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. 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 found myself piloting a rickety bicycle along Champasak’s not entirely busy main road.
My destination, tranquil Wat Phu, was 6km away. The ruined Khmer temple, of first Hindu then Buddhist persuasion, has lain dormant at the base of its parent mountain, Phu Kao, for many aeons.
After an exhausting cycle, aided by the canine bodyguard I acquired en route, I reached the impressive site. Staring across the flat earth at this huge edifice rearing into the sky, my first thoughts were of some decrepit colossus trying blindly to reclaim its possession.
Lichens swabbed the ruined palace buildings of the lower level while the ground slowly swallowed fallen masonry. Daubs of orange, grey and black formed psychedelic swirls on the weathered mortar.
And yet, the atmosphere remained vibrant with calm and serenity. All was 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, provided welcome relief from the blast furnace rays of the sun. It was a suitably grand backdrop for my ascendancy to the upper levels.
Further exploration delved 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.
All pointed towards a grand sense of times seemingly at odds with Wat Phu’s eternal slumber.
As I stared out over the spectacular patchwork of the Mekong Valley it felt as though the area was in the thrall of this tiny beacon. The harmony it emanated seemed 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 took in one last panorama of Wat Phu Champasak. There it stood: a worn monolith placidly surveying its domain, existing and riding out the ravages of time. Its buildings may crumble and its borders might become indistinct and overgrown but its memory will always remain.