Sail down the dragon of Southeast Asia and discover the hundreds of Buddha sculptures in the cliffs
Photos and text by Pamela Chow
A giant river that flows calmly and peacefully, the Mekong is the great dragon of Southeast Asia that beckons you to explore it. We hopped on a long boat from the Luang Prabang bank, and the vessel glided through the waters between shores and forests. In some parts, the tributary ran so narrow that it’s easy to forget this is the beast that courses through and gives life to millions across the continent.
It took its time teasing us with glimpses of the horizon, before revealing the breathtakingly magnificent views of the distant mountains that surround the land-locked country of Laos.
Photo: Jacclyn Seah (The Occasional Traveller)
Charging onwards, we headed for the Pak Ou Caves, a famous spot 25km north of Luang Prabang that is known for its hundreds of miniature (and large) Buddha sculptures. It is said that the original statues were first placed here in the late-1900s to protect the sacred relics from bombings during the Secret War.
Since the area was cleared of unexploded ordinances and the statues were rediscovered, the public has continued to place their own Buddha sculptures here. The main cave, the Tham Ting lower cave, is where the majority of the smaller statues are housed.
Take your time to explore this alcove, and make a donation if you can to support the restoration and upkeep of the caves.
If you have the stamina, trek up to an even more interesting sight to the upper cave, named Tham Theung. Once you have overcome the 100-odd steps – which is made even more challenging given the elevation – you will see a quieter and less-adorned opening.
Here is where the bigger Buddha statues reside, but they’re not yet visible to the eye because the cave is utterly unlit. Switch on your flashlight and take a slow walk into the pitch-black darkness of Tham Theung. Try to spot the smaller sculptures too, which can be found dotting rocky grooves on the walls of the cave.
A good time to start cruising down the Mekong is at 3pm. It takes about two hours to reach the Pak Ou Caves, and on the way back, you’d be just in time to catch the golden sunset on the Mekong.
Our boat captain even kindly slowed down on the ride back for us to soak in the glorious view. We sailed with cruise company Bounmi Cruises, which can take up to large groups of travellers and charges rides per boat, and flew on SilkAir’s inaugural flight to Laos.