Southern Laos FAM Trip Kicks Off at Ancient Vat Phou

Vat Phou: From a Drop of Water to an Ancient Lao Civilization Text by Bernie Rosenbloom

The entrance to Vat Phou is actually the exit of the 1,400-metre-long, six-tiered ancient temple complex.

My goal at the 10th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site was a small water tap at the base of Phou Kao Mountain. This spawns a 1,000-year-old canal/stream water system with massive reservoirs for an ancient civilization.

The dripping water also marks the start of a geometric pattern of temples and shrines along a perfect east-west axis to the Mekong, which my $2.00 compass later proved.

UNESCO reports say this linear layout differs from most pre-Angkor temples, which are concentric, though some archaeologists think this pattern reflects “the conscious use of the natural terrain.”

Our bus loaded with bloggers and the media took just 40 minutes to reach Vat Phou from Pakse, Champasak Province’s capital. A pair of promised 200 x 600-metre baray (reservoirs), built in the 10th century, bordered the drive to the entrance.

Once inside, a ceremonial promenade, flanked by carved stone pillars, guided us between a pair of much larger baray. We then stepped up to the first of the six terraces. So far the walking was easy, and the lack of a huge crowd added a “We’re alone here” touch.

Two almost identical stone buildings dating to the 11th century bordered the start of the first-level walkway. These sizeable structures mirrored each other on either side of the walkway, and were exactly parallel to the main axis. They opened onto a porch with intricately engraved doorways, and may have been small palaces or temples. The mystery remains.

A pillar-lined, 130-metre-long promenade started to rise to the second tier, where Nandi Hall presented another mystery. It’s a small sandstone building dating to the mid-11th century, but its purpose is not known. Some historians speculate that it may be the gateway to the ancient road to Angkor.

A set of steps reached the third level and a small stone pavilion greeted us. Then, the climbing turned a bit tougher with a series of steep stone stairways.

First came a 75-metre-long ramp that gradually rose with the natural terrain to reach the fourth terrace.

You may want to grab something to drink here, as the stairs get steeper. A flight of stone steps led to the fifth terrace that ended at a stone-paved landing with Naga serpent balustrades marking the axis.

From here, seven steep, 11-step staircases ended at the sixth and final tier about 75 metres above the lower boray.

Known as Phou Kao Sanctuary, the terrace is home to a sanctuary dedicated to Shiva at the foot of an overhanging cliff. I had finally reached my target…the freshwater spring marking the start of the axis.

My old friend and guide Outhay Khamsonphou said it was fine for me to wash my face in the spring’s waters. In fact, it would bring me luck. It already had.

Fast Facts: Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage Landscape

·         The heritage landscape and site includes the 5th-century Shrestapura City.

·         The layout represents the Hindu relationship between nature and humans.

·         The city’s main axis runs about 10 km from the Mekong to the 1,416-metre-high Phou Kao Mountain.

·         The civilization, centred at Vat Phou, stood strong until the 15th century, and is closely associated with the Khmer Empire and Angkor Wat.

·         According to Sanskrit inscriptions, Phou Kao Mountain was originally named Lingaparvata by the ancient Khmer residents. The carvings were found just south of Champasak Town, and date to the 5th century.

·         A Chinese document from 589 AD refers to a temple dedicated to Shiva on top of Phou Kao Mountain.

·         Other inscriptions from the 7th to 12th centuries found near Vat Phou and in Cambodia confirm the “cult of Lingaparvata”.

·         The 2019 Vat Phou Festival will run from 17-19 February.

Originally published in WeAreLao