The day finally came for us to explore outside of lovely Luang Prabang. We rented a motorbike at one of several shops scattered in and around the town center. Note that motorbike rentals in Luang Prabang are not cheap; we paid about 110,000 kip (about $14usd) per day which was the most expensive we paid during our 4 months traveling throughout South East Asia. But after asking around trying to bargain a price with a collective tuk-tuk, we decided the freedom and flexibility to do what we wanted was worth the price (we also went to the Kuang Si Waterfalls the same day).
And so we made our way to the Pak Ou Caves. Located about 32 km from Luang Prabang, the caves are a popular stop for many travelers – both foreigners and Lao. By motorbike it took us around 45 minutes with the last 10 or so kilometers on a rugged, dusty trail leading to a tiny village. We had to ask several people along the way where the caves were. Most didn’t know the English name (nor the Lao name for that matter) which made it very difficult to find the caves. We finally did come across a small sign indicating the direction of the caves but it could easily be missed so keep your eyes open if you decide to go by motorbike.
Once at the entrance of the village and still on our motorbike, we were abruptly stopped by a twisted cord rising swiftly from the dirt. At the end of the cord sat a young girl kindly requesting us to first pay for parking before going any further. We obliged handing over a few kip to keep the unassuming ‘guard’ happy and to insure our motorbike was safe (though I honestly don’t think anything would’ve happened to it – the village proudly announced it was crime-free!).
From the makeshift parking lot, we walked through the sleepy village dotted with shops and humble houses. The villagers, with a few children in tow, were very welcoming greeting us with edentulous smiles and quizzical grins. With a trail of lingering laughter and a few echoing sabaidee behind us, down the sandy hill we went to the dock to embark on a small wooden motorized boat that would take us across the lazy Nam Ou river to the Pak Ou Caves. The price of the boat ride wasn’t included in the entrance fee (20,000 kip – about $3) to the caves but it was a fixed price of only a few dollars (I think it was also 20,000 kip).
The caves are highly treasured as one of the most religious symbols in Luang Prabang. An impressive white-washed staircase leads the way up the limestone cliff to the lower cave named Tham Ting. The cave is filled with up to (and possibly more than) 4000 different images of Lord Buddha ranging in size from miniature statuettes to more imposing, more elaborate effigies in every material and position imaginable.
Up the rickety ladder we went to discover even more Buddha images scattered all around the dimly-lit cave. I was fascinated by the number of effigies and the devotion of the hundreds of Lao people who make the pilgrimage to the Pak Ou Caves to celebrate the Lao New Year every April.
To reach the upper cave named Tham Theung, we climbed a number of steep steps (with a few breaks to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my brow). This cave is more expansive than the lower cave with less effigies and no light streaming into the deeper area. Make sure to bring some sort of torch or head lamp if you want to properly view the hundreds of statues and get a good sense of walking through the cave.
A visit to Pak Ou Caves shouldn’t take much more than two hours if you take your time (and depending on the number of people) but it’s definitely time well-spent. The views of the surrounding limestone cliffs are beautiful and the leisurely (albeit very short) boat ride is enjoyable. I had never seen anything like the Pak Ou caves and I was glad to have made the journey from Luang Prabang to visit the caves of 4000 Buddhas.
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