While there is plenty to keep you occupied within Luang Prabang, another round of beautiful sights lie just outside the city limits.
Visiting the Pak Ou Caves is a popular half-day tour from Luang Prabang. This trip definitely falls under the whole ‘the journey is the destination‘ category. With two hours of river travel there and one hour back, you will spend a leisurely morning watching fisherman tie up their boats, monks float by serenely, and buffalo wandering down the riverbanks.
En route you will unfortunately be suckered into a tourist-trap stop at a “whiskey village,” which means spending ten minutes walking up and down a dusty street where tapestries and bottles of Lao Lao whiskey with reptiles in the bottle are being awkwardly shilled. Note, not only is it a bit morally questionable to buy liquor with dead animals in it, you will most likely not be able to get it through customs in your home country.
Back on the river, we had some pretty serious delays when the boat broke down and the driver had to wander off, up the riverbanks in order to search for fuel. I took this as an opportunity to read my guidebook, stare out at the water, and continue my typically-failing pursuit to do nothing at all. Some of the other travelers on the boat didn’t handle it so well, and were indignant over the delay and the disorganization and a bottomless pit of other complaints. All I could think was ‘Man, you have not been in Southeast Asia for long.’
Later we saw another boat broken down mid-river, and I watched with fascination as the driver jumped into the water and swam under the boat, presumably to mess around with the engine. He was under for so long that I felt relief when he popped back onto the boat hull and the engine revved to life. So, perhaps in reflection this is not the trip for someone with a phobia of water.
Finally we reached our intended destination. Were it not for the traffic jam of river boats outside the entrance, it would be easy to pass these limestone caves right by.
These caves, long associated with river spirits, have been active places of worship for five hundred years. They were made famous for the thousands of Buddha images and statues covering every surface, many of them donated by locals or by religious pilgrims from other areas.
Today tourists may outnumber monks, but even surrounded by crowds it is possible to get lost looking at all the little details, the hidden gems, and the secret corners.
The views out across the river to the town of Pak Ou and the dramatic karsts rising above it aren’t bad, either.
It is important to note that this is still a spiritual site and you should dress and act accordingly. As usual I simply brought along a light sarong and wrapped it over my shoulders before entering the caves.
The lower cave, where all previous photos were taken, is definitely the main event. A sweaty ten-minute walk up steep steps brings you to the upper cave. This one has far fewer Buddha images but is made dramatic by its lack of natural light. Bring along a flashlight (every traveler should carry one in their backpack/suitcase!) or rent one at the entrance.
Outside the caves is the dramatic meeting of the Nam Ou and the Mekong Rivers, which I was surprised to see is visible to the naked eye. One impressive natural phenomenon after another.
We returned to Luang Prabang only to be met by anxious tour organizers, thrown off by our major boat break-down delay. The majority of the travels on the Pak Ou trip had booked a combination tour that visits the Kuang Si Waterfalls in the afternoon. It’s a jam-packed day but I too had chosen this option as I only had one day left in Luang Prabang.
It was a chaotic scene as representatives from different tour agencies tried to find their customers and herd them onto one of three waiting vans (the tour agencies are all selling tickets to the same trips, with varying levels of price and customer service). My handler seemed a bit confused and continually told me to wait and not get into any of the vehicles. I sat patiently until all the vans were gone and didn’t bat an eye when I was directed to walk back to the travel agents office. When I arrived there I realized there had been a major miscommunication, and I had been left behind. They told me with a shrug and a smile that there was nothing they could do. Come back tomorrow. Here’s the thing: If this had happened in the West, I would expect and insist that a tour company who made a mistake like this should do anything possible to make it right, even if that meant hiring a private driver to take me to the falls when I had paid for a group tour. But this is Southeast Asia. Things are done differently here. So I thanked them for my generous refund, we all smiled at each other, and then I walked out having kept my fuming anger all to myself.
Then I wandered the streets until I found another traveler heading to Kuang Si, and we split the price of a tuk tuk. Problem solved, wallet lighter, dignity intact.
At the base of the waterfalls is bear enclosure sponsored by Free the Bears, an organization I first learned about at the Phnom Tameo animal sanctuary that I visited in Cambodia. They do excellent work rescuing Asian bears from poachers and building them beautiful homes to live out their lives in peace.
They don’t receive any percentage of the waterfalls’ entrance fee, so feel free to donate any spare kip to help this good cause.
Once you tear yourself away from the bears, you will continue down the jungle path until reaching one of Laos’ s most impressive waterfalls. You can climb up above the top of the waterfall for supposedly impressive views, but personally I could not summon the energy to do so.
I was much more drawn to the endless cascades pools of clear blue water, each a little private swimming area. Never before have I seen water like this — a milky, unbroken shade of turquoise.
But despite the languid views, Kuang Si is a vibrant and lively place. Families picnic on the shores of the falls, teenagers gossip and giggle, and locals and travelers alike take turns on a series of rope swings. Even I got a bit Laost in the moment (nudge nudge) and went for a round.
In just a few short days I had fallen madly in love with Luang Prabang! I was not ready to leave, however I hda met up with a fun group of guys who were traveling to Vang Vieng the next day. I was already weary of traveling alone and decided it was best to continue on with a great group rather than to hang back by myself. I absolutely made the right choice, since there is no doubt in my mind that I will be back in Luang Prabang someday. I only hope it’s sooner rather than later!
