Laos has always focused on being isolated from outside influences and continuing to follow a more traditional lifestyle even in current times as a premier travel destination. This has allowed the country to shine as one of those untapped gems of natural beauty and simple pleasures.
If you looking for an off-the-beaten-path excursion, look no further than the Pak Ou Caves, also known as the Tham Ting Caves. This is one of the holiest sites in all of Laos and once you arrive you will understand why. It is famously renowned for holding thousands of Buddha statues of various sizes in its cave system. From extra small pieces that fit in the palm of your hand to large life-like figurines, these figurines of Buddhism are all aligned along the cavern walls and crevices.
These numerous statues have been placed by religious pilgrims and the locals for many centuries. If you look closely at the Buddha you can notice varying states of aging and coloring. Since it is such a significant cultural and religious site in Laos, it has become a popular tourist attraction as well. There is also supernatural references that the river spirits make a home here in the caves.
Where are the Pak Ou Caves in Laos?
The Pak Ou Caves are often visited as part of a boat tour along the Mekong River. It is one of the major rivers in Southeast Asia, flowing through several countries before going into the sea. Most of the boat tours start in this particular region from the Laos city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As it flows through so many countries being the longest river in Asia, you can easily find boat transportation to make your way to the caves. This is part of the adventure for sight-seeing as you get to view the landscapes and rural villages along the river banks before you make your stop.
It is best though to book hotel accommodations in Luang Prabang first and then book a guided tour of the caves through a local guide. That way you can get a better understanding of the history of the Mekong River as well as the history of the local area as well as the cave. The landscape is amazing to look at with the lush vegetation and rocky cliffs.
Once you arrive at the caves
After your leisurely boat ride or active kayaking, you will have arrived at the entrance to the caves. It is fairly simple to enter with no hassle. Just follow the people climbing up the stairs and you are there. It is small so you may need to wait your turn for others to come down after exploring the cave as well as those going up, especially if you are behind larger groups. Sadly, you won’t feel like you have the whole place to yourself or even some decent room if you are looking to get any particular photos.
Here is where you will learn that there are two main caves at this site, and you can choose to do one or both depending on your mood.
Tham Ting (Lower Cave)
This cave is the easiest to access and is where you start your exploration. Here you will find the largest collection of Buddha images. It’s easy to spot them in the caves due to the illumination. You will be able to appreciate the various images and offerings scattered in every nook and crevice.
You will notice how each Buddha image is almost unique as they have been crafted into different positions. Each pose of the Buddha has a defined meaning, from the hand gesture to the position of the body. Other Buddhists recognize these different forms and their meaning behind it.
They come in multiple forms meditation Buddha, walking Buddha, reclining Buddha, teaching Buddha, and naga Buddha.
Tham Theung (Upper Cave)
Continue climbing up with a short hike to reach the upper levels of the cave system. It’s a bit darker here so watch your step as you explore. Some choose to only stay in the lower cave level, making this one seem a bit more authentic and adventurous to add to the experience.
Depending on the day and weather conditions, this place can be extremely crowded year-round with small-group tours coming consistently or it can be near empty. During the Laos New Year in April, the locals will make special trips for offerings and remembrance. Other special occasions in Laos will also prompt people to make time to visit here.
Just remember to be respectful of the Laotian culture and the religious significance they hold in the Pak Ou Caves. You may find it a bit underwhelming and you may choose to do something else instead. But this is a good little side trip on the Mekong River to add to your travel itinerary you can take for an hour or two just to say you did it. Nothing worse than missing good opportunities to try something out of the normal routine.