And yet we sing, defying our future silence,
The vast eternities pending
Knowing our yawning cosmos has been
Changed by far less long before
And perhaps once again
With the same ease as a Sunday sabaidee.
– Bryan Thao Worra, “Viewpoints”
Before making my way to the majestic Kuang Si Waterfall in Luang Prabang, my day started fairly early with a ride around town to collect my travel companions. I didn’t know any of them. We were all booked on a tour that would take us on the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Waterfall, along with an unscheduled stop at a Hmong village.
I hoped that I would be one of the last to get picked up that morning, but that wasn’t the case. It meant that I was stuck in a cramped van for a longer time. And some of those roads were a little rough. So rough, in fact, that we had to get out to walk the remaining quarter mile to the boat.
We were early for the boat, so our guide, who did the absolute bare minimum of telling us when and where to meet after dropping us off (I can’t believe I paid extra to have a guide who provided no information at all), told us to wander through the textile shops. While I wasn’t about to buy anything, it was interesting to see the natural base for each color. I had no idea that mangosteen shell and ginger were used for dyes.
On the boat, I could enjoy the scenery while our guide ignored the tourists. I watch the clouds begin to lift around the surrounding mountains –it was beautiful. The morning boat ride took about two hours and the only downside was the motor noise.
By the time we arrived at Pak Ou Caves, the clouds were no longer shrouding the mountains. It was still a wonderful, quiet view, but it wasn’t as cool without the clouds. Our guide told us what time to be back at the dock, but gave us no information about the cave or even a suggested route as there are actually two caves.
Pak Ou Caves are known for their huge collection of Buddha statutes, which total around 2500. Arriving at the first stop at the cave is like entering a museum of Buddhist iconography. Buddhist history of the cave dates back to the 16th century, but it was a holy site for locals that worshiped nature before Buddhism arrived.
The first cave is set into a limestone cliff and requires climbing stairs, though it isn’t strenuous. The second cave is a longer walk up, and I noticed a few older tourists struggling with the steps. Fortunately, it isn’t too hot before lunch.
The view from the lower cave is beautiful. Once the crowd clears away, the cave entrance provides a great frame of the landscape and river.
At the upper cave, a flashlight is necessary to walk through. I wasn’t told this and left my bike light at the hotel (this is something a guide would usually provide). Fortunately, plenty of other tourists had guides with flashlights leading the way. There were also a lot of people using their phones for light.
While the upper cave is also filled with Buddhas, there isn’t much to see even with a flashlight. And it certainly isn’t easy to get a photo inside without blinding yourself and others.
I’m sure this stop would have been more interesting if I had an actual tour guide to take my group through Pak Ou Caves, but this is what happens when you pay twice the price of admission with Nova Tour in Luang Prabang. There was a woman in my group who paid for her own tickets but still got the same tour experience for half what I paid.
I would still go back to Pak Ou Caves — the boat ride and the views are magnificent. But I would never book a tour with Nova Tour again.
Have you been to Pak Ou Caves? Did you take a tour or hop in one the tuk tuks for a ride?