Champasak’s Heritage Sites
Look no further than the pre-Angkor, 5th-century Khmer capital of Shrestapura starring the Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage site. Investigate ancient temples, reservoirs, rock quarries, irrigation systems, settlements, and the ancient road to Angkor Wat. Fast forward to 1900 and colonial France’s attempt to conquer the Mekong. See the innovative infrastructure used to sidestep the impassable rapids rushing past the 4,000 Islands, and imagine hoisting a ship onto a train to bypass the obstacles.
Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage Landscape
Explore the Champasak cultural landscape, led by the Vat Phou Temple complex, a well-preserved, planned city that is more than 1,000 years old. The layout represents the Hindu relationship between nature and humans. The city’s main axis runs about 10 km from the Mekong to Phou Kao Mountain, spawning a geometric pattern of temples, shrines, and canal/stream water system with reservoirs. The area between two smaller Mekong Riverside towns to the east and Phou Kao Mountain in the west make up the heritage landscape and site of the 5th-century Shrestapura City. The civilization, centred at Vat Phou, stood strong until the 15th century, and is tightly associated with the Khmer Empire and Angkor Wat.
The Sacred Mountain: According to Sanskrit inscriptions, the 1,416-metre-high Phou Kao Mountain was originally named Lingaparvata by the ancient Khmer residents. The carvings were found at Vat Luang Kao on the Mekong just south of Champasak Town, and date to the 5th century. “Linga” are natural iconic representations of Shiva, the Hindu god of fertility, and the 10-metre-tall rocky mountain peak resembles the deity. The sacred mountain went on to delineate the western end of the Vat Phou complex. A Chinese document from 589 AD refers to a temple dedicated to Shiva on top of the mountain. Other inscriptions from the 7th to 12th centuries found near Vat Phou and in Cambodia confirm the “cult of Lingaparvata”.
The Axis: From the base of Phou Kao Mountain, the Vat Phou Temple Complex sprawls east over the Mekong River floodplain. The main shrine sits on a natural mountain terrace, where a spring sprouts from the rocks. The temple complex’s main axis then heads due east for 1,400 metres, and drops six levels before reaching the entrance. The linear layout differs from most pre-Angkor temples, which are concentric, though archaeologists think this reflects “the conscious use of the natural terrain to place maximum focus on the Lingaparvata.” This impressive approach from the east to the mountain and Lingaparvata presents worshippers with the temple’s sanctity.
Enter Vat Phou: When entering the temple complex, you’ll meet a 200 x 600-metre baray (reservoir), built in the 10th century. Pass through the ornamental entrance, and continue along a ceremonial promenade flanked by elaborately carved stone pillars between a pair of much larger barays built in the 11-12th centuries. Next, step up to the first of six terraces that continues along an esplanade for 130 metres.
Upon stepping up to the first level, you’ll find two large stone buildings with courtyards, and they face each other on either side of the wide walkway. Both cover 42 x 62 metres, are parallel to the ongoing main axis, and open onto a porch with intricately carved doorways. Some call these structures, palaces, while research shows they may have been small temples for ceremonies, praying, and hosting monks. These rectangular buildings resemble the Koh Ker-style architecture popular during the early 11th century.
The Promenade: The pillar-lined promenade starts to rise to the second tier, and on the southern end, you can inspect Nandi Hall, a small sandstone building with once-pillared porches dating to the mid-11th century. Its purpose is not known, though historians speculate that it may be the gateway to the ancient road to Angkor. Across the promenade from Nandi Hall are the remnants of a similar building, with a wall and terrace still visible. A pair of stone sculptures of two tall guardians flank the structures.
Up the Stairs: A set of stairs between retaining walls climbs to the third level, where a small stone pavilion greets you. After passing through, a 75 metre-long ramp, open on both sides, it gradually rises 15 metres following the natural terrain, which is about 20 metres wide and retained by a wall. The original staircase to the fourth tier had three flights, between stone banks. At the top of the stairs, the axis passes the Gopura Gate with three 1,000-year-old stone towers reaching out perpendicularly on both the north and south side, each with a linga.
