Travel experiences begin to blend and morph under the constant stress of “newness” when you’re on a long-term trip. When I traveled around the world for a year, even though my pace was slower than some, I went to fast to process all the moments and sites. Laos was one of my favorite countries to visit both then and now, and it’s only in the years since I first visited that I am fully processing the moments and memories.
When I first visited, I was on a whirlwind of visiting everything from the famed waters of the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng to the stunning turquoise pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang. At the time, I found the Pak Ou Caves underwhelming. Compared to the high adventure of other day trips, I was happy to have spent the day doing something interesting, but I thought that it was skippable in the long run. I even wrote that phrase “skippable.” Ouch! That’s a harsh assessment, but it was my honest opinion. In the craziness of traveling and constantly moving locales, the Pak Ou caves weren’t “Holy cannoli, that rocks my world.” In the years since, however, I find myself coming back to those caves—and the things I learned.
Laos’ Pak Ou caves sit above the Mekong River as just a dark blip in the rock as we approached by boat. The position of the caves allows indirect light to enter as it bounces off of the river’s muddy brown waters.
There are two main caves, both embedded into the limestone cliff. The lower cave is reachable from a staircase that ascends from the riverbank, while the second caves is higher, the entrance is surrounded by trees. Once we disembarked, no one had to tell us to use hushed voices as we ventured into the small, dark recess in the rock. As we entered, our gazes caressed hundreds of Buddha statues. Buddhas in every position, every era of life, and every size line the cave walls. More than 6,000 Buddha statues and images fill the caves. Damp earth assaults the nostrils, even the brush of bodies as tourists enter and leave doesn’t stir the air.
And yet, there are the statutes. Each tiny Buddha was perched with loving care into the cave’s crevices and natural shelves.
Devotional energy reverberates through the caves. Recent additions glisten in the muted light, while the cobwebs cover the oldest statues. Some of these have sat in the Pak Ou caves for hundreds of years. Nearby villagers, and pilgrims from all over the world, use this cave as a place to retire damaged and old Buddha statues. Local Laotians deposit the Buddha statues in the cave instead of tossing them, a practice that speaks to their devotion and commitment. These caves provided an answer to the question I had never before thought to ask: Where do retired Buddha statues live?
Which then begs a related question that I hadn’t considered: What happens to the many statues of a Crucified Jesus that rest in every Catholic church? Surely you can’t simply toss those either.
Quick Travel Tips: Visiting the Pak Ou Caves
Where: Less than two hours from Luang Prabang, Laos; about 25 kilometers upriver. Also accessible by tuk tuk.
How to Get to Pak Ou Caves: Boats leave every morning (early) from Luang Prabang’s main dock and make a two hour scenic ride down the Mekong River. Join a tourist boat, or charter your own. Tuk tuks take an hour to reach the nearest town, which is just across the river from the caves. You’ll then have to hire a boat to ferry you across. Tours also run from Luang Prabang and they will arrange the boat and guide—but trust me, it’s fairly simple to arrange for yourself.
How Much: About 20,000 kip to enter the caves. Joining a shared boat is about 65,000 kip per person, or you can charter a boat for 300,000 kip. The tuk-tuk is a bit cheaper since the journey is shorter, with bargaining you are looking at about 200,000 kip minimum. Note that prices can often rise even within six months of past travelers having visited.
Insider Travel Tip: Consider the tuk-tuk ride if you have already taken—or if you plan to take—the two-day slow boat between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. While the Mekong is beautiful, the ride is redundant if you’re already spending days watching the life that happens along the banks of the Mekong. The boat will also stop at a few villages where you can sample whiskey and enjoy a bit of shopping.
Guidebook: I used the Lonely Planet guides during my time in Southeast Asia and they are my go-to. While the guesthouses they recommend are usually overrun, the Laos guide offers a good bit of history, as well as the nitty gritties on transport around the region.
Accommodation: Agoda is the best booking site in Southeast Asia and I use it to research and book guesthouses if I am in town for just a few days. Otherwise, I love Airbnb and it has some truly gorgeous properties in the region.