Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE BUDDHA CAVES OF NORTH LAOS (Pak Ou Caves)



My driver Thongdat and his Jumbo (Tuktuk)


My 3-day bus ride already took a huge chunk of travel time, though I will never regret doing it. But I wanted to see more of Luang Prabang. It’s probably going to be my last time to see Luang Prabang in this lifetime. But then, I said that about Hanoi and Saigon, and so far I’ve returned 4x already within 10 months. LOL. I just cannot trust myself.

A LITTLE MORE ADVENTURE : THE OPTIONS

It was a good day. The weather shifts every hour from mild-sunny to cloudy. It was time for a little adventure. Something I can tell myself, you went a bit off the beaten track. There were two options. One, a beautiful waterfall some 25 kilometers away from the city. Two, a sacred place called Buddha Cave s that's 28 kilometers away. Both places were reachable by boat from the Mekong. I didn’t feel like getting splashes of the murky waters of the Mekong! A British guy who studies at the University of London earlier told me that he went to the waterfalls the other day. “It’s a nice waterfall but I’ve seen higher falls. We were supposed to visit some Tiger House. Unfortunately, the lone tiger on display died 10 days ago,” relates Mr. London Uni. Dead tigers. Unspectacular falls. I remembered a tour to a waterfall in Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Ok, that sealed the deal. No waterfalls.

NO BRAINER

Next predicament. There were 2 ways to visit the Buddha caves. The first, was through a 2-hour boat ride through the Mekong – along with 7-8 other tourists. The second, a jumbo (Lao’s version of the tuktuk) ride through a dirt road. I would be able to walk through a Lao Village and see how the locals live. Then cross the Mekong (to the other side) to get to the caves. It really was a no-brainer. The catch is, I have to find other tourists so we can share the $25-jumbo fare. I thought about the other tourists I met at the bus station. I saw them again while I was checking out the postcards. “Hey, would you guys want to ride with me to the Pak Ou Cave?” I offered. Guy 2: “How much will it cost us?” Me: “$25 …divided among us.” But way before I could finish my sentence, the couple ran away as fast as they could! They made a dash to leave me. Haha. Boy, I’ve never seen $25 repel someone as effectively as that one did! I heard one of them say, “We’ll look up into other tours first and let you know.” Give me a break, we would have paid a little more than $8 for a vehicle that will take us to places for the WHOLE DAY, and we were the boss. No one telling us we only have 10 minutes to check out one place and another 30 minutes to take a crap! No one will be dictating how we want our time spent! We wouldn’t have to be with 30 other tourists or so.

UNSURE

I decided to take the trip on my own. I approached a jumbo driver and politely asked how much he would charge for a day-tour to the Pak Ou Caves. “$25,” he said, and I saw a hopeful gleam in his eyes. Then I turned away! I was suddenly unsure. I’d be riding alone with him. He could take me somewhere I don’t wanna go. Tourists are always vulnerable to such schemes. “$24!” I heard the driver follow me. Two blocks after, he was still with me. “How much you want, meester?” he asked. I intently looked at him. He is about 55 years old, complexion on the fair side, a little on the heavy side too, with chinky eyes. Sometimes, you have to look at a person’s face and take your cue. He looked like a hardworking honest man I can trust my life with! “$22,” I declared. If he didn’t like it, I’m cool. Take it or leave it.

Five minutes later, I was the lone passenger of his jumbo. 15 minutes into the ride, he stopped at some makeshift stall. The guy from the stall listed his jumbo’s plate. This is a registration station to probably monitor outgoing vehicles (remember, this is a communist country). On a blackboard near the table, a price tag was written: $25! That is the going rate! But a deal is a deal. I can give him $3 for his tip. I always give tips for great services rendered. Kahit maubusan pa ako ng pera. Too much of a softie. LOL

ROUGH ROAD

Thongdat, my driver, started annotating for the tour. But it was hard to understand him between his accent and the sound of the motor, and I was at the back! This was going to be a long ride. I saw the North Bus Station. The road to the airport. Passed the bridge. Then made a left somewhere, off the main and to a dirt road! It was rough! The rode was just 8-9 feet wide, pebbly, muddy, wavy – and the Ou River (Nam Ou) was flowing beside us. One slip to the left and I was gonna find out how a vehicle turtles to a raging river. I took my camera and held on tightly. I could feel my insides move. I thought of the word “wobble”. LOL. This was an 8 km ride from the main road. As we went further, I realized there was hardly any other vehicle traveling on this road. I was worrying if this vehicle could make it to our destination. It will be a verrrry lonnng muddy walk back to the main road! An hour into our wobbly ride, we saw 3 other jumbos getting back. Each is filled with 10-15 caucasian tourists, while I was the king of my jumbo. Hanep! LOL




PAK OU VILLAGE & SATELLITE DISHES


We reached the little village of Pak Ou in an hour. Wood houses on medium height stilts. Weaving materials displayed outside their homes. Satellite dishes in every 200 meter or so. (In Laos, satellite dishes are ubiquitous even in mountain villages. It’s possible that the government provides them with these stuff. Keep the Laos entertained.) Thongdat walked with me through these houses until we reached the riverside. There was a restaurant on stilts. Then I saw the other side of the Ou River. An “opening” from a limestone cliff. That was my destination! From my riverside, boats were waiting for passengers. The young man said, “30,000 kip!” I said, “20,000 kip - return!” My driver told me so. Everyone pays 20,000 kip for a boat crossing to the other side of the Nam Ou (Ou River, a Mekong tributary).


