Primarily a religious site, the Pak Ou Buddha Caves are located inside a steep rock face that droops over the sacred site like tobacco-stained teeth. Accessed by a brilliant white-washed, zigzagging staircase, the boats dock at the bottom and allow for pilgrims and tourists alike to ascend into the upper and lower caves for exploration.
Once inside, visitors are met with thousands of statues of the Buddha. Ranging in size, quality, and material, the only factor uniting these effigies are their minor imperfections. Roam long enough, and you can spot each; some are missing hands and or have chipped faces, while others list to the side or were replaced by newer versions less love-worn from ages of devotion.
Before their discovery by outsiders, the perfectly imperfect contents at Pak Ou’s caves were only considered on an annual basis; during the Laotian New Year, practitioners of the faith would come to bathe in the caves in hopes of receiving boons in the coming year.
Now that the caves have become a semi-known tourist destination, boat operators hired to take visitors to the cave often make a detour on the way home for the Lao Lao “whiskey village.” Here visitors are offered the opportunity to sample the townsfolk’s famously potent home-brewed potables before continuing the ferry ride back to Luang Prabang, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea since there’s a man paid to get you all home in one piece.
By the end of your journey to Pak Ou, visitors will have washed back ashore in Luang Prabang having touched on every single holy facet of ancient and modern life in a single afternoon – beginning with a watery trek into a world populated with misfit deities made more holy for their outcast nature, only to then chase the experience with a physical and spiritual reunion with the living, all while being shuttled to and fro atop one of the most revered rivers in the world.