Then it’s on to the 20-metre-wide, two-part fifth terrace accessed by a flight of stone steps that end at a stone-paved landing with naga serpent balustrades marking the axis. From here, seven 11-step staircases separated by landings ends at the sixth and final tier about 75 metres above the lower borays and a great view of the complex to the Mekong and beyond.
Phou Kao Sanctuary: The terrace is about 60 x 60 metres, with a central sanctuary dedicated to Shiva at the foot of an overhanging cliff, where the freshwater spring marks the start of the axis. The stream that sprouts from the cliff is channelled through this temple and over a Shiva linga, thus keeping the shrine wet from the “holy water”. To the south of the shrine are the remains of a small library. Below the cliff are the remnants of an enclosed entrance, and to the north is a small modern monastery. Further north, you’ll find rock carvings of an elephant, crocodile and other formations, as well as ancient stone structures dating to the 7th century.
As seen, the Vat Phou Vat Phou complex developed over centuries. The earliest remains date to the 7th century, and another major rebuilding took place in the 11-12th centuries by Angkor rulers, who maintained the site to the 14th century. The shrine converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 13th century and retains an important local religious function to this day.
Location: The Vat Phou complex is located about 3-4 km south of Champasak Town. You can reach the entrance by motorbike, cycle, or tuk tuk. You can also access Vat Phou by ferry from Don Daeng Island.
Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre
The French Come to Champasak
The Mekong Expedition (1866-1868): By the mid-1800s, the British controlled foreign trade along China’s coast, and French merchants sought a commercial toehold in Asia. Napoleon III’s navy, eager for colonial glory, set its sights on Vietnam, and captured Saigon in 1861. A young naval officer, Francis Garnier, enthusiastically advocated exploring the Mekong as a potential route to tap the fabled riches of China. In 1864, he presented his plan to the colony’s governor, Admiral La Grandière, and the “Mekong Expedition Commission” was soon approved. La Grandière placed Commander Ernest Doudart de Lagrée in charge, with Garnier as second-in-command. Their crew of 20 set sail aboard two steamers on 5 June 1866.
De Lagrée knew about “Khone Falls”, but had never seen the so-called impassable rapids around the 4,000 Islands, and assumed he could easily surmount the obstacle. The expedition landed in north-eastern Cambodia’s Kratie Town on 7 July, and transferred to canoes to tackle the Sambor rapids.
The rainy season current slowed progress, forcing the expedition to hug the eastern bank, and push their boats with poles. Garnier thought a strong steamer could overpower the torrent, but as the ride turned rougher, his journal entry states navigating the Mekong to China seemed “gravely compromised.” They reached calmer waters just below Stung Treng, but as they continued upriver, Garnier became extremely ill and lost consciousness, only to recover in time to face Khone Falls, where the river rushed through rocky cataracts, with drop-offs reaching 20 metres.
The expedition realized that this wide, turbulent stretch of the Mekong was nearly insurmountable by steamer. They travelled by foot along the fall’s bank past Don Hang Khone to Hua Don Khone and calmer waters. The expedition reached Vientiane on 2 April 1867, Luang Prabang on 28 April, and Yunnan on 7 October. De Lagrée died from severe dysentery in early 1868, after they passed Kunming on the way to Dali via land, where the now Garnier-led expedition arrived on 1 March. However, the locals refused them passage, leaving a boat ride down the Yangtze to Shanghai as their only way out.
Claiming Strategic Don Khone: During the 1870s, the French were concerned that the British were eyeing the upper Mekong from their Burmese colony. The British were also increasing their influence in China and Siam, with its disputed border with Laos. Meanwhile, France’s only solid Asian claim was southern Vietnam (Cochinchina) and a “protectorate” over Cambodia. They wanted to continue the Mekong Expedition’s legacy by linking to inner China via the Mekong through Laos, which they needed to control.
In the 1880s, France moved to dominate Vietnam’s central (Annam) and northern (Tonkin) regions. They also firmed up their Cambodian position by seizing power from King Norodom with a show of gunboat force, which piqued further interest in the Mekong and overcoming Khone Falls. French Navy Lieutenant Campion first powered a small steamer up Cambodia’s Sambor rapids in 1884, and Captain Paul Reveillère guided a steamboat to Don Khone’s western shores, anchoring in what he named “Marguerite Bay” in 1887.
