which offers a first view of the lower complex. On this plateau there are foundations of (probably) former temples, but there is not much left of it. Once at the top you can enjoy a beautiful view of the surrounding area. Personally I can sit here for hours, enjoy the surroundings and think about the history.

Temple of Shiva

The temple of Shiva is a building with beautiful ornaments. Different decorations on the facade above the entrance show stories from the Laotian version of the Ramayana. The Ramayana is the holy book that originated in India and ended up in South East Asia. You do not need to know the stories to wonder about the detailed sculpture.

Festival and rituals

Once a year, in the month of February, during full moon, countless people from Laos and Cambodia come to Wat Phu for the holy festival Ban Wat Phu. During three days the complex is dedicated to music, dance, boxing competitions, cockfights, boat racing and offering buffalo among other things. I can hardly imagine this quiet complex full of activities and people. But it must be quite an experience.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia versus Wat Phu in Laos

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is unique and a visit should not be missed if you are in the region. But crowds can sometimes be annoying. Wat Phu is much smaller, less spectacular and therefore more unknown. If you are in Laos, be sure to visit Wat Phu. Do you visit Laos and Cambodia during the same trip? Then try to visit Wat Phu first and then Angkor Wat.

What to bring with you?

  • sunscreen
  • good shoes, (for climbing the steps)
  • a scarf or cap (to protect yourself from the sun)
  • water (it can be very hot)
  • money for entrance and a possible guide
  • rain gear in the rainy season

Want to know more about Wat Phu?

Since Wat Phu is on the UNESCO World Heritage site List, you can find a lot of interesting information on the website.

Do you want to read more about Laos? Discover the best places to visit and most beautiful destinations in the next article.


This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)

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