Wat Phou – Champassak, Laos
Khmer Sanctuary with a View
Built in stages between the 6th and 14th centuries – and thus predating Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by 200 years – the hilltop temples of Wat Phou contain some of the best Khmer art in Southeast Asia. Even though centuries of abandonment left little of the original temples intact (they were only rediscovered in 1866), the scale and age of the complex is breathtaking, as is the hike up the massive stairs to the ruins of a 9th-century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
From this fantastic setting against the majestic mountain Linga Parvata, you can view the spectacular landscape – on a clear day as far as Vietnam and Cambodia. Below, the broad expanse of the Mekong River with its narrow fishing boats winds through fertile lowlands dotted by small villages.
Farther downstream, and often included in the same organized tour, is the Oum Moung, a less-elaborate Khmer temple that was probably used as a station for pilgrims on their way to Wat Phou.
Little more than a romantic ruin, with less extensive and brilliant carvings than those at Wat Phou, Oum Moung is most interesting for the jungle walk that takes you there, beginning at a riverside settlement where life seems not to have changed since the 13th or 14th century, when the temple is believed to have been built.