Introducing: Wat Phu in Champasak, Laos

With all the travel lovin’ the Khmers get in Cambodia, I’m always amazed how little attention the historical predecessor to the famous Angkor Wat attracts just across the border in Southern Laos. Just outside the tiny town of Champasak, this Khmer temple predates the Angkor complex by at least a century (and traces of older temple have been found on the site from six centuries before the construction of the current iteration).

Introducing: Wat Phu.

Wat Phu Champasak Ruins

Though located in modern-day Laos, Champasak is near the site of the 11th century Khmer city of Shrestapura. Predating modern borders, this temple and town site also predate the wholesale conversion of the Khmer empire to Buddhism and so (unlike many of the temples of the Angkor complex) Wat Phu is dedicated to deities of the Hindu pantheon.

Constructed to pay homage to the large lingna-like mountain just beyond the temple site, Wat Phu is studded throughout with these icons of god Shiva and corresponding yonic symbols that together represent the origin of life in Hindu iconography.

The approach to the site, a centuries-old cobblestone path, leads up a steep stairway and into the heart of the temple complex where a number of small shrines are to be found. Much of the site is overgrown, but the enthusiasm of the Laotian pilgrims that visit Wat Phu more than makes up for any visual impact that may be lacking.

Wat Phu Champasak entrance

The port at which the ferry across the Mekong arrives from Laos’ major southern highway and the road from the town of Pakse to the Cambodian border, the small town of Champasak is also the obvious access point to the Wat Phu ruins. The 11km between the town and temple site can be covered by hired tuktuk or rented bicycle. It is not, I can promise from experience, a very nice walk. Much better to find a ride.

Hitching a ride home from Wat Phu in Champasak

while certainly not as architecturally stunning as the temples of Angkor in Cambodia,the Wat Phu complex offers a nice opportunity to reach deeper into the history of the ancient Khmer Empire and to get a glimpse of an early version of the building styles that would eventually be utilized to create what is undoubtedly one of South East Asia’s biggest draws.

Also important, and perhaps even more noteworthy, is the lack of crowds here compared to the other Khmer sites. Even compared to Prasat Preah Vihear, languishing on the disputed border between Cambodia and Thailand, a visit to Champasak can feel a little bit like escaping the main tourist trail and actually getting a chance to hang out somewhere local and offbeat. Besides, if you’re heading down to the 1000 islands you’ll pass right by here anyways!

Ruins of Wat Phu in Champasak, Laos from above.

What do you think? Would you add in a visit to Wat Phu Champasak on your next big South East Asia adventure? Let us know in the comments!