Cruising the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves

The Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang contain Buddha statues in the thousands, and have been used for sacred purposes by locals for hundreds of years. Over time, they’ve also become one of the region’s top tourist attractions. What makes the day trip unique is that the Pak Ou Caves can only be reached by boat. Some find the caves themselves anticlimactic after the long journey along the Mekong, but I found the combination of the river cruise and cave exploration to be one of the top highlights of my time in Laos. Keep reading to learn more about the caves, and to decide if you think this excursion might be for you.

Cruising The Mekong

Mekong River Boat Ride

The journey to the Pak Ou Caves is a long one. But the view from the small boat, with the lush green surroundings and towering limestone cliffs in the distance, is an attraction in itself. The Mekong, of course, is one of the most important rivers in Southeast Asia, flowing through six different countries. While a few hours on the river is hardly enough to reveal the sheer size and historical importance of the Mekong, it will, at least, provide a glimpse of the vital role the river still plays in modern-day Laos.

As usual on group excursions in Southeast Asia, this one also includes a stop along the way. You’ll likely find yourself at a “whiskey village” for a 20 minute break, which is somewhat of an odd choice for an early morning excursion. You’ll also find countless stalls selling the typical souvenirs sold at the night market in town. If you’re not interested in buying anything, consider this stop as a bathroom break, as it’s the only chance you’ll get during the 2-hour journey to the caves.

On the trip to the Pak Ou Caves and back again, you’ll pass things like house boats, pagodas, and children playing in the river. While there’s no one particular sight that’s going to shock or amaze you, it’s a relaxing way to get a better feel for rural life along the Mekong. Many who visit the region, though, come via a Mekong cruise from Thailand, which lasts a couple of days. In that case, this part of the day trip is going to be just more of the same, and you might consider hiring a private vehicle to the caves (see more below). But for people like me who flew into Luang Prabang, or arrived by bus, cruising along the Mekong is by no means a bad way to spend half the day.

Mekong Limestone

Exploring the caves

Pak Ou Cave Entrance

Finally arriving at the Pak Ou caves, it’s immediately apparent how small the site really is. And that’s the source of many of the complaints directed at the day trip. The caves, however, have a lot in store to reward those with a keen eye for small details. While you can simply walk in and out again a couple minutes later, declaring that you’ve seen everything, the real magic of the caves is only revealed to those who take their time inside.

Pak Ou Caves Buddhas

There are estimated to be over 5,000 Buddha statues in total in the Pak Ou Caves. Most of them are small – not much bigger than toy action figures – but they vary greatly in age, style and quality. The mix of statues is what makes the caves both fascinating and bizarre. It at some points feels like a cross between a Buddhist holy site and a vintage toy museum. But the caves weren’t always full of Buddha figures. In fact, it was long considered a holy site even before Buddhism became dominant in the region.

The Pak Ou Caves were originally used by the Khmu people, one of Laos’s many indigenous ethnic groups. The caves were used to worship nature spirits, especially that of the Mekong river. But when Buddhism became the dominant religion of the Lan Chang Kingdom, many animist shrines in Luang Prabang and other regions were desecrated and replaced with Buddhist ones. In the case of Pak Ou, this was carried out by 16th century ruler by King Setthathirath, the same king who brought the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang.

The main cave visitors first encounter, named Tham Ting, has a deeper and darker sibling, only accessible by a steep cliffside pathway. The other cave, known as Tham Teung is best explored with your own torch. Shining your light in a random direction may reveal a group of dozens of statues, a single large one, or at other times, nothing at all. In contrast to the often crowded Tham Ting, you’re more likely to find yourself alone as you explore Tham Teung’s pitch black corridors.

Tham Theung Cave
Tham Theung Entrance
Tham Teung cave entrance, with statue bathing area on the right
Pak Ou Caves Pathway
The pathway in between the two caves

Though the kingdom changed names a couple of times, a royal family sat in Luang Prabang from the 16th century all the way up until 1975. And for all of that time, Laotian monarchs would visit the caves annually for Buddhist New Years, which usually falls in April. Gradually, new Buddha statues and sculptures were also brought to the caves to be added to the collection.

