The ruins and grounds of Vat Phu, in Champasak, Laos, are a uniquely aesthetic and ancient Khmer Hindu site. Like many vintage earth spaces, strolling around and absorbing the open-air energy and its ancestral remnants, typically provides for great pondering.
If you’ve been to any of these wondrous sites, you’ve probably noticed many birds congregating as if there are not only physical ruins to gaze on, but there’s also a leftover and lingering energy from yesteryear.
How different was life here compared to today? Was the collective consciousness more prevalent? Did people live in peace? Were there extreme hierarchical systems? Were people sacrificed to potentially fictitious Gods? Were the rulers playing silly games? Or were they genuinely honest?
It’s fun to use our imagination and intuition, even if we can never know.
I started off on foot from the center of Champasak Town. Like usual, I assumed I would try to walk. After getting a third of the way there at best, I deemed the road in front of me to be potentially unsafe. There was a mild-morning rush hour. There were motorbikes, scooters, tuk tuks, tuk tuks with sidecars, cars, vans and trucks moving rapidly. The country road lacked a sidewalk on either side.
It was a kilometer or so past this bridge when a gut reaction spoke.
My intuition told me to turn back as an almost-automated drifting mantra kicked in:
Don’t do anything foolish.
This incantation caused me to turn in my tracks. It was that simple. I don’t like the idea of walking along dusty, vehicle-laden roads sans sidewalks. Also, I began to feel the dense, heat. Champasak is a very hot town this time of year. This is not an exaggeration.
By the time I got back to the guesthouse, I was exhausted from the walk. It was only 8:30 a.m. I couldn’t help but feel the stark humidity. This result is a combination of Champasak being right on a wide Mekong River stretch and sitting at a latitude of under 15° north of the equator. Champasak’s weekish-long winter ended many weeks ago.
The next day I set out just after the crack of dawn. I was able to rent a mountain bike at the River Resort in the town for 60 k Kip or about $3.75. From there I easily made the 13 km or eight-mile roll during the perfectly warm start of the day.
When you see this small mountain or phu in front of you, you’re almost at the site, two km away. This photo was taken on the way back, probably close to 11:00 a.m. If you get to this spot around 8 a.m., there is typically no blue sky, so you don’t feel the scorching sun.
I paid my 50 k Kip or about $3 entry fare and thought:
This is less than half of what I paid to enter the ruins of Zaculeu.
So I found the price to be fair.
Since I was the first person to enter the grounds just a few minutes after 8 a.m., I had it all to myself for the first hour or so.
Because this World Heritage Site in southern Laos is not the easiest area to get to, it is not over touristy by any means.
After purchasing the ticket I was led to a van that drives visitors a short distance along a manmade lake and up to the actual temple ruins. On the way back you have to walk. I was the only tourist on the van and other than some workers or what seemed like permanent inhabitants, I was the only traveler on site.
As I began my stroll in those aged hills, I thought:
It’s so worth staying near a site like this and getting there when it opens. This has to be so much better than taking the tourist van from Pakse. I wouldn’t have arrived till maybe 9:30 a.m. I wouldn’t have the place to myself, and that’s when the age-old sun starts its heat-up effect.
The weather was still perfect, I wandered up and around the superannuated site for an hour-and-a-half or so.
At around 9:30 a.m. I was on my way back and admiring the walkway, which I found to be a pleasingly aesthetic spot. I decided to hang out there and try to snap a couple of photos. That’s when I came across a French photographer who was making his way up, in the opposite direction. He graciously snapped a shot for me.
After shooting the breeze about Laos compared to the western world for about 15 minutes, the sun started to dissipate the cloud cover. Our Sun God was to become more unforgiving by the moment. The Frenchman needed to make his way up. And I still had the second stage of a bike-ride to complete, to get back to the guesthouse in the tiny center of idyllic Muang Champasak.
Note to self: Figure out how to attach that selfie stick.
As I was making my way down, the sun was getting hotter. These regional tourists appear fully aware of the concept of sun protection. The one on the right has a good idea about wearing light, vitamin D absorbable clothing. A little bit before this spot, is where the visitors get dropped off after purchasing their tickets.
To get back to the main area you need to walk along these idyllic surroundings. There are free cows like this all over Champasak. This one wasn’t bothered by my presence; although I got a little look that I believe conveyed:
Please keep your distance.
