Wat Phu

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Wat Phu
Native Nameວັດພູ, វត្តភូ
Alternative nameWat Phou, Phu Pasak, Vat Phou
K InscriptionK.366, K.367, K.475, K.476, K.720, K.721, K.876, K.938, K.963, K.1005, K.1320
Inscr. LocationVarious
Part ofWat Phu, Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements, Lingapura (Champassak)
Coordinates14.84882, 105.81447
Founded5th - 13th Century
Art StyleKoh Ker, Khleang, Baphuon, Bayon
MaterialSandstone, Laterite, Brick
Year/s Restored2005 to present-day
UNESCO Inscription2001

L16003 Wat Phu 1.jpg
(3 votes)

Site Size & Condition: Large Prasat Wat Phu (ວັດພູ - Pronounced: Wot Pooh)

One of the most picturesque, yet complex and enigmatic Angkor-period temples, Wat Phu was also clearly considered to be one of the region's most prestigious and sacred sites. The earliest recorded structures at the site date as far back as the 5th-century while nearby Jayavarman VII sites, (including the arogyasala at Hong Thao Tao), were constructed as late as the end of the 12th-century. Demonstrating nearly 800 years of history, Wat Phu is certainly the most continually occupied temple site and, as the birthplace of important early kings Bhavavarman I and Mahendravarman, has a strong claim to be one of the cradles of Khmer and Angkorian civilization.

Our Wat Phu entry describes the venerable old temple itself while the wider, UNESCO-listed site, including associated temples and the ancient cities of Shrestapura - a short distance to the east on the banks of the Mekong - and Lingapura (Champassak) to the south, are included in our corresponding Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements section. You'll also find separate Beyond Angkor pages for each of the associated temples as well as for both city sites.

Fortuitously, a lengthy Sanskrit inscription unearthed at nearby Wat Luang Kao actually describes the founding of the site by a certain 5th-century figure named Devanika. He's described as a Cham ruler (king, chief or prince?) who, suffering unspecified problems in his homeland, set out with his followers to locate, (what even in the 5th-century was already a place of mythological importance), the destined site of their future homeland. (1) The site of Wat Phu, a short distance to the west of the Mekong River, is situated at the foot of Phu Khao, a mountain atop which is a natural rock formation in the shape of a linga, and this was apparently the sign Devanika was searching for.

A small cave at the foot of a cliff on the lower slopes, (partially natural, partially man-made), features a spring so, with rain falling on the mountain-top linga then percolating through the rock to emerge at its base, was seen as a source of natural holy water. This was to form the heart of the religious site and where the earliest structures would have been constructed. For a more coherent description though we'll descend the slopes and begin at what became the main entrance to the overall site.

The entrance section of Wat Phu is located on the flat plain east of the mountain and begins, beyond the present-day car-park and ticket office, with a pair of large, rectangular reservoirs aligned a few degrees south of east-west. (It's possible a 3rd originally existed to the south.) A long causeway, lined with sandstone pillars, runs from the barays, (see also Baray Wat Phu Kang and Baray Wat Phu Phakneu), to the foot of the slope where 2 large rectangular buildings, known as palaces, stand. The northern is in laterite, the southern in sandstone and both consist of galleries surrounding an open central area. The term palace lacks any archeological evidence and they most closely resemble the khleang structures seen at other large sites such as Prasat Phnom Rung or Angkor Thom. Relief style indicates an Angkor Wat, early 12th-century, date.

From here the temple climbs the slope in a series of successive laterite terraces with a central, sandstone staircase. (Again, orientated slightly south of east-west.) The first terrace features the so-called Nandi Temple (2) - dedicated to Shiva's sacred bull - while the subsequent one houses 6 ruined small brick towers. These are clearly of an earlier, albeit indeterminable, date. Succeeding narrow terraces continue to a flattened area in front of the aforementioned cliff, which houses the temple's main shrine. The rectangular sanctuary, now roofless, is divided into a sandstone construction, featuring several well-preserved Khleang-period lintels, (although some historians have also noted Baphuon influences), and an older brick structure to the rear. This western chamber held the principal linga (now missing) while a water channel, leading directly from the sacred spring, would have passed through the rear wall permanently trickling holy water onto the sandstone phallus.

A ruined 'library' is situated to the south while 2 additional laterite terraces to the rear lead to the foot of the cliff and sacred spring some 50m to the west. A tiny brick and sandstone shrine - dated to the 11th-century - is situated half in and half out of the southern end of the cave. Slightly north, and to the rear of the main sanctuary, on a natural sandstone boulder forming part of the retaining wall between the 2 terraces, is a Trimurta relief featuring Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

The section of upper terrace north of the main sanctuary is one of Wat Phu's most curious elements and, while still possessing a laterite retaining wall to the east and a small flight of steps from the south, is randomly littered with large stone boulders. The reason for incorporating this area into the overall temple complex is unclear although it does house several enigmatic features including the famous 'crocodile stone' (3) and several large, carved sandstone blocks somewhat reminiscent of pieces of Bhavavarman I's flatpack style shrines. Some of the massive blocks are broken, others upended and the area looks like it suffered a major earthquake, (although this is of course not a tectonically-active zone). Another boulder close to the northern rim has a large elephant's head relief carved on it. Quite what this area was, and what happened to it, is a mystery.

The site is officially open from 08:00 - 18:00 and tickets for foreigners are 50,000 kip p/p including a visit to the Wat Phu Museum.

(1) The legend is impossible to interpret without entering into the realm of speculation but a plausible scenario could have the Cham ruler being forced to flee due to some internal conflict, banishment or perhaps loss of his right of succession and ending up in what at the time would have been a remote far-flung Cham Province.

(2) A track heading south from this point leads to Hong Nang Sida and the city site of Lingapura (Champassak) and indeed formed the principal Angkor-period highway leading south.

(3) Theories include a site of human sacrifice and while inconclusively proven, a 6th-century report by Chinese visitors does indeed describe such ceremonies!

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