Upon excitation with an intense laser pulse, a symmetry-broken ground state can undergo a non-equilibrium phase transition through pathways different from those in thermal equilibrium. The mechanism underlying these photoinduced phase transitions has long been researched in the study of condensed matter systems 1 , but many details in this ultrafast, non-adiabatic regime still remain to be clarified. To this end, we investigate the light-induced melting of a unidirectional charge density wave (CDW) in LaTe 3 . Using a suite of time-resolved probes, we independently track the amplitude and phase dynamics of the CDW. We find that a fast (approximately 1 picosecond) recovery of the CDW amplitude is followed by a slower re-establishment of phase coherence. This longer timescale is dictated by the presence of topological defects: long-range order is inhibited and is only restored when the defects annihilate. Our results provide a framework for understanding other photoinduced phase transitions by identifying the generation of defects as a governing mechanism.