One of the most popular, if not the most popular, tours from Luang Prabang will take you on a 2 hour trip up the Mekong river to the old shrine caves of Pak Ou.
Quite often this tour is paired with a visit to the Tat Kuang Si waterfall - a good option if you don't have much time in Luang Prabang. If you decide to do both in one day you will usually start with a boat ride to the caves in the morning and then back to Luang Prabang where a truck or a minivan drives you to the waterfalls park. The cave and the waterfall are in opposite directions from town - one up and one down the Mekong.
Many places offer tours to the caves, best is to shop around during your evening stroll around town and choose one that suits you, we didn't even pre-book anything, just walked down the main street that goes along the river in the morning, around 9:30 - 10 am and picked a boat driver with a good price offer.
We had to wait around for about 15 minutes while they get a few more people to fill the boat, then we went to the jetty. The boat waiting there was not the best - a bit worn down and water was pooling at the bottom, we regretted that we didn't ask to look at the boat in advance. It did the job though, didn't sink and we had a nice time - but my advice would be, if you are going on this trip, to make sure to inspect the boat before paying.
The ride on the river is probably the best part of the trip. Even in the heat of the day the breeze of the moving boat is fresh and cool making for a pleasant journey. And it is beautiful, so amazingly beautiful - lush green jungle on the banks left and right, mountain ranges rising on the horizon, rocky peaks outlined in the deep blue sky. Truly breathtaking view and dreamy landscape!
There is one stop on the way to the caves - small village where they produce local alcohol - rice whiskey. The village is basically a single street lined with stalls and small shops selling whiskey, hand made scarfs and simple jewelry with a nondescript temple at the end.
The "whiskey"is quite strong, an interesting present to bring home, even if not the best liqueur you've tasted. Some bottles hold bugs and reptiles, supposedly adding flavor and medicinal value to the spirits. However, some countries will not allow such things to be imported (Australia, New Zealand, for example) and there is a practice of endangered animals being killed only to be a part of a disgusting souvenir - so, if buying rice whiskey, better stick to the clean one.
The scarfs sold in the village are actually woven there by the local women and even not being the best quality make for a unique and inexpensive souvenir.
After the whiskey village stop and some more time on the river we got to Pak Ou. I will be honest here and say that we enjoyed the whole tour, but found the caves a bit underwhelming. There are two caves - upper and lower, both very shallow. The upper one has a kind of interesting door and a lot of broken small Buddha statues inside. The lower one is also filled with Buddha statues in various state of decay and that's it. It is an interesting place where people have been going to worship their deities for hundreds, or maybe even thousands of years before Buddhism, starting with a shrine to the water spirits, but there isn't really much to see. The nature is stunning however, with great views of the Mekong and the limestone mountains on the other side of the river.
The whole trip to Pak Ou caves takes around 3 hours, very pleasant and interesting, with beautiful views, definitely a must see for everyone visiting the old royal town of Laos.
On the way back we were unlucky with the weather - some heavy rain poured and forced the boat to stop for 10-15 minutes. Always a good idea to bring a jacket, an umbrella or a rain poncho, especially during wet season.