A Cambodian won’t say they’re ‘Cambodian’. They’ll always refer to themselves as ‘Khmer’. Why is this the case when the ancient Khmer empire dissolved in 1431?
One of the most famous legacies of the Khmer empire is the renowned Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia. However, what few people realise is that the Khmer empire was once also one of the most extensive and powerful empires in Southeast Asia, covering parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia.
We had the opportunity to visit Wat Phu Champasak, a pre-Angkor archaeological site 12km away from the city of Pakxe. Dated from the 5th to 15th centuries AD, Wat Phu Champasak is framed by the spiritually significant, linga-shaped Phu Khao mount to the north, and the Mekong river 6km south. It was initially inspired by Hinduism with the aim of harmonising nature and humanity. However, when an influential king converted the Khmers to Theraveda Buddhism, so too did the role of Wat Phu Champasaak, which remains a significant Buddhist pilgrimage site today.
With adventurous spirit, Nico and I decided to hire a motorcycle for a day trip to the site. Though we were informed it was easy to get to from Pakxe, we hadn’t quite been warned about the state of the roads to get there. Admittedly, the majority of the roads were great; however, the final 3 km or so were unsigned, dirt roads that made it difficult to keep the bike stable. At one point, the dust was so thick, we lost complete visibility as the powder surfaced from the ground. Half the time we were covered in a thick layer of powdery dust, and the other half, I needed to get off the bike and hike, whilst Nico tackled the dirt terrain.
Nonetheless, it was worth it. The views from the temple were magnificent; there were few tourists, apart from a few locals; the ruins and relics were pretty much open to the public to peruse at free will; and it was a wonderful introduction to what was soon to come in Angkor, as the temple site in Wat Phu Champasak pre-dates it.
Something interesting that I pondered about whilst there: Our little tourist pamphlet that was given to us at the UNESCO entry point when we bought our entrance tickets mention that a former Khmer king built a road from Wat Phu Champasak in Laos all the way to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. Though I have yet to find any other source confirming that this is indeed factual, it did make me feel as though we were at the beginning of that same journey: as we were also, on our overland journey to Angkor Wat.
- Sights at the mouth of the river Xe: Pakxe in Laos (thirdkulturekidparis.wordpress.com)