We can't seem to get away from boats on this trip. This morning we took a long narrow riverboat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou caves. These caves are ancient, hollowed from the cliffs overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Ou rivers. The lower cave, reached by a set of steps from the rudimentary dock, is not very deep and lit by natural light from the opening.
Once you reach it you catch your breath. Every flat surface holds hundreds, maybe thousands, of figures of Buddha, from large ones several feet high to the tiniest ones, only a couple of inches in height. These have been brought and left by pilgrims following an even earlier tradition, before Buddhism took hold in Laos, when this cave was an animist shrine. The figures are crowded together without any attempt at organization; it looks like a Buddha convention and is quite wonderful to see.
Higher up the hill (quite a bit higher, we learned as we climbed) is another cave, this one deeper by far, wide and unlit. For a donation at the entrance, you can borrow a flashlight with a rather narrow beam and illumine bits of the cave at a time. Here are more Buddha figures, set on ledges cut from the stone walls. It's hard to see them clearly, but a camera flash shows more hundreds, this time along with gold leaf pressed onto the walls to form small seated Buddhas about 6 inches tall, lined up in rows.
We were lucky to arrive at Pak Ou before or between the boatloads of tourists who come here, and we didn't feel crowded or pushed. It was sad to see though, along the steps to the upper cave, tiny children selling birds held in wicker cages far too small for the bird to move in. You're supposed to release the birds to make merit. Those that survive this handling can't go very far and probably wind up back in the cage very quickly. The children don't smile.
In spite of this rather depressing reminder of the realities of a very poor country, Pak Ou is a remarkable place in a stunning setting. Imagine a Chinese painting with jagged green mountains above a wide river, and mist in the distance. That's where we spent the morning.