Pak Ou Buddha Caves, Laos


We are in Luang Prabang, Laos, eating in a restaurant beside the Mekong River. We will be taking a river boat up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou (Pakou) Buddha Caves.

We read reviews by previous visitors to the caves. Many were disappointed. The river journey was long, the sun was too hot, the Buddhas were damaged, the Buddhas were not sorted or arranged in an organized fashion, the climb to the second cave was arduous, the second cave was very dark, the caves cost money to visit, and the children there tried to sell things, there was not much to do there except look at the Buddhas and that does not take much time. It is best to do something else, many people said.

I have been sitting on my butt before a statue of the Buddha for many years so I am not going to miss seeing a few thousand of the damn things stuffed in a cave!

The river longboats take about two hours to reach the caves. It is nice inside the boat…cool, even chilly.


Our boat stops at Ban Xang Hay (known as Whiskey Village), where we look at an operating still, making rice whiskey.
It’s ironic that the tourists are offered whiskey on their way to visit the Buddhas.

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A diagram shows how the still works. It looks like the stills we Americans have in the Appalachian Mountains!

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The rice wine and whiskey are for sale. They let you taste it — it is good — not just for breakfast anymore!

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You can get whiskey with a scorpion in the bottle–good medicine!

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We see villages on the river banks.

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The boat arrives at the caves. The caves are 25 kilometers north of Luang Prabang.

There are about 4000 Buddhas inside…and that’s a lot of Buddhas. Buddhism was adopted by the Lao Royal family in the 16th century. The King and people of Luang Prabang made pilgrimages to the cave for New Year observances. Buddhas were brought to the cave to acquire merit. The cave had previously been associated with a River spirit.

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We look at the main altar in the lower cave.

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A girl lights a candle at the main altar.

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There are plenty of Buddhas. The hand and arm positions of the Buddhas have meaning: Standing with arms pointed downwards–“calling for rain.” Sitting with one hand pointed downward–“calling the earth to witness” (the enlightened Buddha regards reality as the basis for his claims). Hands crossed in front–“meditation.” Palm of hands extended outward — “stop arguing.”
[You can see these position more clearly in later photos.]
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A lion guards the cave. Lao people mix Buddhism with animistic belief in spirits.

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Buddhism does not advocate attachment but, over the years, as Buddhism spread, it acquired characteristics from those practicing it. If you meditate, the things deep inside you will come into your consciousness.

I liked the atmosphere of being among these Buddhas. Each was made by a human who worked in a meditative state, making the Buddha image.

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Artists were commissioned by the Royal family to make images — most of which were made in the 18th-20th centuries.

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We look down the stairs — while climbing to the upper cave. I am amused to think of the tired tourist who climbed these steps and then wrote: “What do you think we would find in the upper cave? You guessed it: more Buddhas!”

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There is no electricity in the upper cave. We use flashlights.

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We look out of the upper cave.

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Stop arguing.

We return to Luang Prabang by riverboat.

I have had the chance to observe the process by which people come to the practice of meditation. The average person does not wish to meditate for extensive periods of time. Some people begin the inner journey because they are curious, other because they are compassionate. A typical motivation is a response to suffering. Each person’s life is different but the day may come in your life when you realize that you must respond to the problem of human suffering — particularly your own.

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