As a landlocked country, Laotians depend on its waterways for sustenance, transportation and trade. And so it is fitting that the spiritual Pak Ou Caves are located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou, two of Laos’s most prominent rivers, roughly 25 km/16 mi north of Luang Prabang.
The pair of mystical grottoes are nestled within a limestone cliff and host an impressive 4,000 statues of Buddha sculpted from various materials, including bronze, wood, ceramic and even animal horns. Their sizes range anywhere from fitting in the palm of your hand to life-sized. Over hundreds of years, these figures are donated from local fishermen and residents of Laos whose lives are tied to the Mekong River as symbols of their devotion and offerings for protection.
Legend has it that King Setthathirath, the legendary 16th century monarch responsible for monuments such as Luang Prabang’s Wat Xieng Thong temple and Vientiane’s Pha That Luang stupa, also discovered the caverns. And every year during the Laotian New Year (same as Thailand’s Songkran), thousands of locals embark on a pilgrimage to Pak Ou to offer their prayers and receive blessings for the upcoming year.
Tham Ting (the lower cave)
As Pak Ou is only reachable by boat, visitors disembark onto a floating bamboo dock before ascending up a short flight of stairs leading into the lower cave. The Tham Ting cave is adorned with 2,500 icons of Buddha lining every nook and crevice. The chamber’s abundant natural lighting and the sheer number of statues overlooking the Mekong make for wonderful photos.
Tham Theung (the upper cave)
From the entrance of Pak Ou, a second staircase and easy 10-minute climb leads to Tham Theung. During the ascent, local vendors offer snacks and drinks while guests can enjoy marvellous views of the Mekong River at the rest stops.
Greeting guests at the entrance to the upper cave is a large, gold-plated sitting Buddha along with an additional 1,500 statues inside. Compared to its lower counterpart, Tham Theung is more spacious, has less visitors and goes a bit deeper into the mountain. Depending on the position of the sun, you may need a torchlight (available for rent) to navigate the cavern.
How to visit Pak Ou Caves
The recommended way to visit Pak Ou from Luang Prabang is by boat, whether private or as part of a group, and take in the magnificent river scenery on the 2-hour journey upstream. A one-hour tuk tuk ride from the city to the closest village followed by quick boat trip across the river is also available.
Pak Ou is part of all itineraries on Heritage Line’s upper Mekong River cruises, along with captivating landscapes and visits to charming villages in the Laotian countryside. Memorable 3-Night journeys are available between Huay Xai (at the Lao-Thai border) and Luang Prabang, while longer 7- or 9-Night cruises extend this journey down to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.