The Buddhas of Pak Ou Cave

Pak Ou cave is hollowed out of a towering limestone cliff-face along the Mekong river. We negotiated a ride up the river from Luang Prabang on a cramped, noisy wooden boat, curving shakily around jutting rocks and clumps of river reeds. Along the way stopped along the way at a “whiskey village” and got to see the locals making the potent sticky rice-based moonshine called “lao lao” — and of course buy samples and other curios. Honestly I was a little nonplussed about the whole thing, but when we got to the cave my pouting subsided. The wall of stone rises above you monstrously, but within the cave seems so gentle. Pak Ou has been used for religious purposes since long before Theravada Buddhism came to Laos. Tribal hill people would come here to practice their unique flavor of animist spirit worship. Later Buddhist pilgrims began visiting the site, bringing with them small Buddha statues to leave in the cave. I didn’t count myself, but supposedly there are now over 3000 Buddhas total in the upper and lower cave. The lower cave is the nicer of the two, in my opinion. There isn’t much to do there other than light incense and prostrate in front of the largest Buddha, but the afternoon light hitting all these little figurines laid out on every open surface makes a compelling picture. The upper cave is dark and literally dank: the whole place smells like human armpit sweat. You can venture in a little ways if you have a flashlight, but there really isn’t much to see or explore. Still, a nifty spot. I’m given to understand that sometimes the slow boat coming down the Mekong from the Thai border will stop at the cave to let the tourists visit. If you are taking the slow boat, definitely see if you can’t swing that.

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