Pak Ou Caves: A surreal experience for the curious traveller

A relaxing boat ride on the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves makes a pleasant way to fill half a day during your stay in Luang Prabang, Laos.

According to a signboard at Pak Ou, the caves have been a religious pilgrimage site for centuries, from pre-Buddhist days “when the local population worshipped Phi, or the spirits of nature. It is said that the caves are associated with a river spirit”.

The notice continues:

“By the 16th century Buddhism had been adopted by the royal families of Lao. Every year the King and the people of Luang Prabang made a pilgrimage to the caves as part of the New Year religious observances. Artisans were commissioned by the royal family to prepare sculptures. Many of the carvings in the cave date from between the 18th to 20th centuries.”

Some of the thousands of Buddha images inside the caves.

Today there are thousands of Buddhist statues in these caves.

A view looking out from Tham Ting cave.

There are two caves – the lower cave Tham Ting and an upper cave Tham Theung – which requires an extra five minutes’ sweaty walk up many steps.

Impressive entrance gates to Tham Theung cave. There is no lighting inside.

A torch is required to see inside the upper cave. If you do not have one, an enterprising lady sitting just outside the cave will rent you one.

The caves themselves are not that big or spectacular, especially compared to Malaysia’s fantastic caves, but the effect of the religious statues and the striking appearance of the exterior white wall and steps makes these caves special.

This place is busy with tourists year round and with local pilgrims, especially at Lao New Year which falls in mid-April.

How to Get to Pak Ou Caves

The Mekong River is the star of the show.

It is possible to get there by road but a river trip is the preferred option.

The exact location has been marked on the map below:

The caves are located around 28 km upriver from Luang Prabang. It takes about one and a half to two hours to get there, depending on the size of your boat engine and river conditions, and about 45 minutes to an hour to get back, aided by the current.

That’s quite a long time in a boat so relax, make yourself comfortable and enjoy the unspoilt scenery through the heart of rural Laos.

There are plenty of tour operators in Luang Prabang who can organise a trip to the caves. Tours on TripAdvisor and similar websites usually charge approximately RM410 or upwards, per person.

The scenery along the Nava Mekong is captivating.

If you want better value for money, opt to travel along the Nava Mekong, where larger-sized boats with dining facilities on board make the journey extra pleasurable and memorable. These boat operators typically charge a little over RM100 per person, inclusive of lunch.

If you are part of a larger group, you could approach a boat operator on the riverside in Luang Prabang, and negotiate a round trip for a good deal.

If you are just a couple, the Nava Mekong will probably give you better value.

On your way to the caves, you should stop-off at Ban Xang Hai (Whisky Village)to sample some Lao rice wine and see for yourself how the villagers there live.

Pak Ou Caves

Opening Hours: Daily: 8am to 5pm

Admission Fee: Kip 20,000 (approximately RM10)

This article first appeared in malaysia-traveller.com