Pak Ou Caves

The longtail-boat ride on the Mekong is alone a worthy day trip. This stretch of river is lovely -- and from the base of the cave entrance, you get a view of the high cliffs and swirling water of the Nam Ou River as it joins the Mekong.  

Inside the caves is enshrined a pantheon of Buddhist statuary. A day tour costs $5 per person in a boat shared by many tourists (more for a private charter). Arrangements can be made at any hotel front desk at an inflated rate, or you can just go down along the Mekong and negotiate with boat drivers directly (these guys are sure to find you). The half-day trip often includes a visit to a weaving village or the Lao Whiskey village, where you'll have a chance to try some really potent local brew.

The Pak Ou Caves are perhaps the most popular excursion from Luang Prabang and are located 25 km upstream from the city, set in the side of a limestone cliff opposite the mouth of the Mekong's Nam Ou tributary (Pak Ou means 'Mouth of the Ou'). The two caves are studded with thousands of wood and gold Buddha images - 2500 in the lower cave and 1500 in the upper - and are one of the main venues for Pi Mai in April, when hundreds make the pilgrimage upriver from Luang Prabang.The two sacred caves were supposedly discovered by King Setthathirat in the 16th century but it is likely that the caverns were associated with spirit (phi) worship before the arrival of Buddhism in Laos. For years the caves, which locals still believe to be the home of guardian spirits, were inhabited by monks.