Archaeological travel guide to Vat Tomo, a ruined Angkorian temple in Champasak, Laos located an ancient road to Vat Phou and long since been overgrown with the jungle.
Name: Vat Tomo (Oum Moung, Wat Um Tomo, Um Muang)
Where: Ban Tomo, Champasak, Laos
Location: 14.80954, 105.91906
What to do: Visit a remote Angkorian temple overgrown by the Laotian jungle.
Getting there: A boat from Champasak Town or Vat Louang Kai will bring you to walking distance of the ruins.
Cost: 10,000 LKP / 1.16 USD
Despite being in close proximity to the wondrous Vat Phou, Vat Tomo (pronounced as “Wat Tomo”) is a related Khmer Empire ruin that is often overlooked by tourists visiting the area. Indeed, upon my first visit to Champasak in 2013, I didn’t even know other Angkorian temples existed in the area. Surely they would’ve been highlighted just as Vat Tomo was, right?
It turns out they were not, and only recently did they even put up informational signs acknowledging these sites existed. Roads to them are still extremely limited and getting to any temple other than Vat Phou proves to be a much more immense task than it appears by simply looking at it on a map.
The Story of Vat Tomo
As the old saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.” So was the case of the Khmer Empire which reigned over most of Southeast Asia 1000 years ago. During the height of the Khmer Empire, there existed many satellite cities and roads leading to them from the Devaraja’s (god-king’s) capital at Angkor in modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia. The most famous of these was the Dhammasala Route, which stretched from Angkor to Vimayapura (modern-day Phimai in Thailand) and passed through dozens of impressive temples-resthouses along the way.
Another of these roads stretched into what is now southern Laos at Champasak. This area between the Mekong and Lingaparvata Mountain (known today as Phou Khao) had been inhabited for nearly 500 years before the Khmers established themselves here around 700 CE. The mountain itself was renowned as bearing a naturally-formed Lingam — an important symbol in the worship of the Hindu god Shiva, The temple at Vat Tomo as seen today is part of the regional construction projects done by the Khmer Devaraja Emperor Yasovarman I, who built pilgrimage temples throughout the region for worshipers of Shiva.
The existing ruins form a sanctuary wall around what would have been the original, perhaps even pre-Angkorian ruins here. The Angkorian Vat Tomo temple standing at the site today are built atop two laterite terraces formed by building embankments to protect from the Huay Tomo river below. Vat Tomo is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, as a great many other Khmer temples were, although Vat Tomo was specifically dedicated to Shiva’s consort, Parvati. Unfortunately, the central prang monuments of the temple have long since collapsed.
A very rare find at Vat Tomo was the Mukhalinga, a lingam with a face depicting Shiva carved into it. This particular depiction featured Shiva as a Brahmin ascetic, complete with a long beard and thin from fasting. Several accounts describe and picture the Mukhalinga in situ and propped up against the right interior window of the intact gallery. However, as of January 2019, the Mukhalinga is no longer in Vat Tomo and this window has partially collapsed. Hopefully, this means that the relic has since been moved to either the nearby Vat Phou museum or the Champasak History Museum in Paske.
Visiting Vat Tomo
“It’s my favorite temple and great atmosphere in the middle of a quiet forest.”
– Jack Coucke, owner of the Nakorn Cafe Guesthouse
Opting to drive out in search off this obscure temple, I took the scooter I had brought from Pakse north through the old village of Champasak. Near its northern edge is the Mekong Ferry, where you can hire one of several curiously constructed boats to cross the Mekong River to either Muang on the east bank or to Don Daeng island in the river for 20,000 LKP.
True to Jack’s word, a short hike from the ticket booth brought me into a dense and canopied forest. The quick onset of mosquitoes immediately made me regret not bringing the proper spray along. The first sign one sees points to the pedestal of a lost marker stone. This is interesting, since the inscribed marker stones are so often seen in museums, or even preserved at ruins themselves.
