Wat Phu Champasak: The ruined temple standing guard over Laos’ past
April in southern Laos isn’t the balmiest time of year. The mid-morning heat haze highlights the verdant green and brown swathes of the region’s attendant hills as the mighty Mekong gurgles contentedly in the background while overhead the sun beats with such relentless aggression that everyone flees indoors for fear of heat stroke.
In short, the atmosphere is one of tranquil repose with subtle undertones of extreme danger for the unwary. You’d be a fool to brave such conditions without first preparing yourself.
It is with this pioneering spirit that I find myself piloting a rickety bicycle along Champasak’s not entirely busy main road.
My destination lies 6km away: tranquil Wat Phu, a ruined Khmer temple of first Hindu then Buddhist persuasion that lays at the base of its parent mountain, Phu Kao.
After an exhausting cycle, made impressive by the personal canine bodyguard that seemed to come as part of the package, I reach the site where my first impressions are of a colossus trying to reclaim its possession.
Lichens swabs the the ruined palace buildings of the lower level while the ground is slowly swallowing any fallen pieces of masonry that dare rest upon it. Daubs of orange, grey and black form psychedelic swirls on the weathered mortar.
And yet, the atmosphere remains vibrant with calm and serenity. All is silent save for the circling of birds and rustling of trees.
In spite of the temple’s obvious disrepair the vanguard of dok jampa, Laos’ national tree and planted at every Buddhist temple, provides welcome relief from the blast furnace rays of the sun and acts as a suitably grand backdrop for my ascendancy to the upper levels.
Further exploration delves deeper into the temple’s history: the natural spring that has never dried out; the wall carving of the trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Nom; the mysterious crocodile stone that might have been used for human sacrifice, depending on who you believed.
All point towards a grand sense of times gone by that is at odds with the eternal slumber Wat Phu now basks in.
As I stare out over the spectacular patchwork of the Mekong Valley it feels as though the area is in the thrall of this tiny beacon; the harmony it emanates from its every corner seems to have flattened the surrounding vicinity.
The neighbouring supertemples — the brooding grandeur of Angkor Wat, the t-shirts and touts of Wat Pho, the mountainside stupas of Borobodur — rightly have the kudos but, to my mind, secluded Wat Phu stands alone in terms of contentment.
Walking back to my yapping fanclub, I take in one last panorama of Wat Phu Champasak. There it stands: a decrepit monolith at the foot of Laos placidly surveying its domain, pleased just to exist and ride out the ravages of time. Its buildings may crumble and its borders might become indistinct and overgrown but its memory will always remain.