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Counting the steps to heaven

Phoowadon Duangmee discovers earthly delights in a sacred setting at Wat Phou, a World Heritage Site in southern Laos, but the journey there is long and steep

Counting the steps to heaven

Some places can only be appreciated on foot, and you can definitely add Wat Phou in southern Laos to the list. Nestled at the base of a cliff, the ruins of this temple to Shiva demand a steep climb of more than 300 steps from those wishing to pay their respects.

Like undaunted pilgrims of old, we march boldly forth. And sooner rather than later, everyone agrees that this fifth-century Hindu sanctuary is probably an ideal place to die of a heart attack.

Beautiful actress Pharadee Yuphasuk has foolishly taken time out to join our group, and she's on the verge of letting fly with "I'm a celebrity. Get me out of here!", when our Lao guide distracts us all with a story.

"We're approaching the gates to heaven," says Udone Philomhuck, pointing out the sculpted-stone serpent's heads just ahead of us. "From these Naga heads, you can reach the temple - or heaven - with another 100 steps or so. It's beautiful, and the views up there are second to none."

Listening to Udone's story, scepticism mingles with my growing fatigue. Sure, a steep path often holds the promise of great view at the end of it, but "heaven"? What could possibly be waiting for us up there?

Realistically, a huge pile of fifth-century linga, I supposed. This was a temple to Shiva, after all.

Located in Champasak Province, Wat Phou is a rare example of an ancient Hindu temple in Laos. Legend has it that it was built in the fifth century AD by King Kammatha, who ruled a small ancient Champa kingdom on the south bank of the Mekong. When the Champa lost their power, the Khmer invaded. Most of the remnants, including the stone-carved scenes and broken statuary of the gods, date back to the 11th century and the Khmer empire centred on Angkor in present-day Cambodia. Unesco designated the monuments a World Heritage Site in 2002, and academics consider them the finest medieval Khmer complex in Laos.

Like most ancient Khmer temples, this complex takes the form of a rectangle, with a long strip of paved path sweeping west-east through the site up to the inner sanctum.  Making our way up the ancient walkway, we pass the barays, or man-made reservoirs, on either side. The reservoirs were built to represent the oceans of Hindu myth. Had we been making this trip earlier, say, in the fifth century, we would have had to immerse ourselves at this point, purifying our bodies and souls before going any further. But thankfully, 21st-century visitors don't even need to think about taking a dip. Just as well - the thick wall of undergrowth around each reservoir looks impenetrable. There's even a warning of snakes in the grass, but then this is a kingdom of the Naga.

As we continue up the stone path, Udone entices us on with another story. This time, it's X-rated: "They say that the Champa king got the inspiration to build this temple from the natural lingum," he casually remarks. "There's a lingum-shaped bulge at the summit, and because of it, the mountain was regarded as the home of Shiva."

Udone's legend sounds plausible. Imagine you were king Kammatha - what would you build to make your fellow Champa happy? A sacred shrine to Shiva, of course.

Though you'll be wishing for the iron calves of a bicycle champion as you climb, the views once you get to the top of Wat Phou are worth it. At the statue of King Kammatha, standing midway between "heaven" and earth, we look out over the valley; a sloping green meadow sweeps down against the backdrop of huge reservoirs and local villages in the distance. Facing each other on either side of the stone path are the North and South Palaces. What these two sandstone constructions were used for isn't clear, but they are a spectacular sight, with rectangular courtyards, false doors and carved lintels showing, for example, Shiva together with consort riding the holy bull.

Then there is the stone path beneath our feet, lying under a canopy of plumeria, or Champa flower in Lao. The fifth-century path builders wanted it look like a giant serpent - the Naga of Hindu myth - so the path is perfectly laid with thousands of pieces of laterite to resemble a snake's skin. Lao suitors like to climb it with their lovers, and offer small bouquets of flowers at the statue of the king. They hope, it's said, to be blessed with a love that lasts as long as the ancient temple - if not forever. Climbing alone with the group's celebrity, who is fascinated - but by the proximity of a TV camera rather than the ruins - I make regular small detours to chat with the flower sellers. You can't rush up the steep path, anyway.

"Is it true I'll find heaven at the end of this path?" I joke to a 50-something local vendor.

"Heaven? I'm not sure, but there are plenty of ripe mangoes up there," she replies, revealing the funny gap in her front teeth. She tells me that the coins she makes go to support the community temple in her village.

So apparently I'm breaking my legs for mangoes the old flower seller gets the last laugh.

But I discover that she's right after all. There is no heaven at the end of the stone path - let alone the huge piles of linga. The main sanctuary sits roofless beneath the mango trees. Climbing the upper terrace to approach the main entrance, visitors are titillated with a relief of a voluptuous female figure on the wall. But then there's a sandstone guardian with a huge club to make you cringe.

Constructed by the Champa, invaded by the Khmer and finally converted to a Buddhist temple in the 16th century, the central sanctuary reflects the mixed bag of faiths and gods that have been worshipped here over the centuries. The pediment at the front has a fine carving of Vishnu on a garuda, while the South lintel shows Lord Krishna tearing his uncle, Kamsa, in two. As if the presence of Vishnu in a temple to Shiva weren't strange enough, there are four Buddhas sitting surrounded by the swirling smoke of incense in the central chamber.

"The temple used to house monks," says one local selling flowers in front of the stone chamber. So near, yet so far from the village below, the monks eventually got tired of having to walk all the way to the foot of the hill and back again on their alms-collecting route. They left for a spot closer to the community that supported them.

I put my senses to work to get a fuller experience of the place, sitting at the edge of the cliff with a handful of ripe mangoes. You can't see the "natural lingum" from here, but who needs that stone protuberance when you have such a fantastic sight before you. The slanting rays of the evening sun catch the reservoirs, twin palaces and the small shrine to Nandi, Shiva's sacred bull. A great view from the high temple, juicy mangoes, and, of course, those 300 steps downhill make me want to dawdle up here forever.



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