The main aim of my trip to Luang Prabang was to catch up on some reading, rest and relax. With that in mind I didn’t actually get around to doing any research as to what activities the town had to offer before arriving . But as my mum and dad have always said, a holiday is just not a holiday without a boat trip and so as soon as I saw all the boat trips available I decided to charter a private boat to go down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves, 25 km North of Luang Prabang itself.
If “chartering a boat” all sounds rather grand, believe me it wasn’t! I simply cycled down to the riverside and kept my eyes peeled for a collection of boats along the river until I spied “Pisa” who agreed to take me on his boat for a very reasonable $50 with the proviso that we would go to the caves and stop off anywhere I wanted to enroute. The journey to the caves goes against the flow of the Mekong and so it takes around 2 hours to get there whereas coming back it was closer to 40 minutes as we had the power of the river behind us.
The only stop I was interested in making along the way was at a small village where they make Laotian whisky (!) After a quick explanation of the distillation technique used, I was able to try each of the whisky’s available, before continuing on my way to the caves. It was a nice, if brief, little diversion but it broke the journey up nicely.
The caves – known as Tham Ting and Tham Phoum – were initially a place of worship to “Phi” or river spirits however Buddhism became the predominate religion in Lao after the Royal family adopted it in the 16th Century. Every year the Royals would visit the caves on a religious pilgrimage, commissioning artists to make carvings for them to leave as a sign of respect. As the years went by the caves became famous for the hundreds of Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes that lined the caves interiors and many of the statues there today are said to be over 200 years old. It is worth noting that even though the statues are considered too old and damaged to be properly worshipped, there is still a shrine for people to leave offerings at and you should dress appropriately – covering your knees and shoulders – if visiting and not wear a bikini top as I saw one girl doing.
Just across from the caves on the other side of the river is a little floating restaurant and we stopped here for a refreshing beer Lao and some Kaiphaen – fried Laotian river weed – whilst admiring the view of the caves and the river. This would be a good spot to factor in lunch if you had time to but as I was on my own I preferred just to have a quick beer and head back to Luang Prabang.
A visit to the Pak Ou Caves is more about the journey than the destination and could easily be skipped in favour of the Kung Si waterfalls if you were stretched for time, but for those travellers with more time to spare I would say the boat trip itself is more than worth it and I had a fun morning exploring along the Mekong.