Today, we experienced life in the slow lane, taking a leisurely ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, about thirteen miles north of Luang Prabang. To give a little history, Luang Prabang and Laos generally was not open to tourism until 1989; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Before that time, it really depended on the Mekong River for travel, sustenance, and trade. Every family and village (depending on wealth) would have a landing for a boat or two, and that would be the way of traveling. The roads are still relatively new, so much so that our guide mentioned that he used the river the travel to the capital of Laos right after he graduated high school in the late 1980s. So, we set out on our venture, about a four hour round trip ride up the Mekong.
Within about fifteen minutes, we stopped at our first sight: the weaving village. This is a village where women from surrounding communities come to do everything from raise the silkworms to boil and dye the silk using natural dyes, to finally the weave the product together. We watched them doing various stages of the textile production.
First, the silkworms grow fat eating the mulberry leaves that naturally grow on the banks of the Mekong leading up to the village (we had to fight our way through the bush coming from the river, most tourists opt for the bus route). Then, they spin cocoons that are several tens of meters of silk long when unfurled. The women then take those silk threads in their raw form, and wash and pull them in water before boiling them to give them their, well, silky texture. Then, they dye the threads using natural dyes, including coconut bark and shells, mangosteen fruits (purple), anatto (yellow), and local indigo. Pro tip: if your silk is “glossy” it is manufactured likely by machine, probably somewhere in China (we are quite close to the border with China here and apparently they ship quite a bit of false “handmade” silk down to the night markets here).
They also utilize all of the scraps of the different trees and make beautiful pulp paper paintings – if you’ve ever seen recycled paper with flowers pressed into it and it has a layered, thick quality to it, this is something similar. They use it for gift wrapping and making bags and other nice goods.
Finally, they weave all of the threads together into beautiful silk pieces such as scarves and table runners.
Then, we continued on the Mekong for about an hour and a half, taking in the beauty and serenity of the river. At this point in the monsoon season, it is about 30 feet deep, but can reach much higher (the local bridges will all be washed away, and the water will come up to just below the tree line on the shore). It is quite wide, and has a fast current flowing through the center. We saw many boats parked near the shore line, and many more folks out fishing and otherwise traveling along the near banks of the river alongside their villages. Even now, Laos is still mostly a subsistence farming country, so these people are fishing for themselves for the most part. Some wealthier families and their villages also have “nicer” amenities, like bigger boats or “boat garages” to house the boats during the rain.
Interestingly, they also farm fish here. So, if you’ve ever eaten farm raised fish from Vietnam or other countries along the Mekong, they likely were raised in a hatchery that looks similar to the photo below.
The water is actually fairly unpolluted, but gets the muddy color from clay runoff in China. The Chinese dam up water upstream that then carries a lot of mud and clay with it to countries like Laos, giving it the darker color. Our second stop was the “whisky village” which is one of the villages that produces the signature whisky and rice wine that the area consumes. The whisky tastes a little bit like Brazilian cachaca, if anyone is familiar, and is a very strong 55% bite. The rice wine is much more pleasant, with the white rice wine tasting a bit like sake with a fuller flavor and the red sticky rice wine having a mellower flavor. They ferment the rice with local leaves that have a yeast-like agent to them, and keep them in pots until they smell correct and can be distilled.
The same village has a really nice Wat, where we wandered briefly before returning to the Mekong. Interestingly, the Wat both appreciates its surroundings and warns against their temptations. It has a beautifully illustrated panel that describes Buddhist sins, including drinking, adultery, murder, etc. The punishments depicted are pretty graphic – if you drink too much, you get boiling water poured down your throat in the the afterlife. Not too pleasant a fate for the whisky village. Other sins have similarly painful ends – if you lust after the flesh too much, your flesh is tied to a tree and cut with sharp barbs. Ouch.
After this village, we continued up the Mekong for about 30 more minutes, finally approaching the beautiful mountains in front of the cave, where the Pak Ou River meets the Mekong.
The cave itself is absolutely incredible. It is slightly raised out of the water, and there is a second, completely dark cave about 700 feet above it. The first cave is filled with over five thousand Buddha statues, which have been brought to the cave since the 1800s, when the King tried to unite the Lao people under one religion (many people practiced and still practice animism). Every new year in April, people bring statues to the cave for good luck, leading to its ever growing collection of statues, carvings, and other iconography.
The incredible thing is that you just keep looking up and in every nook and cranny, there is a Buddha statue. Some are crumbling, some are clearly very new, but they are all beautiful as part of the cave’s decor.
While the sun is very much baking into the Buddhas in the lower cave, the upper cave is completely dark and silent, absent the occasional murmur and drip of water. I tried to get a good photo, but nothing can really replicate standing in the dark, completely silent, looking at the only candle burning and slowly turning and occasionally glimpsing the reflection of the many Buddha statues that are hidden in the dark crevices of the cave.
It was absolutely beautiful. The ride back on the Mekong was gorgeous, and only took about an hour as the tide was with us and we didn’t have any stops. Once we got back to town, we headed to lunch where we sampled a Lao chicken curry and a steamed fish dish with red sticky rice. We then visited the National Museum, which houses many artifacts from the royal family before the capital moved in the late 70s. Interestingly, the USA’s “gifts” to the Lao government include a model Lunar Lander rover from Richard Nixon, and a Victoria record player. Of course, other governments, such as Japan, China, India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia offered much more ornate, intricate gifts.
Then, we headed back to the hotel to change before wandering around again before dinner. We ended up climbing to the top of a beautiful stupa, from which you can see both sides of Luang Prabang. The view was incredible, stretching beyond the airport on one side, and giving a beautiful picture of the mountains from the other.
Finally, we ended our day back in town, at a restaurant that has a great Lao tasting menu. We tried 9 dishes for about $30 total, including veggie summer rolls, a pork laab salad, a fish curry, beef curry, chicken and mushrooms, tofu curry, a sweet shrimp curry, duck curry. Of course, they finished with the most refreshing dish, a coconut flesh panna cotta. Amazingly, the most pointed flavor of Lao food is dill. We noticed it in the sausage last night, and then again in every curry today. Dill seems to be the most pervasive herb here, the way you might think of cilantro or kaffir lime with Thai food or mint with Vietnamese.
Overall, it was a fun day and we are planning to stick around town and explore a several of the World Heritage sites more tomorrow.
One thought on “Pak Ou Cave and the mighty Mekong, Laos”
The pictures are just beautiful. Loved the cave pics. What an interesting boat ride. and seeing the textiles being made. Very jealous just now.