Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wat Phu Champasak - Relics of a Forgotten Khmer Empire

Shiva-lingam Sanctuary at the upper slope of the temple complex.

It was time. The raison d’etre for my South Laos journey should culminate with a main event. It wasn’t Don Det for me. In fact, the rustic party scene on a serene riverine island didn’t interest me at all. I had set my sights on Wat Phu Champasak, an ancient Khmer religious complex located west of the Mekong on a sun kissed region of what others call the “Ancient City” in Champasak.

The temple rests on the lower slope of Phu Pasak mountain range. Some literature call it Phu Khuai – or Mount Penis – because at the peak of the mountain is a “natural linga” that stands like a phallic symbol.

After a disappointing visit to the hopelessly rundown Tomo Temple east of the Mekong, it was time to head south, 10 kilometers from Ban Wat Thong. Somphone, my motorcycle driver, told me to holler if I wanted to stop anywhere I found interesting. I nodded, grateful for the offer. As we headed south, the view of the sprawling mountain greeted me. There indeed was a protruding linga at the top of one of the peaks. “There’s the penis,” I laughed and pointed it to Somphone. He smiled tentatively. He probably didn’t understand. After all, he spoke better French than English.

He took me to the ticket building where I paid 30,000 kip ($3.76). Just across the building was a museum – which they’d rather call Exhibition Hall. It houses artifacts, lingam (a marker that represents the Hindu deity Shiva), lintels (load-bearing ornamental building components usually found in doors, portals and windows), and statues from the temple. I considered if I should head to the temples first, then museum later. But I thought, it was better to find the time now – get it over and done with – then take my time at the temple complex. For 10 to 15 minutes, I just walked around an air conditioned hallway where photography was prohibited. To be honest, I was getting impatient to see the temples.

The protruding part of the mountain (second peak above) is a natural lingam to the faithful. It has made some people refer to it as Mount Penis.

Ticket Building. At the opposite side is the Exhibition Hall. Wat Phu is open daily from 8 AM to 4:30 PM.

Some of the displays at the museum.

I rushed back to Somphone and jumped behind him so we could head west for the temples. The complex spans 84 hectares. Getting this ride to where I could start my walk up the foot of the hill helped. The 3 minute ride was pleasant as we passed by a moat – a lake, then the bike parked where it wasn’t allowed to go further. It was going to be a pleasant ascent; uneven yet pleasant nonetheless. The way to the Sanctuary up the slope of the mountain went through a runway of sorts, symmetrically placed like a church aisle as it heads up the main temple. I passed by dilapidated buildings (North and South Palace, also called Quadrangular Pavilions) on either side of the runway. There’s a Nandin Temple undergoing renovation effort by Italian and Japanese groups.


Essentially, the complex, founded in mid-5th century, was conceived as a “worldly imitation of heaven”, and thus was designed with 3 levels. The lower level had the modern sala and the great baray (pond). The middle level contains the Quadrangular Pavilion, the Nandi Hall, Dvarapala (door guardian, an architectural element in Hindu and Buddhist cultures) and Yoni Pedestal. The upper level contains the Trimurti, the crocodile and elephant stones and the meditation cell. These three terraces had halls.

The climb is a gradual process, thus easily navigable, but there are several stairs made of ragged stones, beautifully cobbled but otherwise uncomfortable on the feet. It would be a problem for old folks and the unfit, but if you’re moderately able, it isn’t really a hard climb. The way to the main temple is the steepest, but you could stop every so often, turn around and see the breath taking sprawl of what was once a royal land. These days, they are covered by vegetation, looking lush and alive.

Baray (moat) - ceremonial pond

A walk towards the ornamental archway (gopura)

The promenade (walkway) - a sala is built at each side by Chao Boun Oum. Stone markers have been erected.

Quadrangular Pavilions at either side of the promenade


Nandi Hall

Slabs of stones make the stairs to ascend to the middle level

Dvarapala stands before another climb. It has been worshipped as King Kammatha, the mythical builder of the temple.

More slabs constitute the stairs to the next terrace.

The main temple – a Shiva-lingam Sanctuary has a relatively contemporary Buddha inside. Smaller Buddhas scatter under it. Meanwhile, at the back of the main temple, you could walk further until you reach the foot of the cliff. There is a non-descript “altar” in a cave-like space at the foot of the hill where “holy water” drips on a square-shaped well. It’s easy to think that this sacred spring may eventually cease to exist in the coming years; what with its miniscule volume dwindling fast.

