Wat Phu

The Wat Phu Temple was designed to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountaintop to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines, and waterworks extending over some 10 kilometers

Where We Work

Wat Phu is the most important monumental complex inside the Champasak Archaeological Park, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 and covering an area of 400 square kilometers. A maze of temples, shrines, and other monuments, Wat Phu is an emblem of the enduring genius of the human spirit.

History

The Wat Phu Temple complex is contained within the Champasak cultural landscape, a remarkably well preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. It was designed to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountaintop to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.

Wat Phu Monumental Complex is one of the largest archaeological sites in Laos and was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2000, making it one of the only two sites with such status in the entire country. The foundation of the site is dated to the mid-5th century AD when the Chenla kingdom (5th-7th c. AD), started its expansion towards northern Cambodia. The monument, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is one of the most important examples of Khmer architecture because of its plan, its historic and religious significance and for the value of its sculptures.

Threats

Wat Phu is highly susceptible to continuous water erosion and suffers from a lack of regular maintenance.  For example, Nandin Hall rests on a thick layer of filling material, which made an approximately horizontal area at the foot of the mountain (an archaeological test pit on its west face showed a 1.8 m thickness of anthropic layers of sand and gravel with brick and stone debris). Through the centuries however, this filling has been intensely eroded by the water run-off from the mountain, threatening the foundations and the structural integrity of the building. This erosion is presently continuing, and its disrupting action could be seen in the recent years: it is at its worse on the south part of the building, where the soil has been washed out by more than one meter, exposing the lowest level of foundation and resulting in an important differential settlement (30 cm down) and in the dislocation of the structure.

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What We Do

One of only two UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites in Laos, Wat Phu Monumental Complex has suffered from a lack of regular maintenance and is prone to damage and destabilization from fluvial processes.  To counteract these issues, Global Heritage Fund is supporting emergency stabilization and a sustained conservation and training program to save the last remaining temples of Wat Phu in Champasak, particularly Nandin Hall, in partnership with The Lerici Institute, the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture, the Champasak Province Office and the University Polytechnic of Milan.

Planning

While a Site Management Plan has been prepared already by the Lao Government in collaboration with UNESCO, conservation plans are required for specific structures. As such, before any physical work on the structures can begin, a comprehensive study is to be completed to identify the most appropriate approach to monument preservation.

To this end, a preparatory study has been performed on Khmer construction techniques and characteristics of materials employed originally.  The study successfully determined an adequate approach to an appropriate conservation project. Different new materials (sandstone, laterite, mortar, stainless steel, fiberglass, epoxy resin) to be used for the restoration, have been tested and analyzed in the Laboratory of Structural Engineering (UNI Polytechnic of Milano) before the intervention.
The compatibility of the new material with the ancient one will prevent future damages, which can decrease the durability of the structures and affect the original materials (as efflorescence, exfoliation and powdering of original stone, etc.).

The UNESCO Master Plan is now being updated (every five years) to include new villages in the 400-square-mile site as well as archaeological conservation priorities and technical specifications. The Master Plan guides both site conservation and surrounding urban development.

Conservation Science

Conservation efforts at Wat Phu are concentrated on Nandin Hall, one of the most significant architectural remains in the park. Due to settling and uncontrolled vegetation growth, the structure has been weakened and faces collapse, so a program of stabilization and analysis is underway. This will employ the original building materials recovered at the site or newly quarried stones from the same quarries exploited in ancient times during the original construction.

Numerous sites have been stabilized and conserved through a variety of techniques.  A drainage system has been installed beneath Nandin Hall to minimize damage from excessive rain and water retention.  The Ceremonial Road – the primary access route to the site – has been restored using all authentic materials, and statuary along the road has been excavated and reinstalled.  Throughout Wat Phu, cleaning and preparing the area and the structures have furthered the conservation project.  A supply of laterite blocks have been obtained from the ancient Khmer quarry.  Partial dismantling and reassembling of the southern side of Central Room, Central Room floor and Southern Room have been successfully completed with a crucial drainage system installed under the Central Room.

Community Development

The project team has instituted a program of training in field and conservation techniques for the local community members directly involved in the project, and the team is also collaborating with the local communities to devise culturally sensitive means to responsibly cope with the expected increasing numbers of tourist visitors to the site.

