One of Luang Prabang’s most famous sites, these limestone caves near the Mekong have been a place of worship for more than a thousand years.
When pilgrims completed the difficult journey to the caves, which lie 25 kilometres upriver from Luang Prabang in a cliff 15 metres above the water, they left behind a Buddha idol. Over time they added up, and the caves are now filled with thousands of Buddha images in varying sizes and styles. There are two caves, upper (Tham Theung) and lower (Tham Ting), with the latter being the main attraction.
The lower cave is well lit and has a few signs explaining the significance of statues and prayer altars inside. The upper cave is a 10-minute trek up some steep steps and you’ll need a torch to see anything, but the effort is worthwhile. The cave shelters thousands more Buddha images and, with far fewer tourists than the lower cave, feels like the serene place it originally was.
The journey to Pak Ou is much easier now than it once was, with a small boat landing and stairs leading up to the caves. By river, the trip takes two hours from Luang Prabang and you can go with a tour agency, buy a ticket from the boat dock or charter your own boat. It’s also possible to reach the caves in an hour by tuk tuk, though you’ll still need to board a boat to cross from the nearest village to the cave entrance.
If you’re travelling by boat, there is usually a stop at one of the handicraft villages along the way. The most popular stop is Ban Xang Hai (aka the Whiskey Village) where you can sample fresh lao lao, the potent local brew, and pick up a couple of bottles for later.
Some tourists complain that the caves have become a tourist trap, and with a 20,000 kip entrance fee and 5,000 kip charge to use the bathroom it certainly is a good money-maker. But the caves remain one of the more interesting things to see near Luang Prabang, and a lazy cruise along the Mekong is a must. We highly recommend taking a boat rather than a tuk tuk, and like to think of this attraction as being equally about the journey and the destination. Be aware that in the high season the caves can become so crowded as to be slightly unpleasant.
For small groups, you’re best off simply heading down to the dock which is located just across the road from Saffron Cafe towards the end of the peninsula. Joining a group costs 65,000 kip per person with the ticket available from the ticket booth at the dock (departing at 08:30, including a stop at Whiskey Village). You can charter a tuk tuk for 200,000 kip (up to five people) or a boat with driver for 300,000 kip, after a little bargaining. Price does not include any admission/tours to the cave — it is simply a transport-only tour.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 17th August, 2015.