There are gigantic boulders further up the slope. Some have been carved into an elephant. The crocodile was mentioned – a sign that humans have probably been sacrificed there. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the “crocodile”. It has to be noted that these structures require imagination since many of them have been destroyed or have degenerated. Moreover, weeds have grown and I was getting concerned with snakes and other elements. I was navigating the upper levels alone and it was starting to get eerie.

The walk down the slope was expectedly easier and relaxing. The warmth of the sun had dissipated into comfortable afternoon wonder, like a cloak of gentle breeze. I found Somphone waving with a smile. I hopped back behind him and asked for a minute beside the pond – the moat - which looked beautiful and placid! This was such a gorgeous part of the temple complex; The water looked serene. I was told it grew fish. But fishing was understandably prohibited.

Wat Phu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

The Shiva-lingam Sanctuary (the main temple)

A colorful Buddha - another Dvarapala, perhaps - stands beside the Sanctuary


Cliff where sacred waters flow (above and below)

Cave under the cliff with an altar and a sacred spring (below) from the waters of Phu Pasak

Miniscule volume of flow from the sacred spring.

Gigantic boulders characterize the slope. Friendly children (below) pose for posterity. I was asking them to smile and rabidly they followed instructions. :)

On the way back, we passed by sleepy bans (villages) that usually perk up during Wat Phu Festival. I asked Somphone to stop at a temple – called Wat Phonsaoe (fon-sa-we) - by the roadside where I saw monks digging away. I stepped down and went up the temple. The monks were oblivious to my presence, but I just wanted to see the main prayer hall. Though lavishly adorned with offerings inside, the hallway needed tidying up. Most tourists choose to ignore this temple midway between Wat Phu (also Wat Phou) and Ban Wat Thong. I, on the other hand, felt elated for the privilege.

Wat Phu Champasak was worth all the planning. Having seen it, I was now looking forward to discovering the environs of Ban Wat Thong, with its infectious somnolence that I find endearingly surreal. As the sun gradually dipped down the horizon, I was back in front of Champasak Guest House. What do I do as night time beckons in a town that mostly sleeps during the day? It would be interesting. Or I could translate inactivity as languorous splendor.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monks at work

Wat Phonsaoe


The Wat Phu road that heads south eventually extends towards Cambodia's Angkor Temples. We shall post more photos of Wat Phu soon.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Champasak Tales - The Ruins of Tomo Temple and the Buddhas of Wat Muang (Travel Log 112511)

After arriving in sleepy Champasak, I readily asked my guest house’s owner if he could get me a motorcycle ride to Tomo Temple and Wat Phu. I had the whole afternoon to check out the temples and I was looking forward to discovering these Khmer temples. While calling his contact, I went to Champa Restaurant beside my guest house for my lunch. I was the only customer; one of the few who gets to enjoy these seemingly solitary site. Beautifully placed beside the Mekong, I had a wind swept table as I greedily gobbled on my fried pork with garlic and pepper on rice (20,000 kip/$2.50) and a bottle of Coke (5,000 kip/$0.63). It had been a long and strenuous 2 kilometer walk from the wharf and I was in dire need of sustenance.

With my meal done, I hastily checked out the Tourist Information Center (beside Champa Restaurant) where an accommodating guy welcomed me with a huge smile. Unfortunately, the center couldn’t offer me any tangible material. They were out of maps or leaflets about the town or Wat Phu. At least, Savannakhet had a scribbled down map as give aways. Champasak had none but a smile, though the guy offered: “I could book your onward transportation from here… or a bike tour to the temples.” I thanked him for his hospitality and said goodbye.

Tourist Information Center

Champa Restaurant (above and below)

Fried pork with garlic and pepper on rice: sinfully delicious (above and below)

Back at my guest house, my motorcycle ride was waiting for me. The driver was an amorous guy in his 60’s named Somphone. He was perky and would intermittently regale me with his French as though I’d find him a sophisticate for his special skill. Heavens bless him, but I didn’t care. I was told that the motorcycle tour would cost me 90,000 kip ($11.30) for a ride that starts and ends here and includes Tomo Temple first, then Wat Phu Champasak, and a few temple stops along the way. I’d have to pay for my boat ride as well because Tomo is located at the eastern side of the Mekong – 40,000 kip ($5) return.