To this day, locals still bring their own statues to the caves, either to donate or to wash in holy water. (Look closely by the entrance of Tham Teung cave and you’ll find a special washing area for the statues.) Even now, the Pak Ou Caves remain a pilgrimage site for devotees on New Years, even if there are no royal family members left to lead the ceremonies. What some visitors to the caves fail to understand, it seems, is that the Pak Ou Caves are still a significant holy site for locals, and not just a place designed purely for tourists’ amusement.

Is a Visit to the Pak Ou Caves for You?

The Pak Ou caves tend to get negative to lukewarm reviews from a lot of travelers, in contrast to another popular day trip, the Kuang Si Falls, which are universally praised (and rightfully so). The main complaint is often that the journey to get there and back is too long, while there’s not enough to see in the caves themselves.

As for time spent at the caves, I would have to agree that it’s too short, but I don’t believe that there’s too little to see. My fellow passengers and I were only allowed 50 minutes at the caves, and I would’ve liked some more. I enjoyed looking for small details in Tham Ting and exploring the much larger Tham Teung cave with my flashlight. Clearly not everyone felt the same way, though, as I was the last one back in the boat.

So is a visit to the Pak Ou caves worth it? If you enjoy chilling out on a boat for a few hours while appreciating the scenic landscape of rural Laos, then this day trip is for you. And if you’re interested in Laotian culture, ‘holy spots’ or unique travel destinations, again, this day trip is for you.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping for an action^packed adventure, or at least something a little more physically active, try the Kuang Si Falls or a visit to the Living Land farm instead. If you’re expecting a mind-blowing, massive cave full of unique rock formations like you might find elsewhere in Asia, the Pak Ou caves might not be what you’re looking for. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the day trip and think it’s a great way to spend half a day while taking things slow in Luang Prabang.

Additional Info

As is the case with the Kuang Si Falls, tour operators all over town offer transport to the Pak Ou Caves. You can also ask your hotel, but tour agencies will likely be slightly cheaper. Generally, the round trip boat ride will cost around 75,000 kip, while it costs an additional 20,000 to enter the caves themselves.

You’ll either be picked up at your hotel or asked to meet at the travel agency office at 8 or 8:30am. You’ll then either be driven right to the jetty, or dropped off riverside, only for another van to come pick you up and take you to your boat. As typical in Southeast Asia, the way of doing things might not always be the most efficient or straightforward, and there’s little communication regarding what’s going on or why you’re waiting in a certain spot. But just relax, go with the flow, and things are likely to turn out fine.

You can also arrange a deal with a private driver to drive you near the caves, after which you can charter a boat to take you across the river. This is a more expensive but quicker option. As the boat to the caves is a highlight of the trip, only consider this if you already came to Laos on a long Mekong river cruise. Some choose motorized transport to save time and squeeze in a trip to the caves along with a trip to the Kuang Si Falls. But Luang Prabang is a town where you want to do things slowly and easily. If you’re in that much of a rush to squeeze so much into a single day, you’re simply not giving yourself enough time in the city.

There are a number of convenient ways to get to Luang Prabang.

People traveling in northern Thailand prior to their visit to Laos often take a Mekong river cruise to get there. This is an option best suited for those with plenty of time on their hands. The journey takes at least a couple of days, and most cruises stop in a town somewhere at night. There are a number of river cruise options out there, so it’s best to do extensive research if you’re interested.

Luang Prabang also has an international airport with direct flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Riep and Kuala Lumpur.

At the airport, you can get a visa on arrival for $35 USD. To save yourself some hassle, it’s best to have the cash on hand in advance, as the ATM’s are actually outside the airport.

Traveling from within Laos, you can take a domestic flight, but bear in mind the domestic flights in Laos tend to be considerably pricier than in neighboring countries.

The bus is another option, but many complain of the poor roads and overall uncomfortable ride. Coming straight from Vientiane by bus is too much for many people, solots of travelers break up the journey by stopping at the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng in between.

Luang Prabang is small and easily traversable on foot. Simply staying anywhere on the main peninsula would be ideal, as this gives you easy access to most of the town’s main landmarks. There are also some hotels and guest houses a little bit south of the peninsula, right by Wat Visounnarath.

Cruising the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves

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