Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

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Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

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Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

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The rain approaches

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Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

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Approaching Wat Phu

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No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

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Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

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Headless statues, incense sticks

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Incense and flowers in a tree

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Overgrown walls, mountain views

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Steps and roots

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Jungle Buddha

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Temple detail

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Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering

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