should you visit Pak Ou Caves: what to expect + why I was underwhelmed

Pak Ou Caves are one of Luang Prabang’s most famous tourist attractions. Limestone caves sitting alongside the Mekong as a place of pilgrimage for over a thousand years sounds like magic, amirite?

But, I simply wasn’t as dazzled as everyone else.

Pak Ou Caves is another spot on my Lao bucket list I had never made it around to. Similar to how I hadn’t made it to the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand until recently despite my wealth of time there, Pak Ou caves is a place I hadn’t visited despite lengthy stays in Laos until just the other week {points for slow travel}. Of course, the Tongariro wasn’t the disappointment Pak Ou was…but I save that for later in this post.


READ ON FOR WHAT TO EXPECT AT PAK OU CAVES + WHY I WAS COMPLETELY UNDERWHELMED


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HOW TO GET THERE

Admittedly, I took the road much, much, much less traveled to Pak Ou, arriving via motorbike and then catching a boat. This unintentionally saved me money, but would bring any newbie in Laos more hassle than just grabbing a boat and enjoying the lush landscape via water. The motorbike journey to Ban Pak Ou was peaceful and allowed both me and Luke to take in more of this beautiful country while we are here a little while longer. However, our trip to Pak Ou happened sort of on a whim and we agree neither of us would really recommend a first-time visitor to Laos or Luang Prabang come by motorbike. If you own or have rented a motorbike while in Luang Prabang, you can drive to Ban Pak Ou and take the ferry over to the caves. The ferry from Ban Pak Ou {marked on the map} is 13,000 kip return.

You can also head to the “Ferry Terminal”, which is what the locals call it but is very far from the idea of a ferry terminal as Westerners know it, in Luang Prabang {marked on the map}. This is how most tourists get to the caves and the views from the Mekong make for a scenic journey.

The third option for getting to the caves is to hire a private driver or a tour guide. Many hotels will recommend a company, but it’s important to know that it is the industry standard to up-charge and receive commission. This is not always the case, but it’s something to be aware of. There are tour companies that hire locals guides to escort you to the caves. All tours will pick you up from your accommodation or meet you at the ferry terminal, and your transport from there will be sorted.

HERE’S A HANDY LITTLE MAP FOR THOSE WHO NEED IT

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COSTS

Entrance to the caves is 20,000 kip {USD $2.34}. As you walk from the bamboo boat pier to the entrance, someone will be sitting at an old wooden desk waiting to give you a ticket and collect the admission fee from you. Cash is the only way to purchase your entry, like most everywhere in the country, so don’t bother bringing your card to the caves.

To get to the caves, you’ll need to arrange a boat to take you from Luang Prabang city or, alternatively, if you have a motorbike or a hired driver, it is more cost effective to get a boat from the pier near Ban Pak Ou {the village}. From the Luang Prabang “Ferry Terminal”, you will have to negotiate a price. I’ve actually seen people pay upwards of USD $50 for a roundtrip boat ride {exclusive of a guide} to Pak Ou— it should not cost you this much. Coming from someone who’s been in Luang Prabang a long time, I’d say 100,000 kip is reasonable for the length of the boat journey round-trip.

Many hotels and resorts will book you a ferry and a tour guide to Pak Ou, but they will be up-charging substantially. If you want a guide, my recommendation is to book one through Backstreet Academy so that you know your guide is local and your money is feeding the economy at a more local level.

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The story of pak ou

It is said that, thousands of years ago, Buddhist pilgrims made the difficult journey to the caves, which are 15 meters above the Mekong and upstream from Luang Prabang city. To mark the completion of their journey, they left a small Buddha figure behind. As time passed, the caves became filled with varying sizes and styles of Buddha statues.

cave exploration

After you pay your admission, you walk up stone steps to the first cave, also referred to as the lower cave. This is the busiest of the two caves and you will have to fight harder to get photos without strangers obscuring your views. Both caves are beautiful in their own right, but the lower cave, whose actual name is Tham Ting cave, outshines the upper cave {Tham Theung}. You are free to take your time inside the caves to explore. I quite enjoyed seeing the different positions of the statues in the caves. I also find my favourite to be Buddha sitting under the protection of the nagas, which seems to be the least occurring. The upper caves are much darker {bring a torch or your phone light} and feature cave paintings of the Buddha.

You should not, for any reason, touch a Buddha statue while visiting the caves. Nor should you decide to grab one and take it home as a nifty souvenir. Stealing Buddha figures has become a recent problem in Luang Prabang’s many holy sites, causing temples to close their gates to foreigners and lock them at night out of need for security— something that should never be an issue at a place of worship.

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OVERRATED + UNDERWHELMED

This is going to be a very unpopular opinion, I’m sure, but locals seem to agree with me that the caves filled with statues of the Buddha has turned into quite the tourist circus, making it lose its “sacred space” vibe. Instead, it feels like a photo trap surrounded by children selling scam bird boxes. I left Pak Ou feeling like the attraction was overrated on Tripadvisor and like I had been left underwhelmed.

OVERALL RECOMMENDATION

If you’re in Luang Prabang for an extended stay, check out the caves as part of a day trip to the whiskey village and explore the dirt roads and hidden villages of the surrounding area OR take a local guide of the caves with a responsible tour company. If you have limited time in Luang Prabang, you might feel it’s a bit overrated too.


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a guide to Pak Ou caves in Luang Prabang, Laos

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