Speleologists call Laos the “Land of a Million Caves”, referring to it’s former official name Laan Saang – “Land of a Million Elephants”. Laos is indeed home to countless such natural wonders. Expeditions to systematically explore Laos’ caves have taken place since the 19th century, and they have gradually demonstrated the outstanding potential for the scientific study of caves in the country. While well over 500 km of caves and giant underground rivers have already been explored and mapped, much remains to be done.
Caves have a special meaning in Lao culture and history. From ancient times on, they were believed to be the residences of powerful serpents (naga) – called by the Lao too luuang or phanyaa naak. As a result, many caves have become places for worship. In some caves, one can find large amounts of Buddha statues which were placed there as offerings or in an act of making merit. One of the best known caves for this purpose is the Paak Uu cave near Luang Prabang.
In other caves ancient drawings and artefacts, relief carvings on the walls and even inscriptions in the earliest scripts of the Lao have been found. They are therefore of historical and archaeological significance.
Stalactites and stalagmites in caves are often interpreted by the Lao to have the shape of the Buddha, a stupa, a meditating monk or certain animals, especially sacred animals like the serpent or the elephant which give a cave special religious relevance. Certain shapes in the ground or on cave walls are often regarded as Buddha footprints. Some caves were used by monks to live in or to meditate in. Meditation in caves, which often are characterised by a total lack of light, inhabited by large colonies of bats, or are believed to be inhabited by demons and powerful spirits, is regarded among forest monks as an excellent test of their faith in the Dhamma and proof of their advanced level in meditation.
Throughout their history, the Lao have used caves during times of war and political unrest to seek refuge from invaders, and to hide their religious treasures from looters. This is another reason why some caves are still housing Buddha statues and other relics which are worshipped and guarded by local communities. During the Indochina Wars, caves in combination with tunnel systems have helped many people to survive the massive US bombing raids (Laos remains to date the most heavily bombed country in history). In the Viengsai caves in Northeastern Laos, for example, over 20,000 people could hide for a longer period of time, due to the fact that the caves contained a school, a hospital, kitchens, shops, and a theatre.
Nowadays, selected caves are open for tourists and some caves are reserved for research purposes only. Since 1990, various organisations and groups of speleologists have been exploring the caves of Laos more intensively than before. One of these groups, known as “Explo Laos”, has created a very detailed website to tell the history of speleology in Laos.
Other useful resources for further reading are:
Sacred rocks and Buddhist caves in Thailand (book review)