Avenue lined with small stone pillars and distant mountains
Laos,  Monday walks,  Ruins

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!

Cows drinking in river with sandy banks
On Dong Deng Island
Group of dark brown cattle drinking in a river
Bullocks drinking

Wat Phou

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.

Hazy mountains with water in foreground
Mount Phou Khao from Dong Deng island; you should be able to make out the linga shape on the peak, looking a bit like a small building

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.

The avenue

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!

Avenue lined with small stone pillars, cows grazing, and distant stone steps
The first avenue
The palaces

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.

Ruined building with mountains beyond
The northern hall or ‘King’s Palace’
Ruined building with two people on a motor scooter
The first other visitors we saw: locals by the ‘King’s Palace’

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.

Carved ruined building
Part of the so-called ‘King’s Palace’
Stone carved with figure sitting cross-legged
Carving of a shaman
Stone carved with two people on a bull's back
Shiva and Parvati riding a bull

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.

Avenue lined with small stone pillars and distant stone steps
The second avenue
Stone carved with snakes' heads
Naga at the start of the second avenue
Ruined building
Temple dedicated to Nandi
The terraces

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.

Ruined building with distant river
Looking towards the southern hall or ‘Queen’s Palace’

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.

Stone statues lying on the ground
Fallen guardians
Stone statue with white robes
Stone guardian, mainly a copy …
Head of stone statue
… but with the original head

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.

Small pottery elephant
Offering to the guardians
Cheap looking copy of a gold crown
Offering to the guardians

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.

View over trees to hazy distance
View from the middle terrace
Worn stone steps between trees
The final staircase
The sanctuary

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.

White flower on stone
Frangipani flower
White flower on stone
Frangipani flower

I also took some more shots of the wonderful views over the ruins to the hazy Mekong valley beyond.

Ruined building and hazy view beyond
Southern hall and view
Lady in straw hat looking at a view
Visiting local

When Chris returned, we started to retrace our steps back through the complex, taking more photos as we went.

Carved ruined building
Part of the southern hall or ‘Queen’s Palace’
Man in orange robes by small stone pillars
Visiting monk
Lady in straw hat under a tree
Visiting local

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


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