Wat Phu Temple Complex

Wat Phu Temple Complex

The Wat Phu site is principally composed of the Wat Phu temple complex, surrounding associated temple monuments, and the archaeological remains of an extensive ancient city that flourished between the third to thirteenth centuries AD. The Wat Phu temple complex was one of the most important Hindu sanctuaries during the reign of the Khmer Empire (9th – 13th centuries AD).

The site itself was identified as a world heritage site in the early 90s and classified by the UNESCO in 2002. The UNESCO, in fact, created a protection zone comprising all of the archaeological sites in the province. It is the first site in Southeast Asia dedicated to the preservation of pre-Angkorian sites.

The ancient village was founded in the 5th C. A.D. by Khmer monarchs under the Hindu religion. The What Phu complex has maintained its religious importance to this day, and was never forgotten by the Khmer monarchs, because each Khmer king, until the last one in the 12th C., built new foundations at Wat Phu and gave donations for the upkeep of the sanctuary.

Aerian photographs show the vestiges of an ancient rectangular town with double walls surrounding three sides, and the fourth side along the Mekong. There still exist the vestiges of an irrigation system, Hindu statues, and engraved stones, but almost nothing can be seen from ground level. It is though that the city was part of the Mon or Cham states during the first centuries A.D. and came under Khmer influence in the 9th to 12th centuries.

The mountain called Sri Lingaparvata, on which the religious complex is erected, has long been considered sacred. Worshiped since Antiquity, the mountain is believed to represent the phallus of Shiva (the linga worshiped by Hindus). Today, many Laotians still call it “Mount Penis.”

A temple was built on the mountainside during the 5th C. but it disappeared and was replaced by the structure that we see today, which was built by the Khmer monarchs in the 11th C., and added to during the 12th and 13th centuries. In size, it is smaller than the temples built at Siem Reap. Even before the temple was built, the local population considered the mountain sacred. The animist tribes living in the region worshiped the spirits associated with the mountain and its sacred water source in a mountainside cave.

As we biked the 10 km. from Champasak, we saw the mountain rising up before us. The first thing we encountered when entering the site were two large barays – artificial lakes that represent the ocean and serve as a reservoir. Then there are two rectangular buildings in ruins. I thought that that was all there was to it, and I was disappointed, but the real treasure awaits those who press ahead a little farther and climb the stone steps leading up the mountainside.

In fact, there are three levels. After the basins and the ruins, a stone staircase bordered by “dawk jampaa,” the beautiful national tree of Laos, leads to two pavilions, traditionally called the “men’s palace” and the “women’s palace.” From there, one comes to the remains of a small temple dedicated to the “Nandi,” the sacred bull-mount of Shiva.

Afterwards, one reaches the top of the mountains, where the principal sanctuary is located. The main entryway is decorated with sculptures of Shiva and Parvati (his feminine energy) seated on Nandi. Although originally constructed as a Shivaite Hindu temple, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple, and today there are several primitive representations of Buddha inside, each with extremely simple faces that look as if they were drawn by a child. There is one large statue, with three smaller ones in a row at its feet.

The sanctuary used to enclose a large linga, which was continually bathed in water from the sacred source. It was used during ceremonies to liberate sacred powers of the linga found at Khoo Phra Vihaan, a site 130 km. to the east. The continual bathing in water is unique in the Khmer Hindu religion, and gives Wat Phu its exceptional character.

The second source lies just above the temple, in a small cave. Laotians believe that passing your head under the running water will bring good luck. Pilgrims still visit the temple today, especially during the annual Festival of Wat Phu, which is held in March. They offer flowers and incense.

The surprising part is that absolutely everything – aside from the reservoirs at ground level – is hidden by the leafy green trees, and that finding the sanctuary on high was a surprise. Several tourists had told us that there was nothing to see besides the reservoirs and ruined building below, because it really is impossible to see from the bottom of the mountain. You have to venture further to be rewarded. The terrace at the top of the tree-lined stairway offers a superb panoramic view of the plains and the Mekong River in the distance.

Recent excavations have been carried out with the collaboration of the Guimet Museum in Paris and the UNESCO. Restoration work has also been undertaken to counter the effects of erosion.