I walk to the Slowboat Landing, purchase a ticket for a ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, and check my watch: I’ve time to kill until our 8:30 departure so I grab a latte from the nearby Saffron Cafe. I realize drinking a diuretic before taking a two-hour boat ride up the river isn’t the brightest thing to do, but the alternative is suffering a caffeine headache.
Two Australian couples (unknown to each other, both in their early fifties, one with a son) are assigned to my boat. I’ve never met an Australian I didn’t like and this gregarious group is no exception. Yelling to be heard above the din of the motor, we talk the entire way to the caves: about where I should travel in Australia (Sydney, Tasmania, and Great Barrier Reef, they tell me), Americans’ xenophobia (it’s true, I confirm), “football”/soccer (I tune out), religion and pop culture.
“Do you like Friends?” one of the women asks me.
There can be a bit of lag before American pop culture reaches other parts of the world. I remember traveling to Spain in 1998 and answering questions about J.R. Ewing.
PAK OU CAVES
The Pak Ou Caves, as I understand/misunderstand it, are where people discard their unwanted Buddha statues. I’ve never thought about it before, but I can see how disposing of The Enlightened One could pose a problem. You can’t just toss him into the trash with the coffee grounds. The caves, a sort of divine retirement home, offer a nice solution for discarding of a deity.
Although the Pak Ou Caves are interesting enough to justify the trip, I had expected a greater density of idols: only a few hundred Buddhas line the walls.
Mothers and their children hover along the paths between the caves, thrusting birds trapped in tiny cages at us. For a dollar donation we can save the bird.
Back on the boat, the six of us agree that although a buck is nothing, paying to free the birds (which are probably recaptured and caged again) only enables the bad behavior. Still… I started my voyage to the Pak Ou Caves happy; I finish it feeling a little down.