Sunday, February 19, 2017

Discovering Vat Phou in Laos' Champasak province

I’ve been privileged to twice visit Angkor Wat and several other temple complexes in the vicinity of Siem Reap, Cambodia, but am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of Laos’ Vat Phou until I went there in December.

The surviving ruins of the Khmer Hindu temple complex in Champasak, in the southwestern part of the country six kilometres from the Mekong River and at the base of Phou Khao mountain, were built from the 11th to 13th centuries — making them around the same age as those around Angkor Wat. Although the site is still used for religious worship, it’s been opened to tourists who pay approximately eight dollars to visit. Lao people receive a 60-per cent discount while monks, those under 18 and disabled persons are admitted for free.

An electric vehicle takes you from the entrance to the base of the complex, which is accessed by a long central walkway flanked by phallic symbols. Two reservoirs called barays, and formerly used for bathing, are on both sides of the path.

The walkway to the temple complex.
The first two buildings you encounter are the north and south palaces, which sit on terraces and feature interior courtyards. It’s not known what they were used for, though they may have had a religious purpose. While in disrepair from age, the detail of many of the sandstone and volcanic rock carvings on them remain beautiful. 

The south palace.
Stairs lead up to other terraces with small buildings until you reach the top level, 100 metres up. You’ll find the ruins of a sanctuary (in which more recent Buddha statues have been placed) and a small library, as well as rock carvings of crocodiles, elephants and snakes. 

The sanctuary.
There’s also a “sacred spring” that brings water from higher up the mountain.

The "sacred spring."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this top level, however, is the view it presents of the rest of the complex and the surrounding countryside.

The view, and the author.
Caucasian visitors must still be relatively rare, as I was stopped by three different groups of Lao teenagers who wanted to have their pictures taken with me as I was descending the stairs.

The electric vehicle returned me close to the site entrance, where a museum houses a collection of recovered objects, architectural elements and sculptures, with explanations of their use and importance. There’s also a shop with products made by local artisans and a tearoom, where I was able to quench my thirst on a hot day by purchasing my first Beer Lao Gold for $1.60.

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