The Buddha images in Tham Ting, the lower of two caves in Pak Ou, overlook the Mekong River.
Question: Where in the world are visitors to a remote cave watched by 8,000 sacred eyes?
Answer: Pak Ou Caves, Laos
Not far from the mouth of the Ou River, upstream from Luang Prabang, Laos, a pair of caves tucked into limestone cliffs has become one of Southeast Asia’s great pilgrimage sites. When you approach the site by water, you first see the line of boats docked at the base of the rocks, and the white stairs leading upwards from the shoreline. It isn’t till you get closer that you can see what all the fuss is about: The caves are jam-packed with Buddhas.
For centuries, locals have been bringing images of Buddha to the caves to add to the collection. No one is quite sure how many there are, but current estimates put the number at over 4,000. It’s hard to tell because Tham Theung, the upper cave, is a chockablock jumble of Buddhas in all shapes and sizes, countless faces peering out from the dark. The lower cave, Tham Ting, is set up more like a shrine, with an organized display of hundreds of statues in gold, bronze, stone, and wood. They bask in natural light, enjoying a serene view of the Mekong River framed by limestone.
For Buddhists who come here to pray and burn incense, the caves are spiritually powerful and culturally important. So many devotees volunteer to bathe and repair the statues each Lao New Year that there isn’t enough room for all of the would-be helpers at once. Simple logistics mean that even when the cave hosts as many humans as it can fit, Buddhas are always in the majority.
5 More Unforgettable Tributes to Buddha
- At the ruins of Wat Mahatmat in Ayutthaya, Thailand, a sign of destruction has become a symbol of hope. The Burmese army destroyed the temple in the 18th century and lopped the heads off local Buddha icons. One of the heads ended up at the base of a tree, whose roots have since grown around it, framing it for posterity, so that now it looks like it, too, sprang from the earth.
- How does one single out the greatest treasure of a royal compound? Easy: Follow the visitors. At the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, you’ll find that most seek out the 26-inch Emerald Buddha in the Wat Phra Kaew. The gleaming figure is emerald in name but is in fact polished jade, and is so well-loved that the king of Thailand himself dresses the statue with each change of season.
- The oldest Buddha in Laos rises 18 feet high over worshippers at Wat Manorom in Luang Prabang, Laos. It is Bhumisparsha-Mudra style, the sitting pose in which one hand touches the ground, to show the Buddha’s connection to earth at his enlightenment. This was fitting as the statue initially sat outside in nature while the temple was unfinished; even after the temple opened, the Buddha spent centuries exposed to the elements before moving inside for preservation.
- At the gleaming Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos, Buddha (or, as it turns out, part of him) is hidden from view, but his glory is nonetheless hard to miss. Originally a Hindu temple, Pha That Luang was converted into a Buddhist stupa when the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to the city to enshrine the (alleged) breastbone of Buddha. The relic is not on view but the temple is a must-see anyway, as it is covered in hundreds of tons of gold leaf, the most iconic sight in the city.
- In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City goes its own way with a Buddhist-themed amusement park. Suoi Tien Park greets visitors with a laughing Buddha, and they may swim in pools below the faces of gods, meet costumed mythical beings, and ride a roller-coaster through the 18 Gates of Buddhist Hell. The only such theme park on earth, it’s a memorably modern tribute to an ancient deity.
Join us to discover the many ways that Buddhism infuses the cultures of Asia on our Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam adventure.