Saturday, February 1, 2014

7. Vat Phu, Champassak (Laos), UNESCO World Heritage Site

78 km (one way) 156 km 

The Lao-Nippon bridge in Pakse, built by Japan a few years back and a brand new, privately financed, two-lane toll road to the south makes travelling on the right banks of the Mekhong to this great location a pleasure. My maps still showed the recommended route as going south on National Highway 13S on the left side of the Mekhong and then taking a ferry across the river, since roads on the other side were non-existent. With the new toll road that has changed. 

Not that it would be an expensive road to travel, but as a motorcycle in Laos and Cambodia (NOT! in Thailand. There, travel on a toll road as a motorcycle is PROHIBITED!) you go into the most right lane, pass through the cones without stopping at the pay booth and you are on your way! Nice, quick and cheap.

The road is empty except for a few scooters and farm equipment used by the local rice farmers. There are no huge tourist busses, no cars or any congestion although Wat Phu is a World heritage Site.

After an hour of wonderful riding through the agricultural landscape one gets to a parking lot. From here, a nice walk leads to the terraced Khmer kingdom temple complex of significant size, along two vast. symmetrical barrays, or water basins. 

What looks flat on the above site plan of the complex is arranged in multiple terraces at the base of a high mountain, Phu Kao which commands the plain. The terraces are accessed by a series of medium size to very steep staircases, some climbing is involved. One has to imagine that the axial complex once crossed the Mekhong, extending the site some 30 kilometers across to the other side of the river. It must have been a majestic view from the mountain.

The actual temple complex build between the X. and the XIIth century extends up the hill some 1.5 kilometers, starting at Mekhong river level and reaching up some 100 meters, in other words you will climb up a 30 story building, approximately.

The assumption is that the temple's reason for existence is a sacred spring which exits under a huge rock at the top of the temple complex. Foreign tourists are rare here, but locals seem to flock to the temple site in good numbers. Everybody wants to fill a bottle of water, or more, at the spring, or use the holy water to wipe their faces. The spring is a trickle of water which drips from the ceiling of the large rock.

Two 'palace' structures are being restored today by Italian archaeologists. Both of them have large interior courtyards which potentially have been used for religious ceremonies. There function is not clear yet. If speculation is permitted I may add that IMHO the temple complex was a 'celebration of water' as the most important resource for agriculture, for life. Maybe the water was directed from the spring at the top, along 
the galleries down to the courtyard of the two palaces, which were filled with water. This is just my take on it, but I like the idea of the two large courtyards being interior 'reflecting pools' surrounded by galleries.

First terrace, west of the two symmetrical barray.

Causeway with sandstone posts

Phu Kao mountain and one of the palaces.

First staircase and terrace.

View from the sanctuary level down. Two large barray, water-filled in the background. Two symmetrical (almost) dry barray are to the right and left of the causeway, Mekhong river in the distance. The large courtyarded palaces can be seen in the center.

Three Lao generations in their Sunday dresses visiting at the top sanctuary level.


Temple guard

Main sanctuary building.

Filling the bottles with holy water.

The spring.

It is a 'must visit' site, a beautiful calm place in a wonderful, peaceful landscape. Maybe I shouldn't say this publicly since tourism just changes everything, and not for the better. However I am a tourist myself. But the difference in terms of tourist impact between the two UNESCO sites, Angkor in Cambodia and Vat Phu here at this site in Laos is striking. Despite the strenuous climb to the top, I liked it here very much and I have a nice, peaceful ride back.

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