Forty-five full-time staff members now work on the site, including 12 engineers and architects, up from just four at the start of the GHF project.  One project archaeologist has now received his PhD from the University of Hanoi and become the #2 figure in the Lao Ministry of Culture Archaeology Department.  Another project member has received a Masters degree from Waseda University.  GHF supported the authentic restoration of a community library in the town of Champasak today used by all peoples as a community meeting and study space equipped with furnishings and hundreds of books.

Visitation to the site has grown from under 20,000 a year in 2005 at the start of the HF Project to over 250,000 in 2010, of which 200,000 were international visitors paying $6 each and generating nearly $1.2 million in revenues.

Partnerships

  • Laos PDR Ministry of Information and Culture
  • Lerici Institute
  • Uni Polytechnic of Milan
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Why It's Important

Wat Phu is a spot fit for kings, and it was here that the Khmer royalty wiled away their days in idle pleasures, enjoying the lush jungle scenery that abounded in this area of Laos. However, thousands of years have passed since their procession departed, and the site has been beset by countless dangers. Despite these, Global Heritage Fund has achieved some remarkable wins for heritage in this beautiful place.

Accomplishments

PLANNING

  • In 2011, Professor Masao Nishimura of Waseda University began the process of revising the original UNESCO Master Plan, now over a decade old.
  • The UNESCO Master Plan is now being updated (every 5 years) to include new villages in the 400 square mile site as well as archaeological conservation priorities and technical specifications. The Master Plan guides both site conservation and surrounding urban development.

SITE CONSERVATION

  • Installed drainage system under Nandin Hall to increase stabilization
  • Completed reassembly of platform under Nandin Hall for increased stability
  • Installed temporary roofing using natural, local materials to protect the monument during monsoon break in fieldwork
  • Completed stone repair on all damaged original stone blocks used in the temple’s construction
  • Continued program of weekly clearance of damaging vegetation growth
  • Restoration of Nandin Hall, mainly focused on partly dismantling and then remounting the southern part of the building.
  • A temporary roof was set up over Nandin Hall, protecting the Southern part of the building from exposure during the rainy season while conservation work took place.
  • The project team has made contributions to 4 different scientific articles in 2011, contributing immensely to the global recognition of the site.

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

As the Wat Phu project comes to a close, the biggest community success – beyond the creation of a well trained local conservation team – is the rise of one team member, Mr. Phakhanxay, who started as field support, then became the project’s field director, and is now the head of the conservation department in the Historic Monuments section of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.

  • Local business creation has increased substantially in response to the 23% per year average growth in tourism to the site.  Locally owned guest-houses are the most prevalent form of accommodation in the Champasak area.
  • In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Vat Phou UNESCO inscription, a ballet was organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism of Champasak Province which included multiple local communities involved in different cultural performances recalling historical events since Khmer time.
  • 45 full-time staff now work on the site, including 12 engineers and architects, up from just four at the start of the GHF project.
  • Under the mentoring of Project Director Patrizia Zolese, one project archaeologist has now received his PhD from the University of Hanoi and become the #2 figure in the Lao Ministry of Culture Archaeology Department.
  • Another project member has received a Masters degree from Waseda University.
  • GHF supported the authentic restoration of a community library in the town of Champasak today used by all peoples as a community meeting and study space equipped with furnishings and hundreds of books.
  • The 10th Anniversary of Wat Phu’s UNESCO World Heritage List inscription was celebrated by the townspeople in February.
  • Visitation to the site has grown from under 20,000 a year in 2005 at the start of the HF Project to over 250,000 in 2010, of which 200,000 were international visitors paying $6 each and generating nearly $1.2 million in revenues.

PARTNERSHIPS

  • The Lao Ministry of Culture has provided co-funding for the renting of office space in addition to a crane for aiding stone removal, collectively equivalent to $73,500.
  • The Italian government has provided equal matching funding of over $240,000 to the Wat Phu Project.
  • The Laotian government is now funding the site’s permanent staff and facilities.
  • A crane and other equipment has been provided for onsite maintenance and conservation efforts.
  • A new $800,000 museum has been established with Japanese funding, with exhibits and collections prepared by the GHF Project team.

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