Location of Wat Phu
Wat Phu 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.
Photo of the Pakse bridge crossing the Mekong River.
After you get across the bridge hang your next left and it is a straight run right into the grounds of Wat Phu.
Wat Phu 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.
The approach path to Wat Phu 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.
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
As you enter the Wat Phu 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.
The north palace is on the left with the south palace situated on the other side of the pathway.
Entrance to the south palace.
The Road to Angkor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 face is seen in the background of the photo and the fresh water spring is found at the base of the cliff.
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.
Views from the top
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.
Additionally, there are several rock carvings that can be observed on the upper level.
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.
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.
I recommend a cold beer Lao after spending the day at Wat Phu.