Wat Phu Temple: The Mountain Home of Hindu Gods

Location of Wat Phu Temple, Champasak Laos

Wat Phu Temple is located about 40 kilometers south of Pakse in Champasak Province. Fortunately, you will have a good excuse to cross over the Mekong River as you leave Pakse. This bridge is unique as it is the only bridge in Laos that is located entirely within it’s borders. Unlike the friendship bridges with Thailand which are technically split in half over the Thai border.

Below is a picture of the Mekong River bridge with the city of Pakse on the far river bank. This photo was taken from the hilltop location of the Golden Buddha. The road from Pakse to Wat Phu Temple is on the near side and runs to the left.

Crossing the Mekong River Bridge in route to Wat Phu Temple Complex

Photo of the Pakse bridge crossing the Mekong River. This is the first leg of the journey when traveling to the Wat Phu Temple complex from Pakse.

After you get across the bridge hang your next left and it is a straight run right into the grounds of Wat Phu.

Brief History of Wat Phu Temple

Wat Phu Temple was built on the ruins of a 5th century Khmer Hindu Shrine. The existence of the temple is a stark example of the profound influence that the Khmer kingdom has had on Lao cultural history. In fact, there was even an ancient road running from the Wat Phu complex directly to Angkor in Cambodia.

Although the initial structure dates back to the 5th century, the structures that are observable today date back to the 11-13th centuries. The temple has since been converted to Theravada Buddhism and at present it is actively used for that purpose.

Initially, the location was considered ideal for a Hindu temple due to the adjacent mountain peak being conspicuously shaped like a linga. Thus, the mountain was considered to be the home of the Hindu god Shiva.  Accordingly, the mountain was named Lingaparvata Mountain although the name was subsequently changed to Phou Khao.

Phou Khao at Wat Phu Temple

The approach path to Wat Phu Temple is lined with linga symbols, Phou Khao is in the distant background.

Unfortunately, the ultimate summit of Phou Khao is not directly observable as you walk on the path towards the sacred mountain. Therefore, I have included a second photo below taken from a different angle.

phou khao at wat phu

The linga symbol is a prominent feature on top of the mountain, the summit of Phou Khao is the highest peak in the center.

North and South Palace at Wat Phu Temple

As you enter the Wat Phu Temple grounds the first structures that you will encounter are called the north and south palaces. The pathway lined with lingas will lead you directly in between the two palaces.  Unfortunately, archeologists are still a bit unclear as to what the actual purpose of the 2 palaces really was.

north and south palaces at wat phu

The north palace is on the left with the south palace situated on the other side of the pathway.

entrance to south palace wat phu

Entrance to the south palace at Wat Phu Temple.

The Ancient Road to Angkor at Wat Phu

After passing the palaces you will then begin climbing up a succession of terraces that leads you to the sanctuary.

Firstly, you will arrive at the location of small shrine dedicated to Shiva’s mount “Nandi”. The location of the Nandi shrine is of significance because that was formerly the starting point of the road connecting Wat Phu with the ancient Khmer city of Angkor.

Walking the Terraces to Wat Phu

The stairway leading up the terraces has been heavily affected over time. However, it actually makes the hike very enjoyable as you pass under the trees.

photo from terraces at wat phu

The stairway path through the terraces passes through some trees at Wat Phu.

terraces at wat phu

Increasingly, you will gain in elevation as you walk up the pathway and this will open up the valley below for taking in the view.

The Wat Phu Sanctuary

When you are finished crossing over the 7 sandstone terraces you will reach the central sanctuary. Constructed at the base of a cliff, the sanctuary has a front and a back half.

sanctuary wat phu laos

The photo above is a full length side view of the sanctuary. The front half presently contains 4 Buddha images and it is used in present times as a Buddhist shrine.

The rear chamber formerly housed the linga. Unfortunately, the roof that covered the linga in the rear chamber has since caved in and was never repaired. Relatively speaking, the sanctuary is still in really good condition considering the original construction was in the 10th century!

In former times, the linga was continuously bathed with the fresh spring water that emerges at the base of the cliff. Previously, the water was channeled 60 meters from the base of the cliff. Unfortunately, the linga chamber no longer exists and therefore the channel is obsolete.

The photo below is of the front entrance to the sanctuary and the Buddha shrine is located in the far background.

Sanctuary Photos Wat Phu Temple Chapasak Laos

Hindu Bas Relief sanctuary wat phu

Although the sanctuary is now dedicated to Theravada Buddhism the remnants of Hindu influence can still be observed. Bas reliefs depicting Hindu themes are seen on the lintels around the sanctuary.

sanctuary wat phu champasak province laos

My favorite was the depiction of Indra riding his mount Airavata which is located on the lintel above the entrance to the Buddha shrine.

The Cliff Behind Wat Phu Temple

The cliff face is seen in the background of the photo and the fresh water spring is found at the base of the cliff.

photo cliff face wat phu

Fresh Water Spring Still Flows

Amazingly, the fresh water spring still emerges from the base of the cliff just as it did many centuries ago. The water used to be channeled to the rear chamber of the sanctuary where the water continuously bathed the linga.

However, it appears maintenance of the linga chamber was not a priority after the sanctuary was converted to Buddhism.

fresh water spring wat phu

Views from the top of Wat Phu

Views from the top of the HIll at Wat Phu

Adjacent to the sanctuary are vantage points to take in the fantastic views of the temple grounds. The north and south palaces can be seen below.

elephant rock wat phu

Additionally, there are several rock carvings that can be observed on the upper level.

Avenue of Linga at Wat Phu Temple

We also wanted to visit the archeological museum located at the entrance. Now we strolled back down the terraces and through the avenue of lingas to the museum.

Conclusion

Wat Phu is of huge cultural significance to both Laos and Cambodia. Plus, the drive is equally nostalgic as you cruise along the banks of the Mekong river. There is a nice selection of cafes in Champasak to stop off at as you pass through town on your way back to Pakse.

beer lao

I recommend a cold beer Lao after spending the day at Wat Phu.

Additional resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vat_Phou
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingam
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra