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Tuk Tuks, Bombies, and Front-loading Washers

January 26, 2010

Lao Betty Boop on Tuk Tuk Mud Flap

After about 60 hours of travel, we made it back to Pennsylvania with all our limbs and luggage in tact. We took a tuk tuk to the Luang Prabang airport thinking we needed 3 hours for international travel even though there are only about 5 departing flights per day. Some of the tuk tuks had 1940s propaganda-poster-style mud flaps with Rambo on them spraying bullets from his stylized machine gun. Our tuk tuk happened to have a generic Stevie Wonder/ Jimmie Hendrix hybrid beaming above some groovy Lao typography. Such a strange cross-wiring of pop cultural cues. Above that was the more modest and less cloying Lao version of Betty Boop. This was probably the most suggestive imagery we’d seen since we’d arrived in Laos. No need to Revive Ophelia here (at least as far as I can tell). All the billboards presented images of wholesome, well-fed, and sparkly-eyed pig-tailed youths drinking through crazy straws. The most blatant visual evidence of any kind of departure from strict morality might be a popped Izod collar here or there.

We climbed the stairs into the plane and our airline attendant was smilingly eager to help us find a good hotel in Bangkok. After he left us to strap himself into his tiny fold-out seat, we looked at each other with a forlorn nostalgia for a moment that just happened a second ago. The airline attendant’s vibrant amiability came to represent all the kindness we’d experienced during this trip. We’d spent the past few weeks with people who don’t have front-loading washing machines, don’t have to worry about their next car inspection, and don’t talk about the next thing in their Netflix queue. Their frame of reference just arched in a different direction. It’s refreshing to be around people who don’t get Three’s Company references. It’s good brain practice to move beyond the old devices you use to relate to people. It forces you to use older, I guess, more primal ways of understanding someone.

Selling Bracelets

We’d become so accustomed to trusting people–walking down the crowded street almost radiating with a feeling of goodwill for our fellow man like some deleted scene from Godspell. Even haggling in the Night Market, there was only the good humored shaking of heads to say “no, can’t do, what you pay?” Even though we failed miserably at haggling. Once Michael actually gave a girl 5,000 Kip extra because she was so nice after we haggled her down that same amount. The girls in the above photo are smiling because they got the equivalent of 8 bucks from us for three bracelets. Later the same girl who sold them to us came back and said we got ripped off. Cop jai lai lai!

And we knew we were returning to a very cold and solitary East Coast. We thought about the amazing experiences we had in this beautiful country and the people we met from the whole spectrum of Lao society. How an amalgam of these encounters would amount to one big smiling Buddha amid wafting banana fronds, puppies, and dancing elephants. Of course, we were only there for a short while, long enough to over-romanticize about dancing bananas and the like. But the people really are that amazing and nice. It’s almost heartbreaking.

Unexploded Ordnance

We also found one of the most relaxing and beautiful spots possibly in the whole of Luang Prabang just days before leaving. It was called Utopia, overlooking the Khan river with treetop walkways and alternating levels of tiki fabulousness. This was the first instance I saw of the use of UXO (unexploded ordnance) as decorative flower pots and architectural accents.

Unexploded OrdnanceThis peaceful tropical paradise is the most heavily bombed nation in the world. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives over Laos to stop North Vietnamese troops from entering Lao territory. Ironically, the Lao even have a cute word for the explosives. They refer to them as “bombies.” According to the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, 78 million bombies failed to explode and there have been around 12,000 UXO-related deaths or injuries since 1973. Fortunately, there are some efforts to raise awareness about UXO and very time-consuming efforts to diffuse the bombies that have impacted a quarter of the villages throughout Laos.

The irony of this giant mortar shell lodged in the ground as a stepping stone in the restaurant bar called Utopia was not lost on me if only a bit fuzzy and mutable. Maybe it’s too big for me to wrap my head around. The image seemed so much more meaningful than any process art installation in Central Park because they are just there unfolding their symbols for whomever cared to look down from their lau lau cocktail. They were more powerful because no one claimed ownership of their creation as art. Because the people I’d met were the most peaceful and kind people I’ve ever met. The bombies don’t translate into this landscape. They are a rude interruption. So why not make a flower pot?

As we slogged through customs in a daze and slouched in metal chairs for three hours waiting for the shuttle at JFK, we were distracted by a distant and chilling feeling of loss. When will we ever get the chance to go back there? I knew I’d start feeling a certain bitterness for my real life back here in the wintry fog of Pennsylvania, and I would over-romanticize about the tropical utopia that is Laos. Although, I soon became acutely aware, after an olfactory reminder that hadn’t bathed in days, that I’d eventually miss our front-loading washing machine. We thought about our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and it all amounted to a pretty good exchange because we will never forget our Lao experience.


January 21, 2010

Somehow, the ride back from Tham Luong Kwai did not seem as treacherous as the ride in. The loud metallic banging as we bottomed out every few feet did not trigger the same death siren in my head as it had before. I wonder if this is how these brave archaeologists, geologists and adventurers do it. Every time you get closer to fear, you build your resistance up an inch (or rather, 2.5 centimeters.) But I’m sure, just like working on your glutes, it’s something that has to be maintained and exercised. I will probably revert right back to my withering damsel-in-distress disposition minutes after hitting american soil, or I’ll hear a little ping like a turkey timer go off in the middle of watching the Food Network. Ping! Wimp meter recalculating…

Joyce WhiteEveryone is back at the MMAP office in Luang Prabang and the pot from Trench B sits in the corner of the office as unassuming as a copy machine. Joyce and Phong were kind enough to unwrap the rice bag rigging they’d used to transport it down the mountain so I could take some photos. This was a tricky feat because the pot has no bottom, so they used extra care to keep the soil and bones from falling out.

The office was buzzing with activity as Kathleen and Mick’s stalagmites dried on the tarp drawing much attention from the local government officials next door, and the MMAP team laid out Jillian’s soil samples on sieves.


Jillian put several soil samples through a process called flotation. The soil is placed in a large drum of water, and the material that floats to the surface is skimmed off the top and dried in hanging bags. So far, Jill has identified a good amount of shell, bone, and seeds that she will later analyze in depth. The results of this study will hopefully tell us more about the agricultural life of the people of this region.

As it turns out, the past month was, as Joyce put it, “the fun part.” And I have 10 hours of footage to prove it. It was amazing to see how fluidly the team weaved around each other without falling into the trenches up at Tham An Mah, how they were all so willing to smile and laugh as they worked from sun up to sun down. Apparently, now comes the hard part. After weeks of digging in the dirt, collecting samples, living off the generosity and goodwill of the local villagers, squeezing through caves, and brave feats of botany, the busy work begins. But after getting to know the team, I am certain they will continue their work with the same levity and good humor as they did during the “fun part.”

I was hoping Joyce or Korokot could tell me something spectacular about the bones in the pot, but they are loathe to speculate. That will come with careful analysis. Apparently you can’t rush archaeology for the sake of a sexy sound byte (please excuse my use of that horrible marketing term. I’m still looking for a viable synonym.)


Land of Office Plants and Annuals

January 17, 2010

I slipped on a banana peel walking home from the internet cafe. I’m not sure if this has ever happened to anyone in the past century who was not a cartoon or a vaudvillian with a handle bar mustache. There are little bananas everywhere. They are the perfect size. By the time you get to the end of a regular banana you’re just about sick of the mealy yellowness, but these are the most perfect three-bite snacks. Unless you happen to slip on one. Banana trees are ubiquitous here, but according to Jillian, our archaeobotanist, the trees we see in the jungle are not domesticated. The only part of those trees that are edible are the giant purple flowers that hang like over sized Christmas ornaments tossed out of the top of the tree. Nouphan also pointed out avacado, papaya, and orange trees. Also while we were coming back from the last hike, Phou pointed up at a tiny green ball hanging from a tree and said, “Baby jack fruit.”

Kathleen also came back from a hike to the village of Luong Kwai with a picture of a teak tree farm which I now recognize to be all over the place.

Hanging Orchids in Luang Prabang

The streets and alleyways of Luang Prabang are crowded with plants, potted, hanging, and otherwise. We were descending Mount Phousi when I recognized several of them as office plants. Snake plants, rubber trees, acuba, philadendhron. All plants you find in your everyday cubicle under fluorescent lamps. Of course, you’ll also see giant sprays of bougambilla, cock’s comb and semper vitae, a bunch of varieties of begonia, and even poinsettia trees, lantana, 4 o’clocks, caladium, bee balm, and believe it or not… coleus and impatiens!

Poinsettia Tree
Poinsettia Tree!
Office Plants in Luang Prabang
Giant acuba!

Morning in Tham Luong Kwai

January 17, 2010

The following morning I tried to make my way behind the hog pen and I couldn’t make a single move without triggering the attention of the crowd of children. I searched for a good spot and everywhere I looked was occupied with pigs, chickens, and children. I finally had to rig up a kind of tent out of sheets.

Kitchen in the Ban Luong Kwai Guest HouseAfter a breakfast of 1/5 of a baguette and peanut butter, we went to the village guest house to have coffee and we marveled at the interior kitchen set-up. Michael was quick to point out the kreosote build up that he was tempted to warn them about. We met with the village elders again and presented them most formally with a bottle of Lau Lau and quite a large sum of money for the accommodations and the monthly water collection.

We hiked to the first cave. Steph, Phou, Norseng and the van driver and I continued on to Tham Dook. We were told it was a five minute skip. For Phou, it was a five minute skip. For me, it was a half hour vertical climb up the steepest rock face I’ve ever encountered. I had long ago reached saturation point with adventure and was now dead set on surviving the rest of this journey, snapping some photos and getting back to the safety and comfort of Luang Prabang. Every time we seemed to summit the mountain, it just continued up and up. I had long ago abandoned any efforts to cover up my abject misery because Stephanie was the only who could understand my expletives. I tried to alternate my whining and panting with apologies. When we made it to the top, everyone effortlessly flung themselves over the 10 foot boulder that lead to the entrance. I made six attempts to place my feet in the unforgiving crags to no avail. I gave up. I told Phou, “I’m done. I’m sorry. I’m going to stay here with Skippy.” Phou disappeared and came back with a spear of bamboo and slid it down as a ladder. I shook my head and apologized. “You go. Sorry.”

Stephanie En Route to Tham DookI perched on the only rock available, shaped like a tear drop, and I was sitting on the pointy part, feeling like I failed my own personal challenge. I made it to the top of the mountain and couldn’t even go the extra few feet to see the cave. I was feeling very self critical until I realized, wait a minute, I never made a personal challenge. I’m not a rock climber and I’m not a caver. I’m just here to take document. And I became perfectly content with my decision to not go into the cave. Later, I was vindicated when Stephanie charging down the path saying, “Snake!” Phou was placing the humidity logger in a hole and the head of a python hissed and snapped at his hand which was only a few inches away from Stephanie’s head. I was glad I was not there to witness that.

Our guides started boiling water over a fire they started with a flick of their fingers for our “Mama” brand Lao cupanoodles. The serene jungle quiet was suddenly interrupted by the desperate and gutteral growling of Michael about half a mile away disgorging himself from the restrictive mouth of Tham Loum: “Oh my God this is AWFUL!” The villagers all looked at each other, shook their heads and laughed.

The Stalagmite from Tham Loum

Soon Michael, Mick, and Kathleen came down the hill with the stalagmite dressed like a scarecrow in one of thier caving jumpers that looked like a mechanic’s cover-all. They were so happy to have made it out of the cave without cracking the thing in half. Even though as soon as it came back to the MMAP office, it broke right in two which might make it easier to ship back to UC Irvine anyway.

Tham Loum and Tham Dook

January 16, 2010

Luang Prabang Market

The night before leaving for the trip to the village of Ban Loum Kwai to collect more stalagmite samples and survey Tham Dook, we stopped at the night market to pick of some food for 9 people for two days and two nights. We splurged on 16 baguettes and bought some beautiful breads of varying flavors of banana, lemon, ginger… I wanted the taro root, but that wasn’t too appetizing to the rest of the group, understandably.

