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A Tour of Wat Phu: Crumbling Khmer Ruins in Laos

A Tour of Wat Phu: Crumbling Khmer Ruins in Laos

The Khmer Empire once spread its wings through much of modern day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as a small portion of Southern Laos. Siem Reap, and the world-class temples of Angkor, is the epicentre for Khmer ruins tourism, but some of the smaller sites scattered around the region are also worth a look. Wat Phu (Vat Phou), the small set of Khmer ruins in Laos (close to the border with Cambodia), makes for a worthy stopover on the way to or from the relaxing 4000 Islands. Here’s a quick look at what this historic site has to offer.

The two palaces

The first glimpse of the Wat Phu ruins is from the end of a rocky causeway. The hill top ruins beckon from above but first you’ll pass by the two palaces. I’m not sure why people refer to them as palaces though — apparently no one knows what they were used for. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and it was almost deserted. It was extremely hot so I guess it might not be the ideal time to visit, but there’s always something special about exploring places like this without crowds of other tourists. The structures we see today were built during the reign of Suryavarman II (the same guy who commissioned Angkor Wat) in the 11th century.

A palace at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosA hallway at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosOne of the palaces at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in Laos

The palaces from above

The hilltop setting of Wat Phu sets it apart from the other Khmer ruins that I’ve been to. The view from the top of the hill (and during the walk up the hill) was the real highlight of our Wat Phu ruins tour. The view of the two palaces and surrounding barren countryside is an awesome sight. Our guide warned us about the difficulty of the steps but it really wasn’t that bad, and the frangipani flowers (Laos’ national flower) covering the steps provided a nice distraction.

A palace from above at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosWat Phu (Vat Phou) from above -- Khmer ruins in Laos

The Sanctuary

The small temple (referred to by most people as the sanctuary) at the top of the steps was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. These days it’s a place of worship for Buddhists. The location, and the fact that it looks like it’s about to fall apart at any moment, makes it look like it was only recently discovered. The lack of crowds helps in creating that atmosphere as well. The detailed reliefs on the walls are worth closer inspection. They have been really well restored and show various scenes from the Hindu faith. My favourite was the image of Vishnu riding Garuda (not the airline).

The sanctuary at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosReleifs at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosVishnu at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in LaosVishnu and Garuda at Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in Laos

Wat Phu ruins FAQs

  • How do you get to Wat Phu? Most people either visit as a day trip from Pakse (the biggest city in the region) or stay for a few days in Champasak. Champasak is a laid-back little river town with a good array of guesthouses. You can rent a bicycle in Champasak and ride the 11 km or take a tuk tuk. We visited Wat Phu as part of a cruise with Mekong Cruises. It left from Pakse and took in some of the top sights in the region, including the Khone Phapheng Falls and Don Det / Don Khon. If you’re after a bit of luxury I definitely recommend it.
  • How much does it cost? The entrance ticket for Wat Phu will set you back 50,000 kip (around $6).
  • Do you need a guide? We had a guide but it’s not really necessary. I never hire guides for places like this but it really comes down to personal preference.
  • How does it compare to Angkor Wat? Obviously it isn’t in the same league, but it is still worth a visit if you’ve already been to Angkor Wat. It’s a lot smaller but so are the crowds, and the hilltop view is unlike anything you’ll see at Angkor.

Further reading: A 3 Day Mekong River Cruise in Southern Laos: Islands, Waterfalls and Ruins

Wat Phu (Vat Phou) -- Khmer ruins in Laos

Have you been to any ancient ruins? What was your favourite? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: I visited Wat Phu as part of a cruise in southern Laos hosted by Mekong Cruises. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.