Vat Phou/Wat Pho

This UNESCO World Heritage site is of great cultural importance, however you will not have to contend with the crowds that you may encounter at Angkor Wat in Cambodia or at Borobudur in Indonesia.

This site is located in the far south of Laos where the country is sandwiched between Vietnam in the East, Thailand in the West and Cambodia to the South. This is the Laotian Province of Champasek where the Mekong River has for thousands of years provided the main transport corridor from its source in the Tibetan Plateau as it runs through China, Myanmar, almost the entire length of Laos, and borders on Thailand, cuts through Cambodia, before the river exits in a large delta at the south of Vietnam. Millions of people rely on the river for transport, agriculture, aquaculture and especially nowadays for its hydro-electric power.

In the past this river was a trading corridor and as expected great empires rose and fell through its length. The river people developed their own traditional spiritual beliefs where the river had a special position, especially its deeper channels where fish were a welcomed protein source between growing periods. First Hinduism and then Buddhism flourished in this once forested part of Southeast Asia. Laos was known as the “land of a million elephants”. Sadly, less than a thousand remain in the country.

The site is about six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the west bank of the Mekong, rising up from the flood plain towards a mountain known as Mount Phou Khao. A sacred spring which still flows, despite a rockfall was a place of prehistoric devotion. Nearby the first megalithic structures include carved platforms with a carving of a crocodile probably date from the second century before the Christian era.

Carved entrance to structure
PHOTOGRAPH BY Clifford Pereira

Brick buildings were established in the seventh century, predating those of Angkor Wat. These structures served as a temple for a fifth century city called Shrestapura on the banks of the Mekong which was capital of a kingdom that had strong ties with the Chenla Kingdom to the south and with Champa in the east along the coast of Vietnam. At that time the mountain with the sacred spring was called Lingaparvata and was associated with the Hindu cult of Shiva due to a lingam-shaped peak on its summit. The mountain was considered the home of Shiva and the river below (the Mekong) represented the ocean or Ganges. The site became part of the Khmer Empire by the tenth century and new buildings were added in the eleventh century of a very different style. Later in the medieval period the temple was a site for Theravada Buddhism. A causeway-avenue led from the main structure eastwards toward the river and a road led southwards all the way to Angkor Wat. Extensive restoration has been conducted over the years by French, Italian and Indian teams. Restoration is on-going and adds to the atmosphere. The beautiful carving represents over two thousand years of development ranging from the basic to the intricate.

Carved entrance to structure
PHOTOGRAPH BY Clifford Pereira

There is a good museum at the base of the site, from which electric golf-buggies take visitors to the start of the causeway. I recommend that you avoid the hottest season (March to April) and the monsoons (May to September) as the risk of malaria and dengue fever is high. I also suggest a bottle of water and an umbrella for the sun as you climb the stairs to the main temple. The nearest large town is Pakse which is served by flights from Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam). Pakse has various levels of accommodation, however there is very good accommodation at Dong Daeng Island, which is close to the site by private boat crossing.

Location: Vat Phou, Champasak Province, Laos.

Admission: 50,000 kip (foreigners) or 20,000 kip (Lao Nationals)

Opening Hours: Summer 08:00-18:00 daily.

Suggest you contact a travel agent from abroad to arrange your visit to Laos and allow half-day tour for Vat Phou, perhaps combine it with a coffee plantation or one of the many stunning waterfalls.

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Clifford Pereira FRGS

Hailing from Mombasa, Kenya. Cliff's research interests began in 1982 when he first travelled Asia following the routes of the epic voyages of the Fifteenth century Chinese admiral Zheng He. He later graduated with a BA(Hons) in Geography with Asian Studies (Ulster University). After a career in tourism Cliff became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). He returned to historical research in 2001 on a variety of themes leading to an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society on the Bombay Africans (2007) and is regarded as the world specialist on the subject. Cliff was Honorary Research Assistant to Royal Holloway's Geography Department (2011-2014) and Visiting Research Assistant to Dalian Maritime University, China (2011-2015). Cliff was researcher-curator on the Bait-Jelmood Museum, Qatar (2013-2016) and research-curator for the National Museum of Qatar, specialising in the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean (2016-2018). Cliff was Visiting Research Assistant at the University of Hong Kong (2016-2023). He completed a MA(Res) on the History of Africa and the African Diaspora (University of Chichester) with distinction in 2021. He is presently distance-working on the African collection of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC Vancouver, Canada and continues to research and consult for a number of UK heritage institutions. He describes himself as a historical geographer and has been a speaker on various subjects in China, Malaysia, Canada, USA, South Africa, Italy, the UK and on the cruise liners Silversea and Swan Hellenic. He has numerous papers and chapters in publications around the world.