At 6am, we scrambled to get all of our equipment and bags ready for the 7 am van pick up at the end of the street by the Mekong. Forty five minutes later a van pulled up and took us to the camp where there was yet more waiting around for the original van that was intended to take us to this remote village. Almost 3 hours after our original departure time, we got in the van and realized why they chose this one to make the journey. It was a 1985 Hyundai behemoth that looked like it may have been driven in and out of the Mekong more than a few times. Mick, Kathleen, Stephanie, Phou, Norseng, Michael and I loaded in. If you could strap a few electrodes to my head and harness the power of my stress level, I could power the entire village of Loum Kwai, if they had any electricity.

The van churned up the rocky single track road that tested the definition of the word “road.” Steep mountains rose up on the other side of the valley that plunged to unknown depths a few feet from the “road.” Everybody else seemed to think this was normal and even fun. We rounded a steep corner and had to stop abruptly for a crowd of about 30 men with machetes, most of whom were wearing military clothing. “Okay,” I think I said, “here we go.” I don’t know what I thought was “going,” but it was something I hadn’t experienced before and had no frame of reference in which to decode the foreign signs in front of us. The men were repairing a small wooden bridge. A man in a red Hawaiian shirt was clearly the leader and he seemed to be content with about 3/4 of the guys serving as audience while only a handful pounded away at thick logs with machetes. I pulled out my video camera, which is about as intimidating as their machetes and started filming them work. Many of them stared in confusion and some laughed and said something which I could only imagine was “why would anyone want a picture of this?” Phou explained that they weren’t in the military. Apparently when a member of a family goes into the military, they often give their some of their fatigues to the rest of the family.


Stephanie, whose bravery and energy rival the BTU’s harnessed from my cowardice and fear, asked to give the machete a try. The men seemed to be pretty impressed.

After Phou and Norseng talked to the leader, he told us they would be able to put the bridge together temporarily for us to pass through in about an hour before they stopped for lunch. Puffs of smoke were coming from the jungle where two men were cooking. The slow pace made us all a little pessimistic about finishing before whatever they were cooking was ready to be eaten. Michael disappeared into the brush with the camera to get a few shots of the guys cooking. He came out a little pale and shifty-eyed. He said he’d asked Phou what they were eating and Phou said bluntly, “Dog.” I was incredulous. It was probably a joke or a miscommunication. Michael showed me the picture he took and there were perfectly formed sausage links in intestine casing like you’d see hanging in a butcher’s window. Whatever they were cooking, they were expertly using every last bit of it. I was still not convinced. I stepped into the woods and the two cooks looked up from their fire pit and smiled. One held up a part of the animal that unmistakably confirmed what it was. I remained in the woods a few moments to snap out of my initial shock. I kept telling myself that it was beyond my understanding and judgement. I went back to the van and paced back and forth for a while. Steph and Kathleen gave disappointed, what-are-you-gonna-do? sort of reaction when I told them Phou was right. The people were obviously poor by any standard and they make use of every single natural resource available. Several times on excursion, our guides disappeared into the woods only to come back with a handful of herbs and a papaya or two. The dogs in this area a little wolfy and wild, and I guess they see them as just another part of the environment. (I’m trying really hard to be a neutral.) It’s confusing though that there were a few dogs lingering around unchained who seemed to be companions of the men, unless they were just hanging out for table scraps. I just hope they don’t become the table scraps.

Incentive to Fix the Bridge

At this point, we were about 6 hours behind schedule. The idea of hiking an hour into the jungle to go to a cave in the dark was more man-versus-nature-adversity than I could handle, and we still had more of that treacherous drive ahead. Phou recommended that Kathleen give them a few thousand kip as incentive to pick up the pace and it worked. Suddenly the men leapt into action and the planks (which were whole trees) were dropped and nailed into place. Phou spoke with the man in the hawaiian shirt to make sure we thanked them sufficiently and he invited us to share their lunch. Phou said he politely declined saying that we had to stick to our schedule. We gratefully barreled over the bridge hearing a few creaks and cracks and plowed through to get momentum up the hill.

