After arriving to Luang Prabang, Carmel and I went to work to find what the town had to offer, what to do and where to go. Luang Prabang is located in north central Laos and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We read that it’s a, “sleepy” tourist town, with plenty of restaurants, cafes and outdoor markets. After our much appreciated and enjoyable time in Thailand, we were eager to see what Laos had to offer. We had several days to kill in Luang Prabang so we looked into seeing the much advertised Buddha Caves.
Officially named the Pak Ou Caves, they overlook the Mekong River, approximately 25 kilometers from Luang Prabang. The lower cave is named Tham Ting and the upper, Tham Theung. Both caves are adorned with hundreds of Buddha statuettes and figures that had been deemed unsuitable for alters, either due to damage or routinely replaced with newer statuettes. They were initially ignored, except on Lao New Year, when locals would make a pilgrimage and pay homage. However, over the years, it has become a popular tourist attraction.
Carmel and I booked our tour the day before with one of the many tour agencies in town, and were informed that the tour started early, around 8 am. The morning of the tour promised to be another wonderful, beauty of a day. We walked down to an area that was designated as the departure point in town for this particular tour which meant a flock tourists meandering around, waiting to be told what to do and where to go. Our names were recorded in a notebook and designated a number. Suddenly, I felt like we were auditioning for a talent show. What were we going to do? What was our act? I noticed a pair of Chinese tourists guzzling beer (did I mention we got there at 8 am?), maybe they were rehearsing their act. But much to my relief, a man systematically called out the numbers and we were all herded downhill to the river’s edge and to various longboats that awaited our departure.
Fishermen preparing for the day
The boat ride on the Mekong that early in the day was nice. The river wasn’t too busy yet, and it was quiet. Farmers beating the heat, were already tending to their crops. Fishermen were tinkering and loading up their boats. Children chased each other at the river’s edge, waving at us as we passed, squinting in the sunshine. Our boat stealthily sped along the brown river, slicing through the ripples. We were on the boat with four other people and the river seemed to lull us into hushed, contemplative appreciation. Again, the boat ride was nice.
On the way to the caves, our driver maneuvered ashore and motioned for us to ascend the steep, narrow steps that led up to a village. These villages once had a reputation as producing and selling beautiful fabrics, which they still do, but over the years they focused more on a more lucrative product: hooch. These villages along the river are simply named “Whisky Villages” and tourists are taken to these places routinely as layover stops.
One of the beautiful displays of homespun fabric at the village
There were aisles of beautiful and colorful scarves and fabric hung out for sale, but I noticed most of the tourists (it was seemingly a designated location for all who had left Luang Prabang earlier in the morning) ambling along the road as the locals lounged around and stared curiously, very much used to the routine onslaught of visitors to their home. A woman, standing at a stand near the top of the stairs, smiled and motioned for us to taste her delicacies.
Carmel says, “Mmmm…whisky!” Carmel says, “Ugh…Laos whisky.”
Laotian “whisky” is fermented sticky rice, obviously abundant in supply and cheap to distill. The woman presented us with two kinds of the stuff. The first shot was a curiously bright purple and tasted exactly what it looked like – cough syrup. The second shot was dauntingly clear and burned hoarsely down our throats. My face contorted and I unceremoniously stuck my tongue out. “Argh,” I mumbled, shivering uncomfortably. The woman delicately lifted one of the bottles, each containing a fermented snake or some other creepy crawler inside, like somebody’s idea of a twisted prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. We passed on buying a bottle of the stuff but noticed that it was a popular souvenir. After about fifteen minutes we were all back on our boats and off to the caves.
A fun toy for the kiddies at the bottom of every bottle
There was an entrance fee to the caves, 20,000 kip (approximately $2.50 U.S. dollars), and we carefully ascended the steep, uneven steps to the first cave, Tham Ting. It was as advertised. Hundreds of Buddha statuettes, in various shapes, sizes and degrees of wear and tear, positioned on the rock ledge in the large grotto. There was enough light peering inside to successfully take decent photographs.
Longboats waiting at the entrance to Pak Ou Caves
Even this early in the morning there were plenty of people already visiting so it was a bit challenging at times tiptoeing around the place without stepping on somebody’s foot and falling down the dozens of steep stairs. There were multiple steps that wound themselves further up to the upper cave. Tham Theung cut in deeper in the mountain so it got quite dark inside (one can rent a flashlight at the mouth of the cave or bring your own) but housed additional Buddha images, positioned and scattered in every crevice and nook.
After about an hour of visiting the caves we boarded our boat and headed back towards town. Our driver offered to take us to another “Whisky Village” across the river. After some quick group deliberation, we decided to pass on hoochtown. Again, the ride back to Luang Prabang on the Mekong was pleasant and both Carmel and I found ourselves dozing off, lulled by the consistent growling from the motor and the rhythm of the boat on the river. By afternoon, we were back.
Now, although it’s well noted by now that I enjoyed the boat ride, I wasn’t too moved by the caves. They were interesting, sure. One can be moved, even slightly, by the eerie sight of so many Buddha statues in a cave setting, but for me, it won’t be on the highlight reel. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare, but after relishing the sublime, ethereal Mongolian landscape and soaking in the grandiose, awe-inspiring White Temple and Black House in Thailand, it was a hard act to follow. Both Carmel and I agreed that the serene boat ride on the Mekong was worth the price alone. The village and caves were just a bonus.
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