Spirituality in Laos, The Pak Ou Caves

There’re cool limestone caves located on the steep rock cliff rising vertically from the waters of the Mekong River, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. The craggy mountains scenery is breathtaking with overhanging cliffs above the swift flowing river. The best attractions here are the two caves full of Buddha images of varying styles, ages and sizes. The lower cave called Tham Ting, or Tham Leusi contains a hermit of Leusi statue. The other noteworthy cave is called Tham Theung (upper cave), or Tham Prakachay. The caves can be reached by a 2 hours boat trip, upstream from Luang Prabang. Alternatively you can go by a soonthaew, that will bring you to the opposite bank of the river, where boats will be waiting to take you to the other site.

Tham Ting Cave has been in use for religious purposes from the earliest times, before Buddhism was introduced to the region. The Mekong River valley was inhabited since the middle of the 8th century. At that time, the local people worshipped the spirits of nature called Phi. Tham Ting Caves was associated with the river spirit. Buddhism only spread to the Mekong River valley much later. By the 16th century, Buddhism was embraced by the Lao royal family, and Tham Ting Caves received royal patronage from then until the monarchy was dissolved with the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. A long flight of stairs lead steeply up the cliff towards the Lower Cave, and from there continues by the side to the Upper Cave, which is 60m above the river. The Lower Cave is prominently visible from the Mekong River. There are approximately 4000 Buddha figurines within Tham Ting Caves, of which approximately 2500 are in the Lower Cave.

Many of the sculptures in Tham Ting Caves were the work of artisan under royal commission, and were created between the 18th and 20th centuries. A number of the Buddha figurines was placed there by worshippers. Most of these are carved of wood or moulded from tree resin, and then covered with red or black lacquer, and finally covered with gold leaf. There are also a few made from animal horn, bronze or ceramic.

The figurines are made in several different poses, of which three are the most common. The “Calling for Rain” pose shows a standing figure with the arms pointing downwards. The “Calling the Earth to Witness” pose depicts a seated figure with one hand extended downwards. Finally, the “Meditation” pose shows a seated figure with the hands crossed in front of it. Less common but also found here are the “Stop Arguing” pose, where the Buddha figure is standing, and has both hands extended outwards. The “Reclining Buddha” is similarly not commonly seen in the cave.

There are offerings of flowers, incense and candles on an altar closest to the entrance. Within the Lower Cave is a small spring. The water from this spring is regarded as holy, and is used for the annual Laotian New Year ceremony.

The Upper Cave is located at the top of another long and steep flight of stairs, accessible from the Lower Cave. There is a wooden frieze enclosing the entrance of the cave, with a wooden door for visitors to enter. Beside the entrance is a sculpture of a disciple of the Buddha. The Upper Cave extends some 54 m into the dark interior. On the left of the entry is a wooden water channel which is used for the ceremonial washing of the sculptures.


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