Before heading back to the wharf at Ban Phapien, we passed by a petrol (gasoline) shop. I was surprised when Somphone asked 60,000 kip ($7.50) for the gas. Tour rates anywhere in the world are always inclusive of gasoline. This tour accumulates to a total of 190,000 kip – or $23.85. I could huff, puff and balk but I didn’t feel like kicking ass for something I could comfortably afford. What’s a few kip really? As long as he stops and goes when I tell him to, I am cool with my ride.

We crossed the Mekong from Ban Phapien to Ban Muang, then we went east until we reached the highway (Route 13, Lak 30), then we went south. Somphone stopped at the Tomo Bridge, which was fine as I wanted to see the Tomo River, a tributary of the Mekong. We kept riding until we passed by Uodomphan, Phaosamphan, then the town of Pathounphone (Somphone wrote it down as “Pathoumphone”). To my left, across the road, was the town hall which, like other Lao Government Hall, looked deserted.

Upon reaching Lak 40, we turned right (west) and traversed a dry, dusty road – the condition was reminiscent of the road to Palawan’s Underground River. It’s potholes galore, we had to snake through ridges and craters. When it rains, this road becomes an impossibility. Tomo Temple is about an hour away from Champasak, and is said to be 45 minutes away from Pakse. The dirt road stretches for 4 kilometers from the highway.

Champasak Town's Ban Phapien road - Start of the journey to Tomo Temple (Uo Moung).

Petrol station in Ban Phapien

Another ride crossing the Mekong from Ban Phapien (west) to Ban Muang (east)

A bigger catamaran transports vehicles.

Women bathing and washing beside the Mekong

Tomo Bridge

Tomo River

Pathoumphone Town Hall

Bad roads to the Tomo jungle

More bad roads

Shaded forest


Tomo Temple – or Uo Moung – is thought to have been built during the reign of Khmer King Yasovarman I (an Angkorian King, 889 to 910 AD) sometime during the late 9th century. It’s believed to be a religious complex with regards to its orientation towards the holy mountain of Phu Pasak and Wat Phu. It rises in the heart of a shaded forest, beside a Mekong tributary (Tomo River?) and an algae-infested marshland. The trails are almost ambiguous. I was the only one there. My driver would walk a few meters behind me, making sure I didn’t get lost. But the walk into the forest was dim and cool, with towering canopies of diptocarp trees.

The ruins were mostly unpreserved and if this keeps on, there would be no Tomo Temple to visit in the next 10 years or so. I found the border markers and ornate entrance ways (gopura). A sandstone lintel stands carelessly beside some block of concrete. Crumbled walls have fallen into disrepair, and there was really nothing much to see but the nebulous concept of a receded civilization. No one seemed to care anymore. In fact, the entrance office was closed and I had no one to pay my supposed $1 (8,000 kip) fee. As mentioned earlier, I was Tomo’s lone visitor this afternoon.

The ride back to Ban Muang was leisurely. My driver tried to ask some questions, and though I welcomed the chat, I didn’t like his attention straying away from the road ahead. I told him I wanted to check out the temple at the eastern wharf – Wat Ban Muang. I’ve been acquainted with it during my arrival from Pakse, but I didn’t have time to roam. There was a congregation here earlier in the day, but they’ve all but left.

Tomo Temple or Uo Moung



Faces have been carved at the gopura which is unusual since most lingas don't have faces at all.

Distance markers

A white Sukhothai-style Buddha is in place at a building near the Tomo Temple ruins.

Wat Muang at the eastern side of the Mekong.(above and below).

It was time to head back west. We crossed the Mekong. I paid my 20,000 kip ($2.50) boat ride. My driver didn't. Were locals free? Probably. I was with a fully outfitted French bicycle rider who asked how much this ride would cost him. As English isn't their strong point, the boatman signaled “two” with his fingers. It wasn't. By the time we had to pay, the biker was flabbergasted when he was asked more than his expected 2,000 kip. He was being taken for a ride, he thought. But common sense would have you consider the amount - $0.25 or P10 for a 10-15 minute boat ride across the Mekong?

My afternoon tour wasn't done. It was time to check out the more important part of the itinerary – Wat Phu! I have saved the best for last! It’s a mere 12 kilometer ride from Ban Phapien (and 10 kilometers from Watthong). And I couldn't wait to go!

Go south, Somphone!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wharf at Ban Muang

Somphone, my French-speaking driver. The French biker was still on the boat.

The way to Tomo Temple.