Wat Phou: walking in the footsteps of the king
In the heat of southern Laos the wide meandering Mekong provides relief for cows and buffalo. Staying here on Done Deng Island we were surrounded by its waters gently lapping the sandy beaches.
And to leave the island for a visit to the temple of Wat Phou (also written Vat Phou) necessitated a tractor ride across the sand to our lodge’s catamaran. Because of the size of the beach and width of the river I kept forgetting that this was fresh water not salty sea and was continually surprised to see the cattle so happy to drink the water. I shouldn’t have been. It was 8.00 AM and already blisteringly hot, well over 30 degrees. No wonder they cattle needed a drink!
Our catamaran was met by our guide, Hom, and a driver to go the short distance to Wat Phou. This pre-Angkorian Khmer Hindu temple lies at the foot of Mount Phou Khao. Hom explained that the Khmer chose this site because the unusual shape of the mountain peak seemed to them to resemble a Shiva linga, a short cylindrical pillar-like phallic symbol of Shiva. Today it was so hazy that the peak was hard to make out, but we had seen it yesterday in the late afternoon sunlight.
Arriving at the site we took an electric shuttle from the entrance gate to the start of the ruins, passing two large pools or barays which Hom said were sometimes used for boat races on festival days.
I’ll share our walk through this atmospheric site with Jo, for her Monday Walks.
We strolled along the paved avenue lined with columns topped with stone-carved lotus buds. In the past only the king would have been allowed to travel along this path – everyone else would use lesser paths on either side. Today not only all of us, but cows too, are permitted on this formerly forbidden ground. In fact, arriving this early we seemed to have the ruins to ourselves apart from the cows!
At the end of the avenue were two buildings, either side of the path. The northern one is often referred to as the king’s or men’s palace, and the southern as the queen’s / women’s palace, but there is no evidence to suggest the structures performed those functions. We explored part of the northern hall, which is in better condition.
We saw a doorway above which was a carved image of Shiva and Parvati, riding a sacred bull, Nandi. This bull is the deity who guards the gate to Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. On the frame of another doorway Hom pointed out a small carving of a shaman.
We then followed another shorter avenue, the entrance to which was framed by nagas. Originally this avenue was lined with roofed galleries which are now in ruins. Partway along, on the left, we saw the remains of a small temple which is said to have been dedicated to Nandi, the sacred bull. From near here an ancient road once led all the way to Angkor in modern-day Cambodia.
This avenue brought us to the first of several sets of steps in the complex, at the top of which we were on a stone terrace with good views back to the ‘palaces’ and the Mekong beyond.
The next set of steps, leading closer to the sanctuary, would have been protected by stone guards or door keepers known as Dvarapala. The bodies of two lie on the ground while another has been restored to stand in front of the steps. Hom told us that that the body of this standing one is a modern copy but the head is original.
There were various offerings left here, mostly at the feet of the standing Dvarapala whom some identify as the legendary king, Kammatha, credited with founding Wat Phou.
Climbing this next set of steps, in baking hot sun by now, we were rewarded with wonderful views back over the complex to the pool where we had started and over the landscape beyond, although it was very hazy.
Further steep steps led up to the temple itself, but the heat had beaten me by this point, so I decided to rest in the partial shade of some lovely frangipani trees while Chris continued to the top. He of course took some photos there of the sanctuary which I have his permission to share. The main sanctuary is of sandstone, carved with more door keepers and small devata / apsaras.
The sanctuary, like the rest of the temple complex, was built as a Hindu shrine, with the natural spring from Mount Phou Kao bathing the linga at its heart. That linga is no longer there and instead the sanctuary houses statues of the Buddha. At one point when Chris was exploring a small cow wandered into the shrine and his photo of this makes clear the scale of the statues.
Outside are more stone statues, rather worn but still the object of veneration. There is also a newer Buddhist shrine which the leaflet I picked up in the entrance area tells me is in the process of being removed.
