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.
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.
Today there are thousands of Buddhist statues in the caves.
There are two caves, the lower cave Tham Ting and an upper cave Tham Theung which requires an extra 5 minutes’ sweaty walk up a lot of steps.
A torch is required to see inside the upper cave. If you do not have one, an enterprising lady sitting 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.
It is open from 8am to 5pm.
Entrance costs Kip 20,000 (about $2.40).
This place is busy with tourists year round and with local pilgrims, especially at Lao New Year which falls in mid-April.
It is possible to go there by road but a river trip is the preferred option.
I have marked the exact location on this map:
The caves are located around 28 km (17 miles) upriver from Luang Prabang. It takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours to get there, depending on the size of your boat engine and river conditions, and about 3/4 to 1 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 $100 per person and up.
Better value for money is the Nava Mekong which is a larger size boat with dining facilities on board. They charge $25 per person including lunch.
If you are a larger group you could approach a boat driver on the riverside in the Luang Prabang and negotiate a round trip for a good deal. If you are just a couple, the Nava Mekong will probably work out better value.
On your way to the Caves you could stop-off at Ban Xang Hai (Whisky Village) to sample some Lao rice wine and see how the villagers live.