I love these stoic animals.
These cows have no idea that they must be among some of the most-liberated and happiest bovine beings on earth. Although modern day Laos is a predominantly Buddhist land, Champasak is the home of Vat Phu, a Hindu site.
After getting back on the bike and riding for a short distance, I felt exhausted. I was literally engaging in a makeshift biathlon. The third and final leg began just as the sun’s harshness took hold of my awareness.
I stopped on the side of the road and bought a bunch of small bananas.
This is where I stopped and ate half of my bunch of bananas. The free cows are resting after a morning of grazing, in the little shade left to them. Only the one standing was a little bit concerned by my presence. He must have been wondering why I had decided to stop right there.
I then pedalled down the road a bit, and spotted a couple of little kids.
Sabai dee! Here, take these fresh, local, mini bananas from me.
I smiled. They looked in awe. I waved.
Chok dee! Bye!
Their wide smiles contributed to my maverlous morning.
I imagined the bike had a basket for my backpack, contributing to my riding integrity. The heat was getting overbearing. I must have had 10 km to go. That’s when I recalled what I had read in James Nestor’s: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art“
Paying heed to Nestor’s sage advice, I closed my mouth and kept my tongue rested where the gums meet the inner part of the two front teeth. The focus had to be on nose breathing. Breathe in for around five seconds. Hold for about five seconds. Breathe out for approximately five seconds. There is no precise amount of seconds, the more the better. Hold again. Repeat.
Since the action in this case was pedaling, I focused on that and nose-only breathing. I didn’t allow the option of breathing through the mouth, even on slow exhales.
This concentration allowed me to cruise into a state of flow. I felt my thigh muscles strengthening. Adrenalin had kicked in. Exclusive nose breathing enhances cardiovascular integrity.
Due to only thinking about pedaling and nose breathing, the ride under the unforgiving, low-land tropical sun felt like it took no time at all. Before I knew it, the river resort was right in front of me.
It was around 11:15 a.m. I had the rental for the day. However, I was done with the bike.
Where was I gonna pedal to? Absolutely nowhere.
I felt grateful to have come across Nestor’s book a couple of years back.
I walked for five minutes along the Mekong road, to my temporary drift pad, where I crashed out for a solid two hours before heading a few minutes on foot by the river, to the mosquito-infested, but otherwise super-nice ‘Champasak With Love‘ outdoor, shaded, café/restaurant, right on our earth’s mighty-wide Mekong.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Vat Phu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original temple was said to have been built in the 5th century, and then rebuilt in the 11th. This Lao-Khmer site is a diminutive cousin of the world-renowned Angkor Wat outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, about 286 km away.
How to Get to Vat Phu
The easiest way to visit Vat Phu from Pakse is to take the tourist van down for a day trip. They give you about 2.5 hours there. The southbound ride is about an hour or more each way. I opted to to stay overnight in Champasak so I had to take the local songthaew from Dao Hueang Market for 50 k Kip or about $3 one-way.
When all was said and done, the journey took around three hours. I must have waited on the songthaew for an hour before we departed.
The songhtaew driver told me to get in, and that we’d be leaving soon. He took my backpack and assembled it on the top of the vehicle. This was my view for around an hour before we left as I was the first person in.
At the same time, the same driver told me he’d drop me in Champasak Center. Unfortunately, that was the second time he wasn’t quite telling truth as he dropped me at his friend’s guesthouse about 2 km outside of the small central area and told me to just have a look. He said that it was 1 km from the town and if I didn’t want it I could easily walk. Upon looking at the nice accommodation which seemed like a great value, I realized that I wanted to be in the town’s center.
I ended up having to walk around 2 km in the midday heat with my backpack. This also turned into a nose-breathing only endeavor, which made the hot and heavy walk more bearable.
Southern Laos is not the easiest area of the world to travel around in, but with patience and an early enough start, you’ll get to your destination.
However you decide to go to Vat Phu, whether it’s staying overnight in Champasak, or if you opt for the easier tourist-van morning excursion from Pakse’s center, wandering the grounds of Vat Phou and admiring its timeworn earth design allows for a valuable peek into yesteryear.
Here is the full set of 49 photos from Champasak and Vat Phu.
Have you been to any ancient sites on our rugged earth? Feel free to leave a comment below.