On board was a representative of Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine, which held the Mekong navigation concessions in Cambodia and Vietnam. That same year, French businessman, Camille Gauthier, set off from Luang Prabang by raft, and managed to survive Khone Falls to reach Phnom Penh in January 1888. The efforts of both Gauthier and Reveillere led to the same conclusion; forget beating the rapids by boat.
Meanwhile, the French continued negotiating with Siam over the disputed Mekong borders, the failure of which prompted a French blockade of the Chao Phraya River below Bangkok in July 1893. The Siamese relented and signed a treaty on 3 October, renouncing any claims on the Mekong’s east bank. To hold the river, the French urgently needed gunboats above Khone Falls.
Steaming Ahead: From 1890-1892, Dr Mougeot tried to find a hidden passage around Khone Falls with the French steamboat, Argus, but he failed. The 1893 treaty in which Siam relinquished the Mekong’s east bank urgently required gunboats above Don Khone, and Gouverneur Général de l’Indochine sought a new approach. Naval Lt Georges Simon was tasked with the “mission hydrographique du haut Mékong” to take two gunboats up the Mekong to Don Khone, dissemble them, cross the island, then re-assemble and launch the boats in calmer upriver waters.
In March 1893, the gunboats were ordered from France. Each weighed 22 tons, measured 26 metres, and could be dismantled into five pieces. La Grandière and Massie arrived in Saigon on 30 July, where the vessels were assembled and armed. They cast off on 22 August. Meanwhile, Lt Simon contracted Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine in Saigon to quickly supply rail tracks and a carriage capable of hauling 35 tons, in the hope of moving the boats in one piece. He completed the 3-km line from Marguerite Bay to Ban Khone in August.
La Grandière and Massie suffered significant damage in the lower Mekong, but reached Marguerite Bay, and on 12 September, Lt Simon tried and failed to hoist the Massie ashore. He then selected Hang Khone as the landing site and began rerouting the tracks. He also replaced the out-of-order La Grandière with the heavier Ham Luong, a boat in local service that needed to be disassembled into two pieces for rail shipment.
Using manpower to move the train, the boats reached Ban Khone in late October, and were re-floated on 1 November in Hou Béhanzin Channel separating Don Khone and Don Det. A repaired La Grandière completed the rail trip on 5 September 1894, and continued to Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the Tang Ho rapids near China, the final point for Mekong steamboat navigation. On 15 July 1920, La Grandière and its valuable cargo sank near Ban Thadeua, some 80 km downriver from Luang Prabang. Expeditions as recently as 2002 have tried salvage its remains.
The Railway’s Rise and Fall: By early 1894, Lt Simon and hundreds of Vietnamese workers completed and improved Don Khone’s rail line from Hang Khone to Ban Khone, and upgraded the boat ramps, and their foundations and walls. After the successful 3-hour transfer of La Grandière to Ban Khone Tai in early September, Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine was contracted on 25 September, “for the postal service of the connecting rivers of the upper Mekong,” which included rail transport on Don Khone. They then ordered three 60-ton steamboats: the Garcerie, Colombert, and Trentinian. This required rectifying the 1-metre tracks, improving the embankments, and enlarging the piers’ ramps. The work took place from August-October 1896, and the three boats were launched in Ban Khone on 25 October.
Looking to meet growing commercial demand, Messageries Fluviales renewed its Mekong contract in July 1897. They adapted narrower 0.6 metre-wide tracks, needed for Decauville locomotives, into the line, rather than relying on manpower. The first steamer was the Paul Doumer, which was purchased that year. Within a decade, couriers, cargo, and tourists began arriving in Hang Khone, transferred by the train to Ban Khone Tai, and boarded to steamers bound for Savannakhet and onward to Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The train began transporting cardamom, hides, ivory, precious wood, and benzoin gold from Laos to downriver steamers, while hauling Cambodian and European fabric as well as Western household utensils, tools, and glassware to Don Khone’s upriver port. They also built reinforced concrete piers, low-water docking facilities, storage depots, and gantry cranes, while firming up older tracks for the increase in traffic.
