Champasak and around

The agricultural town of Champasak, which stretches along the right bank of the Mekong for 4 km, is the nearest town to Wat Phou and with enough comfortable accommodation, is a good base from which to explore the site and the surrounding area. It is about 40 km south of Pakse. The sleepy town is quaint and charming and a fantastic place to spend the night, though the trip can be done in a day. The town itself is dotted with simply stunning colonial buildings. Of these, the former residence of Champasak hereditary Prince Boun Oun and former leader of the right wing opposition, who fled the country in 1975 after the Communist takeover, is quite possibly the most magnificent colonial building in Laos. His daughter-in-law now resides there and although it is not open to tourists it is certainly worth a look from the outside. Champasak is known for its wood handicrafts, and vases, and other carved ornaments are available for sale near the jetty.

Wat Phou

The archaeological site of Wat Phou is at the foot of the Phou Pasak, 8 km southwest of Champasak. With its teetering, weath- ered masonry, it conforms exactly to the Western ideal of the lost city. The mountain behind Wat Phou is called
Linga Parvata
, as the Hindu Khmers thought it resembled a linga - albeit a strangely proportioned one. Although the original Hindu temple complex was built in the fifth and sixth centuries, most of remains today is believed to have been built in the 10th to 11th centuries.

Wat Phou was a work in progress and was constructed and renovated over a period spanning several hundred years. Most of the ruins date back to the fifth and sixth centuries, making them at least 200 years older than Angkor Wat. At that time, the Champasak area was the centre of power on the lower Mekong. The Hindu temple only became a Buddhist shrine in later centuries.

Archaeologists and historians believe most of the building at Wat Phou was the work of the Khmer king, Suryavarman II (1131-1150), who was also responsible for starting work on Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The temple remained important for Khmer kings even after they had moved their capital to Angkor. They continued to appoint priests to serve at Wat Phou and sent money to maintain the temple until the last days of the Angkor Empire.

Exploring the site

The king and dignitaries would originally have sat on the platform above the 'tanks' or
baray
and presided over official ceremonies or watched aquatic games. In 1959 a palace was built on the platform so the king had somewhere to stay during the annual Wat Phou Festival . A long avenue leads from the platform to the pavilions. This
processional causeway
was probably built by Khmer King Jayavarman VI (1080-1107) and may have been the inspiration for a similar causeway at Angkor Wat.

The sandstone
pavilions
, on either side of the processional causeway, were added after the main temple and are thought to date from the 12th century. Although crumbling, with great slabs of laterite and collapsed lintels lying aesthetically around, both pavilions are remarkably intact. The pavilions were probably used for segregated worship by pilgrims, one for women (left) and the other for men (right). The porticoes of the two huge buildings face each other. The roofs were thought originally to have been poorly constructed with thin stone slabs on a wooden beam-frame and later replaced by Khmer tiles. Only the outer walls now remain but there is enough still standing to fire the imagination: the detailed carving around the window frames and porticoes is well-preserved. The laterite used to build the complex was brought from
Ou Mong
, also called Tomo Temple, another smaller Khmer temple complex a few kilometres downriver, but the carving is in sandstone. The interiors were without permanent partitions, although it is thought that rush matting was used instead, and furniture was limited - reliefs only depict low stools and couches. At the rear of the women's pavilion are the remains of a brick construction, believed to have been the queen's quarters.

Above the pavilions is a small temple, the
Nandi Pavilion
, with entrances on two sides. It is dedicated to Nandi, the bull (Siva's vehicle), and is a common feature in Hindu temple complexes. There are three chambers, each of which would originally have contained statues - these have been stolen. As the hill begins to rise above the Nandi temple, the remains of six brick temples follow the contours, with three on each side of the pathway. All six are completely ruined and their function is unclear. At the bottom of the steps is a portico and statue of the founder of Wat Phou, Pranga Khommatha.

The
main sanctuary
, 90 m up the hillside and orientated east-west, was originally dedicated to Siva. The rear section (behind the Buddha statue) is part of the original sixth-century brick building. Sacred spring water was channelled through the hole in the back wall of this section and used to wash the sacred linga. The water was then thrown out, down a chute in the right wall, where it was collected in a receptacle. Pilgrims would then wash in the holy water. The front of the temple was constructed later, probably in the eighth to ninth century, and has some fantastic carvings: apsaras, dancing Vishnu, Indra on a three-headed elephant and, above the portico of the left entrance, a carving of Siva, the destroyer, tearing a woman in two.

The Hindu temple was converted into a Buddhist shrine, either in the 13th century during the reign of the Khmer king Jayavarman VII or when the Lao conquered the area in the 14th century. A large Buddha statue now presides over its interior.

Don Daeng Island

This idyllic river island sits right across from Champasak. It stretches for 8 km and is the perfect place for those wishing to see quintessential village life, with basket weaving, fishing and rice farming, and without the cars and hustle and bustle. There is a path around the island that can be traversed on foot or by bicycle. A crumbling ancient brick stupa, built in the same century as Wat Phu, is in the centre of the island and there are a few ancient remnants in
Sisak Village
from the construction. The local inhabitants of
Pouylao Village
are known for their knife-making prowess. There is a lovely sandy beach on the Champasak side of the island, perfect for a dip. The island has only recently opened up to tourism, so it is important to tread lightly.

Xe Pian National Protected Area

The Xe Pian National Protected Area (NPA) is home to large water birds, great hornbills, sun bears, Asiatic black bears and the yellow-cheeked crested gibbon. The area is rich in bird-life and is one of the most threatened land-types in Laos. Ban Kiet Ngong Village, 1½ hours from Pakse, has a community- based project offering elephant trekking and homestay accommodation on the edge of the Xe Pian NPA. The village itself is at the Kiet Ngong Wetland, the largest wetland in Southern Laos. The villagers have traditionally been dependent on elephants for agricultural work and their treks can be organized to either the Xe Pian National Protected Area or the amazing fortress of
Phu Asa
. This ancient fortress is located 2 km from Kiet Ngong, at the summit of a small jungle-clad hill. It is an enigmatic site that has left archaeologists puzzled; it consists of 20 stone columns, 2 m-high, arranged in a semi-circle - they look a bit like a scaled-down version of Stonehenge. To reach the village from Pakse, follow Route 13 until you get to the Km 48 junction with Route 18 at Thang Beng Village (the Xe Pian National Protected Area office is here). Follow route 18 east for 7 km, turn right at the signpost for the last 1.5 km to Ban Kiet Ngong.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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