Championing Champasak

An ancient city in Laos rises to the heritage challenge…

Imagine for a moment traveling back 1,000 years to explore complex palaces and temples nestled in the mountains where nature and humanity lived in harmony. Where a vast landscape of the legendary Khmer empire was created on the Mekong River using the mountaintop and river bank as an axis to lay out geometric patterns of shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 kilometers. Champasak, in southwestern Laos, has been preserved as today’s gateway to this ancient past. Although often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is much less well known. Champasak’s secrets and its stunning concentration of sanctuaries – the largest in Southeast Asia – are known only to archaeologists.


This area is of major scientific interest since it dates to the Pre-Angkorian period, which lasted from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and is largely unexplored. You can find the largest treasure trove of information about it in Champasak. The region offers us a unique window into that world, helping us understand the currents and pressures that led to the first urban revolution in Southeast Asia. It was here, more than 1,500 years ago, that people went from autonomous individual village life to building the first of their cities, complete with a royal administration. The ancient city of Champasak was most probably the original capital of the Chenla State, the first Khmer Kingdom. Beyond this, aerial photography has shown a very dense ancient occupation of the entire plain in a radius of 40 km around the site. Champasak is the ancestor of Angkor, an ancient road linking Champasak to Angkor bearing witness to the strong ties between the two sites.

The monumental religious complex of Vat Phou in the very heart of the site was founded in the 5th century but what visitors can see today dates back to the 11th century. Most of the previous remains are no higher than foundations while others are buried underground which makes protecting and restoring them difficult.


Situated on the right bank of the Mekong River, the site had long been cut off from the rest of the world. Until 2011 there were no access roads from Pakse. This isolation helped maintain its natural environment and preserve traditional wooden architecture, as well as many remarkable brick buildings from the French era. The site also contains an important historic record of the Hindu religion above and beyond its role as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Its annual religious festival in February or March attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims. UNESCO named it a Heritage Site in 2001 thanks to its historical, religious and natural qualities.

USD8 A Month Per Agent

Recognizing the exceptional nature of the site was the easy part. However, because the site is made up of a group of villages in a poor and isolated rural area, the difficulties were yet to come. When the Lao authorities wanted to create a World Heritage Site Office, the only workers they could find were local residents. The lack of financial and human resources was telling in the face of the challenge of managing a region of its size and importance. Archaeological remains, for example, cover over 1,000 km², whereas the World Heritage Site Office human resource manager had a monthly budget of only USD8 per agent to ensure protection patrols.


The question of institutional piloting is no easier. The UNESCO site counts more than 60 villages in four districts. It is very difficult to implement building permit controls on such a large scale, especially since the village chiefs are not trained to deal with heritage problems.

Champasak today has become a living lesson in heritage management in a poor rural context. Local staff have learned to use extremely simple tools. The rule book, for example, is only four pages long. The computerized inventories and city planning documents are all open source, so maintenance is free.


Archaeology, architecture, landscape: local staff are present on all fronts and go into villages to teach the residents about the wealth of their heritage and offer solutions to avoid unnecessary demolition. However, their greatest enemy is time. The economy is growing at such a pace that little time is left for those who wish to preserve this precious and fragile heritage.

BIO: Jean-Charles Castel is the Head of the French Priority Solidarity Fund for Southern Lao Heritage, World Heritage Site Office of Vat Phou – Champasak

Images by SAGV

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