Pak Ou Caves

(This is an excerpt from my newest book, 5 Days in Laos. More on that in a minute.)

Pak Ou caves

Unnamed dirt road about 7 kilometers from route 13, northeast of Luang Prabang

(GPS: 20.04867,102.21050)

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 3.02.57 PM Admission: 20,000 kip (add 13,000 kip for the round-trip ferry crossing to the park, 5,000 kip to park your bike, and a donation to borrow a flashlight. Suggested donation: 10,000 per torch.) Technically open 24/7, but the ferries only run during the day. The Pak Ou caves (pronounced ‘pahk ooh’) are also called the Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave); both names can be used when describing them. While arriving takes an hour via motorcycle, ferry, or tuk-tuk, the highlight of the trip is the ferry ride to the caves themselves. There’s no bridge anywhere nearby, and nowhere to drive on the other side (park your motorbike or arrange for your tuk-tuk driver to wait for you). You can also get a ride here via the river from Luang Prabang if tuk-tuks aren’t your thing – ask around at tour companies or look for the pier by Wat Xieng Thong. There are two caves to peruse, so start climbing the staircase up, up, and away for the upper cave. Bring a flashlight or borrow one for a small donation – this is required to get anywhere interesting since it gets dark pretty fast. If you’re clever, you’ll figure out how to take a picture with your camera in almost complete darkness sans flash. As a hint, there are a few solid, flat places to rest your camera around waist level, making it easier to set the camera for a longer exposure. The first Lao people came here in the 8th century, when they were worshipping the spirits of nature. By the 16th century, Buddhism was the religion of royalty, and the royal family visited here as part of the New Year celebrations until 1975. The shrines are cleaned every April and repainted as part of the annual religious ceremonies; people also bring their Buddha images here to be ceremonially washed with holy water. A sign shows a reproduction of a drawing of the cave from the 1860’s, and the Australian and Lao governments started a five-year conservation project in 1992. The caves are still fairly well-kept, thanks presumably to the donations and offerings that come in – over 4,000 sculptures are present and were mostly donated by worshippers. Another 2,500 statues or so are in the lower cave – head back down the stairs towards the boats, then look for the other entrance to the left. There’s really only one direction to go besides the main platform – up a few stairs to the right will make you appreciate how far up the nearly sheer rock face to place their Buddha statues. A few paintings are harder to make out without crossing into restricted areas, but you should be able to see some faint traces of them. The images here are much more densely packed, and it’s difficult to make out any semblance of a pattern. There doesn’t need to be, naturally – enjoy the myriad poses and various sizes, then leave a donation to assist their upkeep. Heading to the Pak Ou caves means you’ll pass by the Whisky Village, but if traveling there yourself you can choose to stop or pass right. Call it Sang Hai or Xang Hai (GPS: 20.00450,102.23250), but the roadside attraction has one purpose – money extraction from tourists. The wines and whiskeys here come with snakes inside the bottle – to be clear, everything’s drinkable, but it’s the look that makes it unique. Be aware that even the tiny, free shots pack a kick – if driving a motorbike, don’t have too many. The views driving here on a motorbike are spectacular – don’t pass the sights by without stopping for at least a few photos.

Directions

If you’ve rented a motorbike: From central Luang Prabang, get to route 13. This is south of town, and most easily reached from Kitsalat road. At the first fork / T, stay right with the major road; at the three way intersection, turn left to head northeast and cross the bridge. From the bridge it’s about 18.5 kilometers to the left turn down to a dirt road – look for signs on the left. Once on the dirt road, drive past the whisky village, stay straight on the dirt road, and go several kilometers. You’ve arrived when see the flagged rope across the road. Park your motorcycle (5,000 kip), walk towards the river, then buy your ferry ticket across the river (13,000 kip per person, round-trip – be sure to find the same person to take you back!). Follow this road to the river. If you’ve hired a tuk-tuk: Tell the driver you’re going to the Pak Ou Caves and the Kuang Si waterfall. Ensure he hears ’round-trip’ unless you want to go somewhere and stay there. Negotiate a bit, and you shouldn’t need to pay the full amount up-front. Presuming your main bags are locked in your guesthouse or hotel, there should be little reason to leave anything with the driver. Expect to pay 200,000 – 300,000 kip for the day. If you prefer a boat: Their schedules and itineraries can differ, so inquire along the riverfront near Wat Xiang Thong. Be aware you may have to wait until the boat is full. Expect to pay around 80,000 – 100,000 kip per person for the round trip, or around 300,000 kip for the boat if you have a larger party.

Presenting 5 Days in Laos, version 3.0:

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Headshot square smallChris Backe is the blogger behind One Weird Globe, a popular blog about offbeat destinations and life as an expat. His mission in life is to make travel awesome, and to set you up to succeed while traveling. He’s lived in Korea, Thailand, Colombia, and traveled to weird destinations across Europe. He’s also the founder of the Choose a Way series, the interactive travel guidebooks that put you in charge. He’s been seen in Atlas Obscura, io9, Fark, Mental Floss, Groove Magazine, and many other publications. When not traveling or writing, he enjoys swing dancing and a good game of Cards Against Humanity.

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