However, demand never materialized, with dry season (December-May) traffic mostly servicing couriers and passengers, while rainy season brought floods. The construction of a 22-km road bypassing Khone Falls, and the 1937 integration of the road into Colonial Route 13 from Saigon to Luang Prabang dealt the railway’s death blow. During World War II, the Japanese controlled Don Khone, and seem to have used the train for military purposes. When the Japanese left, the jungle moved in, engulfing the locomotives in plant growth and relegating the train tracks to recyclable junk.
The Man Who Conquered Khone Falls: The first of very few steamers to ever conquer Khone Falls was captained by Norwegian Peter Hauff. Born in 1873, Hauff landed a job in 1894 with a large commercial trading firm in Saigon, where he immersed himself in the culture and language, which gained the respect of locals. In 1898, Hauff took a passenger steamer to Hang Khone, hopped on the new locomotive to Ban Khone, and boarded a steamboat to Bassac (Champasak). With trade on the rise with the upper Mekong, Hauff ordered a 16-metre freighter in 1902 from the experienced Niger River Company.
Hauff and his 11-man crew received the dismantled vessel, Si-thanh, in Saigon, assembled it and set off to Phnom Penh with an Annamese pilot. During the slow 10-day trip, Hauff fell ill, they lost their way, and the firewood got wet. Hauff hired a Cambodian pilot for the Don Khone voyage, where the French railway would transport Si-thanh. However, Messageries Fluviales, which controlled the island’s railway, wanted an “impossible price”, and refused to sell him oil or firewood. Hauff declined the exorbitant offer, though he knew about the failed attempts to navigate the falls.
Undaunted, he headed to nearby Don Sadam, where an elder suggested he try Hou Sadam Channel, which separated Don Sadam and Don Phapheng islands. With the river level starting to recede, Hauff had little time. He ordered his men to buy coconut oil for lubricant and collect dry wood. They departed the next morning, and fought a strong current, relying on tying ropes to trees to progress one mile that day. Tree chopping and an anchor chain and winch shortened the second day to some 150 metres. An easy Day 3 preceded a stretch of shallow water that required building a dam of trees behind the boat to move ahead. Hauff, his crew, and Si-thanh arrived in North Don Khone on their fifth day, and received a hero’s welcome at the French government shop. Hauff had accomplished the impossible.
Seeing the Island’s Infrastructure: Explore one of colonial France’s greatest obstacles in navigating the Mekong – the rapids and falls rushing past Don Khone and Don Det Islands – and examine the remnants of the transportation system engineered by the French to defeat them, while enjoying the surrounding nature and culture.
Leave Ban Khone Village and head east and then south along the river. Follow the 500-metre-long teak diversion wall constructed in the river by the French in 1903 to funnel teak logs along Dan Khone’s bank to a diversion dam that straddles a waterfall.
Continue to southern Don Khone and inspect the Hang Khone Pier, where you can examine the pulley system and 100-year-old steam locomotive used to bypass the Mekong’s rough waters. It hauled cargo, passengers, and disassembled boats upriver on the islands’ railway.
Retrace the train’s rail route from Hang Khone, on which 4 km of tracks once cut through Don Khone’s jungle to Ban Khone, where you can investigate the rusty remains of another original locomotive. The train’s route continues 3 km across the still-standing railroad bridge to Don Det and on to the loading gantry at the island’s northern tip.
Khong Island: Discover Don Khong, a French stronghold on the Mekong. Take a tour of the District Museum, and inspect displays of the area’s history in a well-preserved, two-story colonial structure, built in 1898 to house the governor and royal family member, Chao Anou. While on Don Khong, check out Vat Phou Khao Keo dating to 1364, with a golden Buddha and colourful murals, and stones carved in Sanskrit and Khmer designs. Along the way, view Vat Hin Siew’s sacred stone, and the colonial-style Vat Vieng Thong’s ancient stupa and monuments containing cremated remains.
Location: Don Khong is located 14 km north of Don Khone, and can be accessed by road and a bridge from Route 13.
Visit the Champasak Palace Hotel, the would-be home of Prince Chao Boon Oum on the Xe Don, that he abandoned in 1974. The elaborate seven-storey structure with 115 rooms and arched balconies, also boasts 1,000 doors and windows in traditional Lao style, thus its nickname, “The Thousand Door Pavilion”.
Location: The hotel overlooks the Xe Don River near the Road 1 Bridge.