The Wat Phou Festival or Boun Wat Phou is the highlight of the year for Champasak District; a three-day fiesta held as part of the Makha Bouxa Buddhist Festival. The celebration is held on the full-moon day of the third lunar month because Buddha is said to have taught the core teachings of Buddhism (cease from evil, do good, and cleanse your mind) during this time. The story goes that on this day, long ago, in India, numerous followers of Buddha came to see him on their own initiative. They were then ordained as teachers and became “enlightened ones.” Although celebrated annually, the actual festival date changes, this year it will start on the 17th of February and will culminate on the 19th.
Boun Wat Phou is the largest festival in Southern Laos. People take part in various activities during the three-day celebration. These include sound and light shows, processions, recitals, chanting, and most importantly, praying. There are also volleyball and petanque competitions for the more adventurous attendees. There are even elephant processions, traditional dancing, and concerts.
Wat Phou, which translates to “mountain temple”, was initially dedicated to Shiva, one of the gods of the Hindu Trimurti. The unique layout of Khmer architecture found at Wat Phou gained it the UNESCO World Heritage label in 2001. What most people don’t know is that while the temple reflects the religious beliefs and economic approaches of Khmer construction and was initially built for Hindu worship, it was later converted to an active Buddhist sanctuary and remains so to this day. Wat Phou, along with the lesser known Khmer temples in Southern Laos (Um Tomo, Hong Nang Sida, and Temple of Thao Tao) were built as early as 10th century BC, during the reign of Yasovarman I or the Leper King. Although there is little left of the Ancient Road going toward Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, you can learn of its fascinating history at the Wat Phou museum.
The magnificent Wat Phou is located 10km from Champasak’s town center. The Wat Phou complex is the cultural heart of a wider historical landscape on the plains of Champasak District, ranging from the Mekong River to the Phou Kao Mountains.
For those looking for activities away from the crowd, cycling around Champasak and crossing to Don Daeng is your best option. There, on the little sandy island, you can have a perfect contrast to the festivities on the other side. Don Daeng is 8km long, with rice fields in the middle surrounded by villages. Peaceful and quiet, you can spend countless days basking in the sun like the water buffaloes scattered along the sand. For accommodation, there are great options to choose from based on your budget, from homestays to the up-market La Folie Lodge. A single trail follows the perimeter of the island, so it’s difficult to get lost. If you want a more guided route, there are free cycling maps available at the local tourism office (Pakse, Champasak, and Don Daeng).
Start your year right and visit Champasak on your next vacation. Don’t just take my word for it. Go experience true southern charm yourself.
Getting there: Lao Airlines has daily flights to Pakse from
Luang Prabang and Vientiane, as well as five flights per week
For more information on Wat Phou and Champasak town,
Text by Dyan Barutzki
Photographs by PHOONSAB THEVONGSA / SWISSCONTACT & BART VERWEIJ