Vat Phou: Discover the Unique Ancient Khmer Temple of Laos

Vat Phou: Discover the Unique Ancient Khmer Temple of Laos

On the west bank of the Mekong River, in southern Laos, the ancient ruins of Vat Phou (Wat Phu) sit in tranquil solitude at the base of a mountain. Built between the 5th and 11th centuries this unique Khmer temple complex, and it associated settlement, were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001. The only Khmer temple in Laos, Vat Phou is much older than the famous Angkor Wat, and is where it all began.


doorway window north palace vat phou wat phu laos
The palaces are beautiful to walk around in.

Visiting Vat Phou was a highlight of my time in Laos and my very first visit to an ancient temple. As a lover of history and archeology, I was struck by the beauty and magnificence of the complex. Although I had yet to visit the infamous Angkorian temples of Siem Reap, looking back, I still find Vat Phou a fascinating site.


full landscape view lower level vat phou wat phu laos
View of the Vat Phou complex from the ceremonial entrance gate with the summit shrouded in clouds.

Vat Phou is a historical and archeological wonder well worth a visit by anyone. This ‘off the beaten track’ sight is not visit by only a handful of tourist, giving any visitor to the site almost exclusive access. Vat Phou is a must visit for those interested in history, culture, religion, ruins, or just want to get off the tourist trail.


Need to Know



Vat Phou is located in southern Laos near the city of Champasak; about 43 km south of Pakse.




The temple site of Vat Phou is open from 8 am – 5 pm daily.

The museum is open from 8 am – 4 pm. Tickets can also be bought from 6 am – 8 am and 4:30 pm – 6 pm at the entrance gate with the possibility of entering during these times.




Admission of the site and museum (regular operating hours): 50,000 LAK/2.94 USD; Children under 10 years old are free.

Admission of the site and museum (outside operating hours): 55,000 LAK/3.23 USD; Children under 10 years old are free.

Electric car to/from the temple site/museum is free.


When to Visit


November to February is the best time to visit Vat Phou since the dry season brings much cooler temperatures. From May to October is the rainy season which makes everything much greener, but it can also make the roads getting to Vat Phou a bit harder to traverse with the mud.


Vat Phou (Wat Phu)




steep rugged stairs trees vat phou wat phu laos
Frangipani trees growing out of the ancient stairs.

The mountain that Vat Phou is built up against, Phou Khao, gained spiritual importance due to the linga shaped rock at its summit. The location of the temple itself corresponds with a natural spring that comes out of the mountain, both of which are associated with Shiva who the original temple was devoted to.


full landscape view vat phou wat phu laos
Full landscape view of Vat Phou from the upper level.

The original Hindu temple is believed to have been built in the 5th century and related to the city of Shrestapura, which sat along the Mekong River to the East. Shrestapura was the capital city of the far reaching Chenla Kingdom and many of its earthen ramparts can still be seen today.


main temple sanctuary vat phou wat phu laos
You can easily distinguish the two different temples from this view.

Vat Phou became part of the Khmer Empire at some point in the 10th century and during the 11th to 13th centuries the temple was expanded. During this expansion many of the original buildings were replaced, although often using many of the same stones, and the temple complex that we see today was created. The temple continued to be devoted to Shiva until after the 13th century when, like most of the Khmer Empire, it was converted to Theravada Buddhist.


The Temple


aerial view lower level vat phou wat phu laos
Aerial view of the lower level of Vat Phou.

West of the Vat Phou Museum there are two large barays that still exists, but during the height of Vat Phou’s use there was also a third baray to the south of the existing ones. The temple was built in a linear design, a model rare to Khmer temple style, and faced east as it made its way down the slope of the mountain side towards the Mekong River. It represents one of the worlds best examples of planning a temple in relation to the landscape to reflect the religious beliefs of its practitioners.


Lower Level


entery causeway vat phou wat phu laos
Entry causeway, flanked by pillars and barays.

Arriving from the museum in an electric cart, you are dropped off at the ceremonial entrance to Vat Phou, now just a foundation, at the western end of the large middle baray. From here begins a long, carved post lined causeway flanked by two smaller barays. Although often dry, during the rainy season small, water lily topped ponds can fill within them.


north palace vat phou wat phu laos
The palaces, mirror images of each other, are intricately carved.

The causeway ends in a courtyard flanked by two large square buildings. Although referred to as the North and South Palaces, it is believed that they were the resting places for monks during days of festivals. These exquisitely carved buildings are made up of four galleries surrounding a central open courtyard. Walking through these buildings you will find great examples of Hindu carvings.


nandi temple vat phou wat phu laos
The Nandi Temple marks the beginning of the road to Angkor.

Located just above the South Palace is the Nandi Temple; home to a Nandi statue, the bull that served as Shiva’s mount. The temple itself is also a design rarely found in Khmer architecture and is believed to distinguish the beginning of the road. From this temple an ancient road progressed all the way to Angkor.


Middle Levels


dvarapala guardian statue vat phou wat phu laos
The only dvarapala statue still standing guard.

