Posted by: adventuressetravels | May 29, 2012

Wat Phu: Laos’ Angkor Wat

We got off the night bus and stepped into the hot dusty city of Pakse.  City was an exaggeration, but as it was the biggest city and capital of the Champasak province.   After hearing glowing reviews of Southern Laos, its 3rd most populated city was woefully underwhelming.

24-hour bus ride had taken me to chilly, damp mountains to its polar opposite: parched dusty air that would make the Sahara seem lush.  I could easily envision a tumbleweed rolling across the deserted street, but even tumbleweeds needed moisture to grow at some point in the distant past and it didn’t seem like that was available in this town.  I should have stopped in Vientiane, I told myself for the 100th time.

Caroline, my bed-mate on the sleeper bus, and I looked at one another.  “Where to?” the unspoken question hung in the air.

Well, the first thing was first; we definitely had to find a place to put our bags.  Not to mention I desperately needed a shower to wash the bus grumpiness off.

The main attraction near Pakse was Wat Phu.  Known as Laos’ Angkor Wat, and with far fewer tourists, it sounded like it would be amazing.  Though neither of us had been to the lauded Khmer ruins, we were both eager to see our first Khmer temple.  Many people enjoyed it more than Angkor Wat for the simple fact that it was less crowded.

We bumped our way along the Mekong to the temple sitting on benches in the back of a little blue van.  Almost as soon as we pulled out of Pakse’s dusty streets, the landscape changed.  We passed farms with emaciated cattle grazing on what dry grass they could find.  Soon we were surrounded by rolling hills crowned with a light green cover of grass worked their way to higher wooded peaks.

Hypothesizing what the city-block-sized ruined buildings and structures had looked like in their heyday was fascinating.  The Khmer Library of Congress?  A courthouse?  Surely the museum would tell us, but our driver had suggested that we visit the ruins first.  It was lovely to be in this picturesque location, walking through ancient ruins with so few other tourists there.  There were some Lao tourists with their parasols, but the few vendors that set up at the monument were far from busy.

A broad wooded pathway led to stairs that climbed the mountain to the
Climbing the seemingly endless steep steps my friend and I weren’t sure we would make it.  To look at it, the steps didn’t look steep, the pictures make them look like an easy climb, but scaling them was a different story.  Flight after flight, the enormous steps did not end.  How or why slightly-built Khmer built such imposing steps in the 5th century was beyond us.  Each step could have been three steps in a normal staircase – even with our longer legs we had problems scaling

them!  Halfway up we paused to pant and catch our breath.  Were we just painfully out of shape?temples and main area of the Wat.  What could this have looked like when it was first built?

Monks in saffron robes toting parasols were splashes color on the grays and greens of the temples at the top of the prodigious steps.  We peered into the temple at the shrine within.  Smoke curled up from incense offerings

We walked past the temple to the Shivaist sanctuary.  Water dripped from the ceiling of a cave at a painfully slow pace.  Apparently this was the much-revered sacred spring.  We watched as one Hindu man filled his bottle up with the naturally pure filtered water.  When he was finished we drank a little ourselves to try the old-school mineral water.  One of the reasons Wat Phu was famous was because this was the only sanctuary with its own supply of filtered water.  We wondered if more water flowed out of it centuries ago when the complex was inhabited.

Our driver was asleep in a hammock hooked in the back of his van when we returned.  I felt bad waking him from his siesta to take us to the museum, but he could certainly continue his afternoon siesta while we explored the museum and learned a little of the Khmer empire and the Wat’s history.

Though small, the museum was fascinating.  PRAL (Project de recherché en Archelogie Lao) has been excavating the site since 1991 and they are still making new discoveries.  Located on the banks of the Mekong and at the base of the phallic mountain Phu Kao, the ancient city covers 2 km and is surrounded by earthen walls dating back to the 5th century AD.  The artifacts and information were fascinating to peruse and I promised myself that I would do more research on the Khmer kingdom in the future.  Today though we couldn’t leave our driver waiting too terribly long.

Entrance to the ruins and museum was 30,000 Kip, or about $3 and well worth it.  Though certainly less impressive than Angkor Wat, I enjoyed Wat Phu immeasurably more because it is not nearly as crowded.  I do wish that there could have been a bit more reconstruction, but the crumbling grandeur has a beauty all its own.  If you are in Laos, I would definitely recommend a visit to Wat Phu, but the sun is certainly intense and taking a hint from the locals and bringing a sunbrella, or at least putting some high-powered sun block wouldn’t be a bad idea.


  1. I wanted more description and/or pictures of what you saw.

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