What’s Wat Phou?

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Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos, showcasing Khmer architecture dating back to the 11th century. It is a functioning Buddhist site and features beautiful lintels and carvings. Visitors can reach the site via bus or boat from Pakse to Champassak.

Wat Phou is a Khmer temple in Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2001. The site is a beautiful example of Khmer architecture, dating back to the 11th century. It remains a functioning Buddhist site and is a major attraction in Laos.
Wat Phou is located not far from the Mekong River at the base of Phu Kao Mountain and was historically linked to the city of Shrestapura. The city rose to prominence in the 5th century as the capital of a powerful kingdom. Phu Kao, which was sometimes known as Lingaparvata, was considered a sacred mountain. The mountain has a natural point at its peak, which has been seen as a natural linga which symbolizes the mountain as the home of the god Shiva.

A temple was built at the foot of the mountain around the time Shrestapura came to power in the 5th century. Centuries later, when the Khmer Empire came to power in the region, Shrestapura was replaced by a Khmer city. At the same time, during the Baphuon period in the 11th century, the temple itself was renovated. The ruler of the Khmer Empire at the time was a follower of Theravada Buddhism and replaced many of the Hindu temples across the empire with Buddhist temples.

It was at this time that Wat Phou was built in its modern guise. The temple has much in common with other Khmer sites in southern Laos, much of Cambodia and northern Thailand. The temple faces east, where the sun rises. There are two main palaces, the North and the South, at the eastern end of the complex. There is a small temple just west of that, and a large causeway that makes its way to two terraces, approaching the inner sanctum and library at the base of the mountain.

Additionally, there are a number of large barays – man-made pools – that lead to the Wat Phou complex. All but one of these barays are now empty, but the middle baray is still filled with water and offers a good look at what a medium-sized baray looked like at the time.

The walls of the buildings, especially the shrine, are adorned with beautiful lintels and carvings, depicting both Hindu and Buddhist scenes. Wat Phou’s style is very similar to those found in other famous Khmer sites, such as the temples of the Angkor Complex, including those at Angkor Wat.

Wat Phou is a wonderful site for visitors finding their way to Laos and interested in Khmer style. Unlike Angkor, Wat Phou isn’t heavily visited and it’s not uncommon to find yourself at the site, truly immersing yourself in the history of the place. There are also numerous archaeological sites not far from Wat Phou, so a day or two can easily be spent in the area.
Like most places in Laos, getting to Wat Phou takes some work. A bus goes from Pakse to the city of Champassak, which is the closest city of any real size. Boats also depart from Pakse along the Mekong, for those wanting a slightly slower, but more scenic journey. From Champassak it is easy to hire a lift to Wat Phou and there are plenty of guides available, most speak at least English and some also speak French and German.

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