THAM TING aka PAK OU CAVE aka BUDDHA CAVES


The villagers call the main cave as Tham Ting (Ting Cave). The tourism authority calls it Pak Ou Caves, as this is under the care of the village of Pak Ou. Tourist books call it the Buddha Caves because it is easier to remember. By boat, it takes 2 hours to get there through the Mekong, which passes by a series of caves set in limestone cliffs. There is no direct land route to get to the caves as they are located just above the waters. The lowest and the most accessible of these caves is a sacred place for the Lao.


Whenever a Buddha statue becomes too old or damage to venerate in a wat, these buddhas are not thrown away or destroyed; these are sent to these caves – the Buddha Caves. Inside, just out of the sunlight and stretching back into the darkness, are thousands of Buddha statues of every size and material. Steps to the left of the Tham Ting Cave lead around to the upper cave called Tham Phun which is deeper, darker and needs a flashlight for viewing. It was scary.

CATCHING MY BREATH IN THAM PHUN


My boat ride didn’t take 15 minutes to cross the river. There was a British guy talking in front of a boom mic. They were making a documentary on the caves. I had to wait for him to finish a spiel then stepped from one boat to the next to get up the cave’s platform. I paid the entrance and got inside Tham Ting. True enough, there were thousands of standing buddhas displayed in several ledges. It felt eerie. The cave wasn’t deep enough and once you see the buddhas, there’s nowhere else to go. I turned to the stairs outside and braved another 200+ stairs leading to the bigger cave. There were flashlights available for rent outside, but I didn’t have plans of exploring deep inside, thank you! Once again, my shirt was drenched with sweat. I went inside, and it was really dark. Had goosebumps. There were just a few buddhas inside. Who would be so stupid to climb these steps when their old buddhas can rest more dramatically at the cave (Tham Ting) below? On my way back, I met the filmmaking crew. The presenter was all out of breath. He looked familiar but I am sure I don’t know him. I wished it was Michael Palin, but of course I’m wishful thinking.


By the time I got back to my boat, my knees were jello! Literally jello! I was punishing myself so hard these days, I thought. LOL. We sailed back to the other side. My jumbo driver was waiting for me. It was damn fun! He offered another ride for tomorrow. The waterfall! But I was gonna think hard about it. Meanwhile, I just looked forward to the pleasant ride back to Luang Prabang.


My 20,000 kip boat to the other side of the river.

A boatride to the Buddha caves.


Buddha Caves. Notice the British film crew down below.

Tham Ting cave



Thousands of old and worn out buddhas find their resting place.



Stair leading to the upper cave of Tham Phun (above & below).



Tham Phun (Phun Caves), outside (above) and inside (below).



Pak Ou village and their weaving materials.


Riverside villages from Nam Ou

Random Expenditures:

· Jumbo (tuktuk) ride ( 9AM-4PM) and tour to the Buddha Caves. - $22 or 176,00 kip or PhP1,001
· Tip for my jumbo driver (optional, in fact they don’t expect it) - $3 or 24,000 kip or PhP136.50
· Pak Ou Cave/Buddha Cave entrance fee – $2.50 or 20,000 kip or PhP113.75



Crosslink Gratitude

- Yesterday, I was surprised with the surge of hits which reached 110 or so. I realized that one of my posts (“Luang Prabang – Close to the Heavens”) was featured in a couple of blogsites. About 20 hits came from this site, http://samakomlao.blogspot.com, which is like a shrine of anything Lao; and another from http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/07/20/laos-luang-prabang/ which highlights a potpourri of news coming from the different parts of the world. It’s “curated” by Yehey’s news editor from the Philippines. Thanks for the mention, guys. Please feel free to checkout their sites. Thanks.



4 comments:

Everlito (ever) Villacruz said...

whooos!interesting naman ng adventure mo..di ako nagtataka kaya eye in the sky!

andiboi said...

tsong man! you're still travelling. I'm already done with my SEA trip about a month ago and here you are again exploring the beautiful country of Laos... that's the country i missed during my trip, sayang talaga coz a lot were saying that it's really wonderful there, esp. the "tubing" adventure...
safe travels :-)

-andiboi/gwunj

the donG said...

i love those small boats. galing ng mga kuha. ok din ang pak ou caves.

eye in the sky said...

@ ever: kaya eye kasi dapat puro photos lang sana. LOL.

@ andiboi: vang vieng, man! btw, i was amused reading your travels, pero inisa isa ko. i like it when there's enough personal insight on a travel blog at hindi land puro details, coz it gives the readers the sense of traveling along with the said blogger.

@ dong: tiningnan ko nga uli ang mga kuha ko ng boat. haha. very familiar shots, don't you think?(i.e., parang sa yo - hehe)