What is Wat Phou?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos.
Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos.

Wat Phou is a Khmer temple in Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2001. The site is a beautiful example of Khmer architecture, dating from the 11th century. It remains a working Buddhist site, and is one of the major attractions of Laos.

Wat Phou is found not far from the Mekong river, at the base of the mountain Phu Kao, and historically was linked to the city of Shrestapura. The city rose to prominence by the 5th century as the capital of a powerful kingdom. Phu Kao, which at times has been known as Lingaparvata, was considered a sacred mountain. The mountain has a natural point at its peak, which was viewed as a natural linga symbolizing the mountain as the home of the god Shiva.

A temple was built at the foot of the mountain around the time Shrestapura rose to power in the 5th century. Centuries later, as the Khmer Empire ascended to power in the region, Shrestapura was replaced by a Khmer city. At the same time, sometime in the Baphuon period in the 11th century, the temple itself was restructured. The ruler of the Khmer Empire at the time was a follower of Theravada Buddhism, and he replaced many of the Hindu temples throughout the empire with Buddhist temples.

It was at this time that Wat Phou in its modern guise was constructed. The temple has a great deal in common with other Khmer sites throughout southern Laos, much of Cambodia, and northern Thailand. The temple is oriented towards the east, where the sun rises. There are two major palaces, the North and the South, at the eastern end of the compound. There is a small temple just west of that, and a large causeway that makes its way to two terraces, approaching the inner sanctuary and the library at the base of the mountain.

Additionally, there are a number of large barays — manmade pools — which led up to the complex of Wat Phou. All but one of these barays are now empty, but the middle baray is still filled with water, and offers a good look at what a mid-sized baray of the era looked like.

The walls of the buildings — particularly the sanctuary — are adorned with beautiful lintels and carvings, depicting both Hindu and Buddhist scenes. The style at Wat Phou is very similar to those found in other famous Khmer sites, such as the temples of the Angkor Complex, including those at Angkor Wat.

Wat Phou is a wonderful site for visitors who find their way to Laos and are interested in the Khmer style. Unlike Angkor, Wat Phou is not heavily visited, and it is not uncommon to be alone at the site, truly soaking up the history of the place. There are a number of archeological sites not far from Wat Phou as well, so a full day or two can easily be spent in the area.

Like most places in Laos, getting to Wat Phou takes some work. A bus runs from Pakse to the town of Champassak, which is the nearest town of any real size. Boats also run from Pakse along the Mekong, for those who want a slightly slower, but more scenic, journey. From Champassak it is easy to hire a ride to Wat Phou, and many guides are available, with most speaking at least English, and some speaking French and German as well.

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    • Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos.
      Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos.