In the fifth century, Champasak was thought to be the centre of the Laotian universe. Today it's a drowsy one-car village clutching the western bank of the Mekong River in southern Laos and home to the tiny Hindu-built Vat Phou, which some archaeologists believe may have been the first Angkor temple ever built.
At a glance, Vat Phou doesn't seem like the kind of structure that would initiate an empire. A tiny prayer hall at the top of a precarious stone stairway, with two reception halls on the plains below, Vat Phou lacks the jaw-dropping awesomeness of temples in Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park. But as with the Angkor temples, its symbolism is extraordinary.
Tucked under the phallic-shaped mountain peak of Phu Kao - thought to represent Mount Meru, the sacred mountain at the centre of the Hindu cosmology - Vat Phou was worshipped as the embodiment of Shiva. The spring nearby was associated with Shiva's wife, the goddess Parvati. Water runs underground from Phu Kao's peak, rising through Parvati. From here, passing a series of barays (man-made dams) and linga (phallic statues), water flows into the Mekong, blessing everything on its journey south.
I learn this while poring over a satellite map with Daniel Davenport, an articulate but debated Australian archaeologist working in Champasak and author of the Vat Phou Guide: Following in the Footsteps of Angkor's Pilgrims, a tourist compendium on the area that Davenport is self publishing.
"Vat Phou could quite well have been the first, the pre-eminent, Angkor temple," he says, explaining that early worshippers took a piece of Vat Phou stone and placed it under every subsequent temple they built.
On the map, Davenport points out a well-defined line leading from one of the reception halls at Vat Phou to the temple of Angkor Wat. "This used to be a pilgrims' road during the Khmer Empire," he says, referring to the kingdom that reigned over much of south-east Asia between the ninth and thirteenth centuries and used the Angkor Archaelogical Park as the capital. "They had roadhouses every six miles (nine kilometres) with accommodation, food, shelter for the animals and hospitals; six miles being the average distance a bullock cart could travel in a day."
However, archaeologists at Vat Phou know a lot less than they would like to. "We have excavated about 5 per cent of the area," says Laurent Delfour, a French architect who has been working with UNESCO to manage the site for the past three-and-a-half years. "That translates as 5 per cent knowledge on the area. We believe that Vat Phou marked the beginning of the Angkor Empire but nothing is certain."
What is certain is the race against time Champasak's hidden treasures face. A new highway linking the town with the regional capital of Pakse and the Thai border post of Chong Mek, has already disturbed six ancient temples beneath the ground. Champasak was designated a World Heritage zone in 2001; building without assessments, and approval, is not permitted.
"The Laos Ministry of Information and Culture did a little research into the area where the road was going," says a long-term Champasak resident who requested anonymity. "But the findings were just pushed aside and work on the road accelerated."
The local government is hoping the road, which will extend to the Cambodian border, will bring in busloads of tourists.
Parcels of land on the road to Vat Phou have been partitioned for infrastructure such as entertainment complexes and restaurants.
At a glance, Champasak doesn't seem to have changed since my first visit in the late 1990s, when the trickle of visitors who made it this far south stayed in bamboo-built bungalows and getting to Pakse, 50 kilometres away, required crossing the Mekong by ferry, then negotiating a muddy trail into town.
Champasak's streets are still lined with gently decaying colonial buildings and shop-houses selling refreshments such as pho and tam mak hung - spicy papaya salad. The preferred mode of transport has been upgraded from bicycle to motorbike. There is also a clutch of recently opened boutique hotels. The Hotel Inthira Champanakone has 14 rooms set around a white colonial mansion that used to be a Chinese trading house. A few kilometres outside Champasak, a new River Resort is under construction. The 24-room La Folie Lodge on Don Daeng Island, on the opposite side of the river, has manicured gardens and a lovely pool.
Champasak even has a spa. Run by a French couple, Champa Spa offers Laotian-style massages from $US6 ($NZ7.84), in an old wooden house using home-made herbal oils.
The town's greatest find is more surreptitious. Frice & Lujanie, an unassuming two-table restaurant on the front porch of a 1950s bungalow, uses eighteenth and nineteenth century recipes drawn from northeast Italy's Friuli region. Everything from the pasta to the porchetta is home-made and, best of all, you can stuff yourself silly on a budget. My bill for two people, including several glasses French table wine, comes to less than $US25 (NZ$31).
From Champasak, you can take a long-tail wooden boat south to Si Phan Don, literally translated as "four thousand islands". Here the Mekong stretches its girth across 14 kilometres and splits into countless tributaries, forming an archipelago of islands and sand bars peppered with palm trees and fishermen's stilt-built villages. An hour or two east by car is the Bolaven Plateau, a cool, misty mountain range teeming with tracts of old-growth rainforest, waterfalls and coffee plantations.
Introduced by French colonists in the early twentieth century, coffee is southern Laos's biggest export. It has instigated a small tourism industry, with plantations opening on-site restaurants and hotels. A roadside cafe serving Laotian-style coffee means strong robusta beans ground and strained through a cotton sock, then mixed with a generous dollop of sweet condensed milk.
The region's greatest hit is still Vat Phou. Accessible via a set of 77 stone stairs that rise past old frangipani trees and deity statues, the tiny temple is as enchanting as its surrounds. Behind is a sheer cliff face; below stretches the moss-green plains that hold the riddles of ancient cities and civilisations.
At the heart of the temple, which barely measures five metres by three, is a towering stone Buddha (Buddhism replaced Hinduism here in the thirteenth century), crowded by three smaller statues and a spread of offerings: flowers, incense, garlands and a Sprite bottle, with straw. They have been left by the local caretakers and a trickle of visitors who still worship here. It's quiet, peaceful and absolutely captivating; for now.
Staying there The Hotel Inthira Champanakone has double rooms from $US40 ($NZ53) a night, including breakfast. See inthirahotels.com.
La Folie Lodge has double rooms from $US95 ($NZ119), including breakfast. See lafolie-laos.com.
More information Plan your trip to coincide with a full moon during the months of October to May, when UNESCO lights Vat Phou with 4000 candles. See tourismlaos.org.
- Sydney Morning Herald