I too have never seen water that color. Do you know of an explanation? Very curious!
I tried to do some research into it when I was writing this post but couldn’t find anything conclusive! Some said it had to do with the limestone cliffs that the water is running through, others mentioned calcium in the water, others said light reflecting off the minerals on the bottom. So maybe a combination of all those things! It was definitely beautiful.
Hey Alex, I’ve visited the waterfalls a few times this week cant get enough of it (and I’m still trying to get a day less packed with tourists for the Chinese new year).
It is for sure that the rocks are made mainly of calcium buildup, mud, and other rocks and minerals. We went off the trail to try and find some secluded spots and saw many trees that had been covered in calcium and were like big brittle rocks that break easily (yep…i learned the hard way) .
We hiked all the way up the falls and there is a sign at one point which indicates : “cave and natural spring 3 km”. calcium comes from the spring.
I know that’s not really helpful, haha. Anyway tomorrow we’re going to hike to the spring to see what it’s about. I’ll be sure to post here if its anything interesting because I’ve noticed that there is a total lack of information regarding the falls as there are so many hidden gems to explore there.
So glad you’ve enjoyed them so thoroughly and had time for proper exploring! You make me want to go back and see a bit more for myself!
Your postings keep getting better and better. Love, Gram E
Thanks so much Gram!
We went to the caves too AND of course the little village where we bought stuff from the little cuties! LOVED the caves, and LOVED the country as well. Thanks for the great pictures!
It really is an amazing country, isn’t it? As I named one of my posts…. I love Laos!
Wonderful blog and pictures. Awesome! But really, Vang Vieng??? Be careful!!!
Yeah, I had to give it a try! And I was fairly careful 🙂
If you really liked Luang Prabang, you may not be so fond of Vang Vieng. The area itself is spectacularly beautiful, but unfortunately it attracts large numbers of the worst kind of tourist, the kind who think nothing of parading around town in postage stamp sized pieces of clothing despite being in a very conservative country.
I have a few posts coming up about Vang Vieng. I had mixed feelings. One one hand, I spent two days down on the river and I had a fun, wild time (which I was in dire need of after some emotional trauma). On the other hand, I always felt a little uneasy with guilt over the complete decimation of what was once a tiny river town. The locals are not the smiling Southeast Asians I had come to know after a year in the region — they seemed weary and bitter and I can understand why. I’ll be going further into my thoughts on that in an upcoming post 🙂
But in the end, I think its totally possible to love a place like Luang Prabang and also have a fun time in Vang Vieng — after all, I’m a young twenty-something traveler and so a good party appeals to me! But I recognize I am a bit of an anomaly… I’m that person who did the three day pass to Angkor Wat and was fascinated by the history and culture but also went to Temple Bar every night. I enjoy both sides of travel in Southeast Asia!
I actually agree that letting loose and having a good time is important, but for some reason, Vang Vieng just did not agree with me (and this is coming from someone who really enjoyed the full moon party in Thailand, for example).
I don’t know exactly what it is either. Maybe the fact that an atmosphere like that is so out of place in Laos or just the fact that Vang Vieng attract such large numbers of the worst kind of travelers or maybe just the fact that you can’t go anywhere without being subjected to episodes of “Friends”.
Either way, I look forward to your upcoming post on Vang Vieng and I hope your emotional drama was washed away while tubing.
Well you weren’t the only reader to chime in that I might hate Vang Vieng! And I totally agree with this comment — while I love party places like Vegas, the FMP and Sunjam (kind of a Central American FMP but only once a year), Vang Vieng leaves a different impression. I liked it and had a lot of fun for the couple of days I was there but when I left I had mixed feelings and you are right, they come from the fact that the whole scene is so out of place amongst the Lao culture. And yeah, the crowd is very young and very… crass in VV.
I had great fun and I don’t regret going. But I would never stay there long term and I’m shocked by the people that do!
Great post, Alex. It’s been fun following your trip via Twitter. I’ve enjoyed watching your writing and photography get better and better as the weeks pass by. Love the photo of the melted candles on what looks similar to a handrail. Needless to say, that water is absolutely gorgeous, too!
Thanks Rick! What a wonderful compliment. Thank you for following along!
Stunning photos Alex – and that waterfall… wow! I am definitely adding that to my list of must-see places 🙂
All of Luang Prabang is a must see! And I definitely recommend staying longer than I did, 3-4 days was not enough.
What tour company did you use/did you make your own? I travel alone and I like tours because I feel safer being with a group.
I just went into any random travel agency and booked — I didn’t really pay attention to who it was 🙂 Sorry I can’t be more helpful!
Hey Alex, Loved your post.. A couple of questions..I am traveling to Laos in the 2nd week of October.. I will be in Vientinne for 3 days and Luang Prabang for 3 days.. Could you suggest some day tours in both the places ?
Hey Neha, this would be the day trip I’d recommend in Luang Prabang! In Vientienne I didn’t do any day tours. All I can recommend is checking out my posts on those cities and see if anything catches your eye 🙂 Enjoy!