Children from Ban Luong Kwai

When we arrived at the village, a crowd of children in varying states of undress swarmed around the van. Some stared with blank faces and some burst into spasms of excitement at the sight of us. I was amazed at how some of them were carrying their younger siblings with the same affection and responsibility of a parent. I snapped a few pictures and knelt down to show them the images in the viewfinder. Some smiled, some obviously had no idea what in the world they were looking at, and some were just confused or indifferent. I was paging through the pictures when suddenly my whole plane of sight was eclipsed by the wispy haired heads of children. I was completely surrounded and overcome with the breath of fifty children and I panicked and let out a nervous laugh and stood up. One girl had tape all over her face which I assume was a kind of make shift band aid. One boy’s shirt was so dirty, only the faint cartoony block letter spelling out “Robot” was legible. And all of them were in dire need of tissues. I wished we had brought clothes and food, not just candy and pahtonk balls.

Boy from Ban Luong Kwai

Kids at Ban Luong Kwai


Phou worked his diplomatic magic and directed us to the Guest House where Kathleen was to negotiate with the head of the village and try to explain why she came all the way from sunny California to crack off a stalagmite and bring it home. We were told to have lunch. This is how things go here. Herded from hut to van to camp in a fog of half-communication, we trust that eventually things will get done. We took off our shoes and socks and entered the bamboo structure, sat down in the middle of a plastic woven rug and realized someone had to go get the food from the van. Michael had to lace his shoes back up and head back down the ladder and grapple with the van’s broken door handle . He came back and said the banana bread was missing and there were only 6 baguettes. We booed in unison. In the morning rush, we left them back in Luang Prabang. So this left us with one baguette per person, some quickly turning jack fruit, nutela, peanut butter, and jam for the next three days.


A scrappy dog accompanied us through the teak tree farm, the toads burping in the swamp, and up an endless incline to Tham Loum. Norseng lit two orange candles and said a prayer before we started to enter the cave. At this point, I had reached saturation point with adventure. I didn’t even look at the shoulder-width entrance before deciding I didn’t want to go into the cave. Michael bravely started to squeeze through and his head was swallowed up by the constricting hole. He then began to yell a detailed description of how horrible it was. His shoulders were pinned and he had to contort his legs to make it through the s-shaped tunnel. His jeremiad echoed through the entire valley. I waited in the mouth of the cave for about an hour petting our little mascot with a stick, remembering to panic every other minute about snakes.


Stephanie and Michael eventually came squirming back out of the hole with just as much fanfare as before. Kathleen, Mick, and the team had gone the whole kilometer and a half to the end. We waited as the sky darkened. Again, I could power our head lamps with my growing anxiety about making that hike back in the pitch black.

The rest of the team finally disgorged from the hole and we headed back to the village in the dark. The only thing that gave me confidence in our safety was the dog weaving in and out of the jungle presumably looking for snakes and the large spear that our guide had sharpened and brought along. I was feeling quite proud of myself for making it through such primitive terrain when we came upon a mother and her 3 year old girl walking toward us in the dark.

Skippy, the Expedition Guard Dog

We were invited to spend the night in a newly built cement structure in the middle of the village. It had open wooden slats through which all the village children peaked in at us as we unravelled our sleeping mattresses. As if we hadn’t already gotten to know each other well enough through our endless discussions of the state of our digestive systems, the five of us were now going to sleep in one big nest of blankets under the one available mosquito net. Phou and Norseng managed to be invited into the homes of the villagers. We decided to open a bottle of Jack Daniels before relinquishing to whatever else the night had planned for us. We toasted to the fact that we were there and even the dog joined in. We gave him some peanut butter which he’d obviously never had before. His tongue slurped in and out of his mouth and left dots of Skippy at the end of his chin whiskers, so we named him Skippy. One of the villagers who accompanied us to the cave, Weiweiria Suria, came in and we offered him a drink. He took a sip and his face contorted at the shock of the taste. We all laughed and he continued to drink it slowly.

Guest House at Ban Luong Kwai

Somehow Phou, MMAP ambassador, made his way into someone’s kitchen and ended up cooking two ducks for us and for some of the villagers. We were herded once again into the Guest House where an electric generator was buzzing and half the village had gathered to watch over-dramatized Thai soap operas with a lot of slapping and quick zooms onto the heavily foundationed faces of spurned girlfriends. We sat around a bamboo table and Phou brought us a basket of sticky rice, plates of duck and a savory broth that he’d miraculously whipped up. He said it would have been better if he had onions. Considering the circumstances, we were happy to eat something other than a chopstick full of nutela for dinner.

