We had come to Champasak for the nearby Wat Phu festival, one of the main Buddhist festivals in Laos. Once a year the local temple complex, Wat Phu, attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the country, who for four days make offerings in the mornings, and attend and participate in more secular and mundane activities, like various games and music performances, in the afternoons and evenings –including kick boxing, buffalo fights, boat races, and a significant amount of drinking. Every website we have checked for the last four months indicated that the festival would be the first weekend in February. However, it was remarkably quiet when we got to the temple – and it turned out that the festival is in fact, in 10 days time. Right, this is Laos, after all! In the event, we had the temple almost for ourselves.
And perhaps this was for the better: Wat Phu is a remarkable complex, active – although perhaps not through an annual festival – since the 6th Century, as a Hindu site from a pre-Ankhor Khmer civilization, later turned into a Buddhist temple during the Lan Xang empire, the one of elephants and a parasol, in the 15th Century or so. Wat Phu means Mountain Temple, which sort of implies some climbing: after a stone path towards several buildings at the river valley level, a steep flight of stairs leads up the mountain, to a small temple and a shallow cave. Along the stairs numerous Frangipani trees provide a wonderful sight, and smell, creating a very special, spiritual atmosphere – although the Frangipani smell is occasionally crowded out by incense, which is being burned a various intermediate offering sites. The Frangipani tree is the national tree of Laos, even though it doesn’t originate here, but has South American roots. Even more confusing, in Spanish it is called Tree of Cambodia. Never mind!
It is hard to believe that the town of Champasak is the former capital and Royal Seat of Southern Laos. There is little of the grandeur left, if it ever existed, in this little over 12000 inhabitant village on the banks of the Mekong; everything happens along the only paved road, but it is charming enough, friendly, low key. How it is ever going to manage the influx of festival goers, I have no idea – kind of difficult to imagine – but I am afraid we won’t stay to find out, next week.
(1) The stone path towards the temple.
(2) The lower part of the stairs, in between the Frangipani trees, and (3) Frangipani flower
(4) Temple window, and (5) Sculpture on the outside, clearly of Hindu origin.
(6) A sneaky view inside, where prayers and offerings are ongoing the whole day.
(7) A window of what could well be the former Champassak Royal palace.