Once in Muang, the short trip to Highway 13 was very precarious due to the road riddled with massive pot road. Highway 13 is the road from Pakse to the 4000 Islands and the Cambodia border. Another stretch on a long and, at times, difficult dirt road finally got me back to the Mekong riverside.
Heading back to the main path, I was soon at a sign to the ruin’s irrigation system. I had been told and read that Vat Tomo existed on an island. Neither the maps available or anything that I could see made this apparent, however, the irrigation system consisted of a stone laid aqueduct leading to the opposite side of the archaeology site from the Mekong River. This would indicate that there should be some waterway for the stone piping to drain into, however, I found none.
The main ruins are led to by two different paths. From the irrigation remnants, there are the iconic markers that lead to many Khmer sites, including the nearby Vat Phou.
The main ruins of Vat Tomo are concentrated on a hillside leading down to Huay Tomo, a small tributary river of the Mekong, which seems to be the temple’s original entrance. Ascending from this small riverbank is a steep stairway which has fallen apart and is no longer walkable. These stairs lead to the temple’s original main entrance, an intact western gallery corridor which still retains its original walls, windows and one other original entryway on the south end.
While this western gallery is more intact, the remains of the northern gallery, also located on the edge of a hillside, might even be more interesting. Here is a semi-collapsed section where you can see how the doorways and windows were held together. While this area of the temple is significantly overgrown by the jungle, there are numerous blocks cut with precise right angles and depressions so that they can lock together when correctly placed.
Moving away from the outer galleries to the center of the ruins, there is very little left to see. What was likely a central monument such as a prank has long since fallen apart and been left only scattered rubble on the ground. One of the main lintels (stone carvings placed over doorways) is still at the site and is placed on the ground next to where the central monument once stood.
Following this, there was very little left to see at the site, save a few scattered path markers and stray naga carvings. One back to the road, I made sure to check out the faded information pinned inside the site’s announcement board. More helpful than I originally figured, the papers inside gave information about a number of other nearby sites, including the Khan Man Houk lingams carved into the Mekong River bed.
How to Get to Vat Tomo
Despite its status a few years back, Vat Tomo (also called Wat Tomo or Oub Moung) is now marked clearly enough for the independent traveller to find. Most who visit the town will want to do so from Champasak Town, either while they are staying there or on a day trip to Vat Phou.
There are two ways to get to Vat Tomo from Champasak, both of which require crossing the Mekong River by local ferry boat. The first and more popular Mekong ferry is located on the north end of Champasak town. This ferry is able to take across individuals, motorbikes, or even full tour vans.
The other Mekong ferry is located a few kilometers south of Champasak Town, in the Champasak Ancient City, bypassing the southern end of Don Daeng. This ferry does not allow any vehicles and has a rather steep stairway to the Main Street on the east bank of the river. The advantage of this second ferry is that you are literally steps away from the entrance to Vat Tomo. When you arrive at the east bank, proceed up the stairs, turn left through the small village and you’ll be at the entrance to Vat Tomo in 5 minutes.
The more popular Mekong ferry on the north end of Champasak town places you in the village of Muang (Muang meaning “City”, and the Champasak Town across the river also know as Muang Champasak) where you will need your own transportation to continue to Vat Tomo.
From Muang, you turn eastward (left) out of the village toward Highway 13, the road that connects Pakse to Cambodia. When you arrive at this junction, there is a sign in English clearly pointing you the correct route (turn right) to Vat Tomo.
The next 10 or so kilometers are unremarkable. You’ll eventually come to a market on the right side of the road that has a sign for Vat Tomo after it. Here, you turn right onto a dirt road for the final 5 km, it’s a difficult road to drive if you’re not experienced with Laos roads or motorbikes in general.
After about 15 minutes, you’ll get to the entrance to Vat Tomo. There is a clear sign and a wooden building. You will park your bike here and be approached by the temple’s groundskeeper. He will sell you a ticket for 10,000 LKP. From here, you walk the path into the jungle to find the Angkorian ruins of Vat Tomo.