Unfortunately perhaps, as Hom had insisted on staying with me (I would have been fine on my own but perhaps he too was glad of the break!), Chris had no guide with him to point out one of the temple’s most famous features which is known as the Crocodile Stone after the carving on it. It is famous because some say it was the site of human sacrifices, but this is disputed by many experts so maybe Chris didn’t miss much after all!
Meanwhile on the terrace below …
Meanwhile I enjoyed creating some interesting images with the fallen flowers of the frangipani trees, aided by Hom who entered into the spirit of my endeavours, climbing over the stones to place the flowers in a few spots I would have found it harder to reach.
I also took some more shots of the wonderful views over the ruins to the hazy Mekong valley beyond.
When Chris returned, we started to retrace our steps back through the complex, taking more photos as we went.
We travelled back to the entrance area on the electric shuttle and stopped there for a much-needed cold drink in the coffee shop. I was hot and tired, but very glad to have seen these atmospheric ruins – well, most of them!
I visited Laos in early 2020
Gorgeous pictures of this ancient site. I love your shot of the fallen protectors. I hadn`t heard of this site when we visited Laos, now I wish we had. We went to Thakhek which isn`t too far away. Next time I guess. Maggie
Thanks so much Maggie 🙂 This is a bit to the south of Thakhek but yes, could have been do-able. We didn’t stop there (flew via Vientiane straight to Pakse) – did you find it worthwhile?
We went to Thakhek to climb but otherwise there wasn’t much there. The rest of Laos though beat our expectations.
I loved Laos – one of my favourites among all the countries we’ve visited!
How special to have this historic place to yourselves on a quiet morning. Carefully preserved.
Yes, it was worth getting up early to avoid the crowds – and the worst of the heat!
Fabulous photos and description of your tour of the ancient temple site. Some architectural elements remind me of one of our favourite Siem Reap temples, Banteay Srei. Laos is very much on our list, especially as we have an acquaintance living there.
Thank you Leighton 😊 I’m sure you would love Laos, it’s one of my favourite countries of those I’ve visited!
Oh, so evocative of our trip to South East Asia. A different area but the scenery and your words bring back all the memories. Your comment about the carving of the shaman made me smile….our surname is Sharman, and when we told this to the tribal people of Thailand and Laos, they either thought I must be a descendant of a “real one” or they thought it was hilarious…always one or the other.
Haha, I can just imagine the conversations you must have had 😂
I like these avenues … it just feels as if its going to take you somewhere special! And it did – those ruins, carvings, statues and the views towards the end … it’s pretty spectacular!
You’re right about the avenues, and having the first one to ourselves in particular heightened that impression 🙂
I’d LOVE that! We got to Luang Prebang and Vientiane but hadn’t enough time to go south. We’d a few days only to spare to went to Vang Vieng instead -bad idea!!
We didn’t see Vientiane except to change planes on our way from the south to Vietnam. But we loved Luang Prabang, saw something of the northern hill tribes and had this stay in the south. This temple was amazing but on the whole I found it too hot here to be really enjoyable.
I’d love to go back…
100 Country Trek
These were incredible places we visited and and sites we saw there . Great images Sarah. Thanks .Anita
Thank you Anita 😊 There are wonderful sights in Laos and not all of them very well known!
Aletta - nowathome
Beautiful post of an interesting country!
Thank you Aletta 🙂
Your posts this week were like a trip around the world with ones from Kerala, New Mexico, and now Laos! Such incredible variation and each one a treat!
Thank you Annie – after a lot of Faro posts I felt I should mix things up a bit more!
You did that perfectly!!
Fabulous post Sarah. Great photos 🙂
Thanks so much Brian, glad you liked it!
Amazing landscape and sculptures, Sarah. Another beautiful post.
Thanks Jo 😊 I’ve belatedly added a link to Monday Walks which somehow got left on the cutting room floor!
No problem, hon! I shall probably post the follow up this Monday or I’ll still be writing about this trip at Christmas 🤔💗
Wow, what a place!
Thanks Sue – it was all the more amazing because I hadn’t read a lot about it and wasn’t sure what to expect 🙂
Surpassed expectations, then