Located amongst the limestone cliffs overlooking the Mekong river about 25 km North of Luang Prabang, where the Mekong and the Nam Ou rivers meet, the Pak Ou caves are amongst the most revered holy sites in Laos. This is a renowned destination in the area, one where visitors can get a glimpse of the hidden wonders of Laos. Our stop at Pak Ou caves was part of the slow boat 3 days trip from Chiang Saen in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. Most tourists arrive here on a pleasant boat ride from Luang Prabang.
The surroundings in proximity to the caves are were beautiful, with the Mekong river shores towered by limestone mountains full of life. The slow boat docked at the caves small landing, we descended, purchased an entrance ticket for 20.000 Kip each, and climbed a steep stairway leading to the caves, which are guarded by statues of white lions. Vendors offered flowers, incense sticks and candles along the way up the stairs. In no time we were inside a darkish lower cave, called Tham Ting, the one we could make out from the boat. Once the guide lit up its torch, we saw hundreds of small Buddhist figures laid out over the wall shelves and occupying every nook and corner of hte cave. The sight was mesmerizing and called for some background information…
Pak Ou (translated Mouth (Pak) of the Ou river) caves have been a place of worship for centuries, discovered in the 16th century and turned into a Buddhist cave monastery by one of Laos’ greatest Kings, King Setthathirath. Local people still believe they are inhabited by the spirits of the river, according a popular Laos legend dated prior to the 16th century!
The lower cave, the one nearer the landing, is called Tham Ting (literally ‘cave lower’) and is the most visited of the two, though it is fairly small in size. The upper cave – called Tham Theung – can be reached via a series of steps from the lower cave. I am told that sometimes there are so many visitors around that some tourists give it a skip as they do not want to wait for the queue of people. This is a mistake, as the cave is quite interesting, bigger than the lower cave, and with interesting features. Bear in mind this cave is pretty dark so bring a flashlight or rent one at the cave entrance. If you come on a guided tour, your guide will have a flashlight with him.
It was during the course of several hundreds of years that both caves were filled with thousands of Buddha sculptures of great religious importance, in sizes ranging from a few centimeters to fairly large, and made of various materials like wood, emerald, resin and stone, with the wooden ones today partly or totally damaged by termites. There are samples of Laotian, Thai and Chinese Buddhas, and most are coated in red or black lacquer, some even in gold leaves. These images take several positions (mudras), namely meditation, teaching, peace, rain, and reclining (nirvana). Some are so inviting that over the course of the last few years, a few got stolen by visitors. This is no longer the case as security has been increased.
Apparently, the King of Luang Prabang would use the caves as the place for the washing ceremony of the Laos New Year, called Songkran, on 13-15 April. All Buddhas in the caves would be washed in a long and highly decorated vessel in the shape of a mythical snake, the naga, and this can be seen in the upper cave.
Monks and local believers are allowed to add monks to the caves, so their numbers increase year after year.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Boats for the two-hours magnificent trip upstream to Pak Ou caves leave Luang Prabang from the Mekong boat dock near the end of the peninsula. The boat trip guarantees idyllic scenes of rural riverside life as well as spectacular scenery. The way back downstream takes little over one hour. Boats leave at 8,30am and the fare is 75,000 Kip (10 US$). You can buy your ticket there, or chose a travel agency that may throw in a visit to the interesting whisky village of Baan Xang Hai, where locals have been producing the clay jars where varieties of Lau Lao (Lao whisky) and Lau Hai (Lao wine) are produced. Some of the local ladies weave beautiful scarves and shawls, which sell along the main road.
Boat charges for a single passenger are high, but if you are in a group, it may be worth chartering a whole boat for 350,000 Kip (around 40 US$). Alternatively, wait for more passengers to arrive, or scout around for another 3 passengers to share the boat.
Chartering a taxi, tuk tuk or minivan is an option: they all take you to the Baan Pak Ou village, just across the river from the caves. A cross-river boat costs around 10,000 Kip (1,30 US$) per person.
DO’s AND DON’Ts
The main issue is respecting the Buddhist practice: cover your body with long pants, a shirt will be fine; do not touch the Buddha images;do not vandalize site or write on cave walls; do not smoke inside the caves; refrain from being too noisy.
Brig a torch. A word of advise for elderly visitors or those with a mobility issue: the cave is dark and may be slippery.
For an account of the Mekong cruise from Thailand, CLICK HERE
The Mekong cruise from Chiang Saen in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos was kindly sponsored by Mekong Smile Cruise