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!