Most people have heard of the spectacular Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the great wonders of the world. What is less well known however, is that Laos has its own Angkor Wat - Wat Phu, in Champasak province, southern Laos.
Wat Phu was built as the eastern temple of the Angkor complex by the immensely powerful and architecturally sophisticated Khmer empire. Visiting its 1,000 year old ruins is an absolute must in southern Laos.
The day we visited Wat Phu happened to be a significant occasion in the Buddhist calendar - the last day of Lent. Hundreds of candles and bamboo torches lined the entire complex; people were still putting them in place when we arrived just after 9am. They would be lit after dark, alighting the whole mountain in a display of tiny, flickering lights.
The day was overcast and a mist shrouded the mountain. It slowly receded as we climbed higher and higher.
Wat Phu was made a UNESCO heritage listed site in 2001. Since then a restoration project has been underway.
Even with small kids in tow, Wat Phu is a great place to visit. In fact, kids and dogs will climb those well worn stone steps better than you do!
Wat Phu was originally part of a riverside city called Shrestapura and the first early shrines on the mountain date back to the 5th century. It later became part of the Angkor kingdom, which at its peak in the 11-13th centuries crossed Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. At this time, Wat Phu was constructed as a Hindu temple complex, at the same time as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
A mere 70 steps, almost vertical steps lead up to the sacred shrine and the main part of the complex. It is incredible to look at the depth and size of these steps and imagine them carried up and laid here by hand.
These buildings, as in the Angkor Wat complex, are so strongly constructed that they have lasted the centuries of humidity, rain, civilisation, war, and even the jungle.
The Khmer empire dissolved in the 15th century, after which Wat Phu was converted to Theravada Buddhism. The central shrine is still is use today.
One of the best things about (finally) getting to the top are the breezes, cool from the river, and the views. Stretching over the mountain, the river and Champasak. The ubiquitous refreshments and souvenir stall at the top of the stairs is a welcome sight too (cold water!).
Wat Phu is 6km from Champasak town. It's open everyday from 8am-6pm and costs 50,000 kip (falang) and 20,000 kip (Lao). Park your car in the parking lot and wander through the gardens. A shuttle bus takes you up to the lake. From there, it's on foot. Dress appropriately.