We gathered in a circle with the village leaders and Phou translated Kathleen’s description of the paleo climate research project. She wanted to pay two villagers to go into Tham Loum once a month to collect water samples from the dripping stalagmite and take temperature and humidity readings. After about an hour of mumbling in Lao, we finally landed on an agreement. Michael and Mick had long ago unfolded their legs out of indian style and tried to keep their feet from pointing at anyone. In Lao culture it’s extremely rude to point at anyone with your feet as the lowest part of the human body. Conversely the head is the highest part of the body and it’s bad manners to touch anyone on the head. This was an easier gesture to avoid; although, I think Mick plopped his whole hand like a splayed out frog on the head of one of the villagers to point his gaze toward the centipede in Tham An Mah. We’re not sure if he had to do some spiritual realignment after this insult to his noggin.

That night, we all had to disperse into the darkness of the village to find places to brush our teeth and use the facilities. This presented a bit of a difficulty because there were no facilities. Michael navigated his way with the use of his headlamp behind a hut, where he remembered the hog pen was. He turned the lamp off so the million eyes he imagined trained on him wouldn’t witness this event which is customarily executed behind closed doors, or at least a tree of some kind. He was content with the fact that he was successfully accomplishing the task at hand when a tremendous SNORT from the giant hog startled him to a standing position. As he regained his bearings, the night gave up the sound of sniffing dogs which seemed to surround him in all his vulnerability. He clicked his headlamp back on and turned around to assess his damage and maybe cover it up. All he could tell us was that there was no trace of his “damage” anywhere. It was as if he’d never been there. And a wiry dog skittered away into the dark. He came back to the nest and recounted the events with an outraged incredulity that soon deteriorated into delirious laughter.

A Family in Every Pot

January 14, 2010


We made it back to camp after two days of driving a 1985 Hyundai van on steep single-track rock-strewn roads looking down at the tops of banana trees, negotiating with the village elders, hammering stalagmites, sleeping on concrete, crying at the site of someone’s dinner, having a personal moment with a large hog. And then there was the python.

I am so tired right now, this post will have to wait until tomorrow. I actually nodded off with my eyes and mouth half open today precariously seated on a pointy rock at the mouth of Tham Dook.

But first, one very exciting piece of news: When we returned to camp, unfolded ourselves out of the van, and limped over to the camp fire, Souliya said we had to go take a look at the pot. We went into the equipment room where it was still rigged up with rope. As I peaked over the rim, a perfect large skull appeared like something from a Halloween Super Store. Souliya excavated two adult and one baby skulls out of it. Joyce said she’d never seen anything like it. I certainly have never seen anything like it.

Tomorrow is the last day at the camp. I expect a lot more lugging of heavy objects will be involved.

More later.


Guano and Sacrificial Pigs

January 12, 2010

bar_sri2Last night we missed a big party at the camp. They held a ceremony called a Bar Sri in Thai for Mu’s last day on excavation. Everyone sat around an offering of duck, beer, bananas and chips with candles flickering. Everyone tied white string around each others’ wrists and incanted a blessing: “May you live a long life and have great success…” and they also tacked on “and may MMAP find a lot of things” for good measure. The tying of strings symbolized the tying of your soul to your body.

Feature in Trench B

A few days ago, the team had noticed a red deposit amid the gray soil in a circular shape. This potentially indicates a separate feature, that the soil has been excavated in the past. Helen thought it was may be a mound. After much dispute between Joyce, Patricia, and Helen about whether the feature was a mound or a pit, a convex or concave deposit, it turned out to be a pit containing a beautiful burial pot 40 cm down. The matrix or soil around the pit may have patches of guano. Helen sent Patricia a detailed email explaining exactly why it would not be 100% bat excrement. I have never in my life heard the word guano thrown around so cavalierly as if they were talking about something as benign as copy paper. “Oh, is the printer out of bat guano again?”

