Day 37 | Exploring Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang

On our last day in Luang Prabang, we took a boat tour to Pak Ou Caves, had lunch across the bamboo bridge and then took a four hour minivan ride to backpackers paradise Vang Vieng.

We woke up around 6:30 AM to pack, a consistent routine occurring either every other day or every three days. We rushed our last breakfast at the Namkhan Riverside Hotel to make it to the travel agency office on time by 8 AM for the 8:30 AM boat departure to Pak Ou Caves.

We arrived at the Lao Outdoor travel agency a few minutes late. The agents looked surprised to see us. Perhaps they never registered our reservation, because there was no shuttle waiting for us. One agent ended up walking us to the pier.

The pier was tiny and we sat down in a few rows of chairs with other tourists as the agent arranged numbered tickets for us. Around 8:30 AM, each driver called out a series of six numbers to his boat. Got in the boat with two girls from Germany and two guys Andrew from USA and Shawn from Malaysia who we talked to during the boat ride. The guys made a joke that our boat was economy class since it only featured wooden chairs, the one docked directly next to us was business class with its padded seats and the one docked further was first class since they were outfitted with padded seats that had headrests.

Boats at the Luang Prabang pier

Our young driver was the slowest among the others. Perhaps because his boat was in the poorest shape.

Boat driver to Pak Ou caves

The ride was about two hours long in total. The scenery was beautiful though the engine is deafening and the seats were not comfortable. We passed by other larger boats.

On the way to Pak Ou

On the way, we made a 15 minute stop by a small “whiskey village” on the Mekong River. We were immediately offered shots of Laotian whisky, aptly named Lao-Lao. This was neither the first nor last time friendly Laotians offered us Lao-Lao.

Lao lao whiskey

Some of the whiskeys on sale had more sting than others.

Liquor with a sting

In the village we visited the local wat, where a young novice called out to me “What’s your name?” His name was Dan or Tan and our conversation ended there because he reached his limits of English. He was a little shy after that.

We also kicked around an inflatable soccer ball with this feisty boy.

Little Lao boy playing soccer with our group

And encountered a village elder weaving in the traditional way.

Traditional weaving

Back in the boat we proceeded to our destination. On the way we saw a herd of water buffalo in their element, naturally.

Water buffalo in their prime element

And we whizzed by another larger boat proudly displaying the Laotian flag.

Boat through hills of LP

Then we finally reached the Pak Ou Caves. The boat driver told us we had 35 minutes to check it out and come back. I scoffed “35 minutes?” He immediately relented “OK 45 minutes is OK. No 1 hour!” Easiest negotiation I made in Southeast Asia and I wasn’t even aware I was negotiating.

In front of Pak Ou Caves

We paid the admission fee and first checked out the Lower Cave. Hundreds of old Buddha and other Buddhism-related statues stood in the cave’s multiple tiers. It was billed as an old statue cemetery, it was discovered by some French explorer / colonialist in the 1800s if I remember correctly. However, many of the statues were newer and looked as if they were added within the last year. The cave interior was underwhelming but it was cool inside which offered us a nice break from the heat.

Lower Pak Ou Cave

Outside the entrance to the Lower Cave, we took a separate route to the left and then up a long set of stairs to the entrance of the Upper Cave.

Opening of Upper Pak Ou Cave

The inside of the cave was super dark, we wished we brought our headlamps. Maurice used his cell phone as a flashlight. And tried to scare me with it too.

Maurice having flashlight fun

This cave also had Buddhist statues huddled together and tucked into corners. I preferred this one since it wasn’t as chaotic and the few clusters of statues it did have were more harmoniously arranged. The darkness also made it more mysterious.

Shrine inside Upper Pak Ou Cave

All six of us bumped into each other outside the Upper Cave. We really didn’t need the full 45 minutes to explore these two small caves. We took some pictures of the other banks of the Mekong and then got back on the boat.

Landscape at Pak Ou

This time the ride was faster since we were going with the current. We got back to town around 12:30 PM, as scheduled. We had enough time to have lunch before our van pickup to Vang Vieng at 2:30 PM. We walked from the pier towards the bamboo bridge. On the way we saw this adorable Pekingese.

Pekingese puppy

She didn’t like our attention and decided to leave. We were scared for her as she crossed the street to the other side. Good thing she was cautious and knew to look for cars and motorbikes.

We also took turns climbing into this vintage tuk tuk on the riverfront in order to take pictures. Beep beep, tuk tuk coming through.

Vintage tuk tuk

And we saw monks crossing the bamboo bridge, an iconic Luang Prabang sight.

Monks crossing bamboo bridge

As well as crossing in front of French colonial houses. Classic or cliche? You tell me.

Monks in classic LP street

We finally walked across the bamboo bridge and had lunch at Dyen Sabai Restaurant on the other side of the river. We had delicious watermelon and mint shakes that were white and green. We initially thought they messed up the drink order.

White watermelon shake

I had a coconut milk soup with tofu and mushrooms in a cool-looking terra cotta pot contraption.

Coconut milk soup

Crossed back over the bamboo bridge. Fun fact, the bridge is only available in dry season. During wet season, the river destroys the bridge and it has to be rebuilt again the next year. The only option to cross the river during wet season is to take a short ferry across.

Bamboo bridge

We walked back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. Staff welcomed us again with fresh fruit juices (this time our favorite: more watermelon juice). The staff is really friendly at this hotel. I’ll miss that curious little boy too. Though I’m not sure who he belongs to since the whole staff spoils him.

We waited for the minivan for a while. Nobody showed up at 2:30 PM. Eventually a tuk tuk driver came to pick us up to drive us to the bus station. He picked up three other tourists from England along the way.

Tuk tuk to the bus station

Got to the bus station and we loaded up into the minivan, which turns out to be much more comfortable than anticipated. The air conditioner worked well and only five passengers were inside for a total capacity of eleven. The road, the same one we biked around yesterday, was very hilly and became steeper as we approached the midpoint of the journey. The driver made a stop for us to take pictures.

Mountain view on road between LP and VV

It’s no wonder that Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng look close on the map, but takes 4-5 hours to drive between them. The van driver was very cautious and descended these hills very slowly.

View from high point between LP and VV

We got to Vang Vieng shortly before 8 PM. I didn’t take a screenshot of the map to the hotel, so I had to ask a couple people before we found our hotel towards the southern part of the main street. Here is our hotel discovery video entering our room at Vang Vieng’s Laos Haven Hotel.

After checking in, we went to find a place for dinner. We walked around town for 10-15 minutes before settling for a vegetarian restaurant called Veggie Tables. Even at 9 PM, the restaurant was busy. There were many Israelis as it is not only vegetarian but also kosher. The food was good, but not memorable.

We got back to the hotel to sleep. We walked past the infamous Sakura Bar with partygoers wearing the bar’s signature “Drink Triple. See Double. Act Single” tank tops. These shirts are ubiquitous across the entire Banana Pancake Trail as the bar gives them out free for every two vodka shots you buy. As Maurice and I are both hovering closely around 30 and our tastes are more Luang Prabang and less Vang Vieng, we passed for tonight. Tomorrow is another day.

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