Proceeding from the courtyard of the palaces is a shorter causeway, lined with carved stone posts. This walkway was once flanked by two wooden galleries but today even the foundations are in ruins. At the head of this causeway is two sets of stairs that lead to terraces. Although the terraces today are devoid off their structures there is still a fully intact dvarapala (doorway guardian) standing, with a long mace at the ready, at the base of the second set of stairs. Today, many people make offerings to it before continuing up the mountain.


fallen dvarapala guardian statues vat phou wat phu laos
The two largest dvarapala states found in the Khmer Empire.

If you explore the grassy area behind the dvarapala you will find a small fenced off area with a few notable statues. First, is the yoni pedestal (a representation of the Hindu goddess Shakti and symbol of divine feminine procreative energy) without its linga. Second, are two large fallen dvarapala statues without their heads and arms. These are noted to be the largest found in the Khmer Empire.


sacred spring water vat phou wat phu laos
The sacred spring flowing into a voni pedestal.

From the dvarapala, a rough sandstone path ascends quickly to another steep and rough stairway. Atop this stairway is another small terrace which was once the home of six brick stupas, but only one retains some of its original shape. From here there are two final steep staircases that take you to the top, passing through the terraced retaining wall you could clearly see from the bottom of the temple complex.


Upper Level


main temple vat phou wat phu laos
The main temple sanctuary is made up of temples from two different time periods.

On the upper level of Vat Phou is the sanctuary itself. The main sanctuary is made up of two parts. The forward stone part of the temple is still in use today and houses four distinctive Buddha statues. The forward section also has many elaborate carvings that are still in great conditions. The rear brick section of the temple, now fenced off, is the older original sanctuary which once held the holy linga. This linga was continually bathed by piping water that flows from the cliff side behind the temple. Today you can still see the water flowing into a yoni pedestal near the cliff.


trimurti hindu carving vat phou wat phu laos
Trimurti carving in the cliff wall behind the temple.

To the left of the of the sanctuary is the temple library, now in ruins, behind which is the cave where the holy spring begins. Directly behind the sanctuary, carved into a bolder, is a Khmer style Trimurti, the Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. Up a path north of this you will also find a Buddha foot print and elephant carved into the cliff side.


elephant carving vat phou wat phu laos
One of the many carvings in the Vat Phou temple complex.

North of the sanctuary, amid a ruins and boulders are a number of other distinct finds worth searching for. Here you can find a section of staircase framed by snake statues, a large elephant carved into a boulder, a large Buddha footprint boulder, and a unique crocodile stone. The crocodile stone is rumored to have been used for human sacrifices, although there is no evidence of this actually happening.


Where to Eat


Champasak is a very small riverside town, but still has a handful of places to eat. Most of the restaurants are affiliated with a guesthouse but are still open for those that are not staying there. Being a riverside town, many of the restaurants along the river have balconies to eat on, giving you a great view with your meal.


Where to Stay


Champasak has many hotels near the river that are just a short tuk-tuk ride to Vat Phou. Ranging from super cheap to nicer, but more expensive hotels, there is something there for every traveler. While I was there, I stayed at the Vongpaseud Guesthouse; very basic, but also very cheap. It was only 50,000 LAK/ USD and comes with wifi, hot water, and the owner will drive you to the river to catch a bus.  When booking my hotels, I always use Agoda to find the best hotel in my location and price range. 


How to Get There


pinpoint map location vat phou wat phu laos

Many people visit Vat Phou as a day trip tour from Pakse or as an overnight trip from Champasak. Exploring the museum and ruins only takes about 2 hours, but if you are planning to put together the travel on your own it is best to plan on possibly staying in Champasak because you will be cutting it close with the return bus schedule. If you are visiting Vat Phou from Champasak, then you will just need to either get a tuk-tuk or rent a bicycle from your hotel.




If you are visiting Vat Phou from Pakse you have the option to take a boat to Champasak either as a complete tour or on your own. There are many tour companies/hotels throughout Pakse that offer this tour. It costs about 170,000 LAK/ USD and includes a boat trip to Champasak, tour of the temple, and a van back to Pakse. This tour usually leaves at 8:30am and returns at 2:30pm.


If you wish to take the boat on your own, you will be able to hire one at the Pakse Pier for about 70,000 LAK/ USD. Once you arrive in Champasak you will easily be able to find a tuk-tuk to the temple.




There are buses that travel down Route 13, but then you will need cross the ferry into Champasak. If you are planning to take public transportation, then your best option is a songthaew that leaves from the Km-8 bus station when it is full for 60,000 LAK/ USD. It will drop you off in town where you will then get a tuk-tuk the rest of the way to the temple.




If you don’t have you own car you can rent a motorcycle in Pakse for about 80,000 LAK/ USD per day. Either way the drive is an easy one to get to Vat Phou. Just follow Route 16 south until it ends south of Champasak, turn right, and drive till your reach the Vat Phou Museum. There is a 5000 LAK/ USD parking fee at the museum.




There is the small Pakse International Airport (PKZ) in Pakse about 52 km north of Vat Phou. If you choose to fly in then you will want to reference one of the above options of getting to Vat Phou.


What was your experience of Vat Phou?


Vat Phou: Discover the Unique Ancient Khmer Temple of Laos

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