The Second Pot is Found in Trench B

Helen collected little tins of soil samples that will, I’m told, get “impregnated” with plastic. These sections will be analyzed by a petrographic microscope (meaning they will be viewed as through a lightbox) to determine how the soil formed. This analysis will determine if the soil is ash or guano or something else.

Essentially, you have a pot. Someone, thousands of years ago, buried their dear old uncle in it. Then, something happened to throw all that dirt over the pit. Helen’s analysis will determine what kind of disturbance it was: roots? worms burrowing? hoards of humans trampling over it and throwing their ancient candy wrappers? or just random organic processes? I’m surprised I managed to get through that sentence without mentioning bat guano.

On Sunday, the team managed to remove the large pot they’d uncovered earlier and the lid which Thongsa had confirmed to be the same as those at the Plain of Jars. Unfortunately the pot underneath the lid did not remain in tact and has now become a bag of sherds. They rigged up a basket out of rope and attached it to bamboo poles to lug it down the mountain. Korakot Boonlop, from the Princess Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, who has been with MMAP every season since 2005, our Physical Anthropologist arrived this morning. He is up at Tham An Mah right now excavating the bones found underneath the large pot. He identified a pair of pelvis bones that will be taken down to the lab for analysis.

village_kids_cameraTomorrow, Kathleen, Mick, Stephanie, Michael, Phou and a few others will take a half hour drive to a remote Khmu village called Ban Long Kwai. From there we’ll take a 45 minute hike to Tham Loum, the longest cave in Laos stretching about a kilometer underground. During this trip I have feared for my life and the lives around me more than once a day. I was hoping that statistic would decrease as the trip went on, but I’m told there will be spiders, a single track mountain road, and a very narrow opening to the cave not good for a claustrophobe like me. Yesterday, the team also scouted out the cave of Tham Dook (or bone cave) where they found a substantial amount of animal bones which may indicate some good settlement activity. The bones are quite big like a cow or water buffalo which are kinds of things that don’t just get into caves on their own, so this is a good indication of prehistoric human activity.

The Hmung people are apparently very adamant about respecting the spirits of the caves and Joyce warned us that they might have to sacrifice a pig or other large animal before taking any speleothem samples. Kathleen is really looking forward to putting the purchase of a sacrificial pig on her expense report. Although we both said we would certainly not be able to look if this was the case. This trip is really urging me to the brink of vegetarianism. That might just be my next blog subject.

Elephant Experience

January 11, 2010

Kathleen, Mick, Michael and I sat down to our yogurt (which is all we could safely digest) at cafe Joma and one of us finally admitted that we half regretted signing up to ride elephants on our day off. After trekking up and down mountains and sleeping on cement, all we really wanted to do was languish in a cafe along the Nam Khan and pet dogs. There are countless elephant trekking agencies along the main street. Elizabeth told us about this specific one which really is a legitimate elephant sanctuary. The elephants were being mistreated by local farmers. Now they work for the non-profit sanctuary giving scared tourists rides into the Khan. They are well-fed and at night they are allowed to wander freely around the hillside. Given the level of unregulated adventure we’d had the past week, we assumed we were going to be straddling the necks of angry bull elephants as the charge through prides of lions and slash through the jungle with machetes in the dark. We picked up an older Danish and Italian couple en route. Our guide, Sai, was soft spoken and kind just like everyone we’d met so far. He explained a few things about the elephants and I picked up every other word. “You understand?” he asked. We all nodded and murmurred yes, but we were still utterly confused. By the end of the half hour ride we knew the Dane’s life story, all 70 years. Michael asked Sai if there were any monkeys around and his long response basically amounted to a “no.” Unconvinced that he’d expressed his question plainly enough, Michael gestured some inscrutable sign language and articulated, “From Luang Prabang… where is the nearest monkey?” as if Sai could produce a map with little monkey icons on it. Even Sai laughed at the question, but we really did want to know where the nearest monkey was.

me_elephant2The sanctuary was beautifully outfitted. The bathrooms were like something out of a Ralph Lauren paint chip brochure. They brought us to the open field where a smattering of dogs exposed their bellies to the sun. