Vat Phu: A World Heritage Wonder

In the south of Laos, in Champasak Province near the Cambodian border, some 200 km from Angkor Wat, lays the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] World Heritage Temple Complex Site of Vat Phu. It is an exceptional architectural design, having been commenced circa 500AD and thriving until the 15th Century. It bears testimony to the multi-cultural demographic of the 10th to the 14th Centuries, with clear aspects of Khmer, Hindu, and Buddhist dogma represented in its architectural, ritualistic, and artistic designs.

Construction started – on what we see today as Vat Phu – circa 1000AD, and bore clear visions of Hinduism, especially as they pertain to the rich symbolism between the natural landscape and humanity. By utilising an axis from Phou Kao Mountain, from which flows a natural spring whose waters are still considered sacred, to the Mekong River, a geometric pattern of temples, shrines, and man-made waterways extended 10 km, in what is arguably one of the first planned communities in history. Another factor adding to the confluence of Hinduism and the deliberately chosen location of Vat Phu, is its east – west axis, as well as the fact that on the peak of Phou Kao Mountain, exists a naturally shaped linga, a phallus shaped object associated with the Hindu God Shiva. The worship of the rising sun is also associated with Shiva, hence the east – west alignment of the complex.

Co-incidental to the cultural, spiritual, and economic influences of Vat Phu was the rise of square, grid patterned cities, surrounding the complex. This, coupled with increasing specializations in agriculture, and other entrepreneurial tasks, came the rise of the duplicate singularities of hierarchical capitalism. Whilst some grew wheat, others reared cattle; while some made clothing, others made iron tools whose original designs are still in use by many Lao farmers today. Clearly, planned obsolescence was not part of the ancient lexicon.

The cliff of Phou Kao Mountain lies at the western edge of Vat Phu, and extending in an easterly direction are a sanctuary and a library. Descending a stone stairway and passing through terraces and continuing alongside barays – man-made waterways – one soon reaches the Nandin Temple, which was dedicated to Shiva’s mount. At the eastern most edge of the complex lay two palaces that are dedicated as North and South, or Men’s and Women’s, although both names are slight misnomers as their true allocations are not as yet known. Running in a southerly direction from Nandin’s Temple, is a road that leads eventually to Angkor Wat, its purpose is likewise shrouded in mystery as there is no conclusive proof or evidence that commerce of any kind existed between these two ancient, co-existing, empires. Adding to the mystery are the facts that the road does not pass through arable land, negating its potential as a byway for farmers, and there are temples along it at 18 km intervals that are clearly dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.

After centuries of lying in ruin, hidden within the jungle, a French explorer, Henri Pamentier, rediscovered Vat Phu in 1914. After photographing the site, it once again disappeared form the world’s consciousness. Interest resurrected itself again in the mid 1980’s when UNESCO initiated an archaeological survey of the site. This survey led to heritage legislation being implemented, with the conferring of protected status being given to the site in 2001.

The development of a site management plan by UNESCO in conjunction with the Department of Archaeology of the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture, has moved ahead in typical Lao style, which is to say, with much thought and planning as to the effect on everything and everyone. As a World Heritage Site, Vat Phu is responsible for a significant portion of the foreign dollars tourists bring in to the country. Complicating archaeological research methods further, is the fact that the complex and its sacred waters are revered by the profoundly devout Buddhist Lao people. Thus, closing the site entirely, as would need to be done for a period of at least 5-6 years for a proper restoration project to be implemented, would deny these same people that which they feel is an essential and integral part of their everyday life. Not to mention clearly negatively impacting the flow of tourist dollars, every one of which is needed.

With the safe guarding of its heritage sites a fundamental aspect of UNESCO’s raison d’etre, it remains obvious that the site at Vat Phu will continue to be researched within a timeframe that disturbs as little as possible, whether it be mineral, plant, animal, or human. Time will continue to take a backseat to the spiritual comfort of both Lao and visitor alike, and that cannot be a bad thing.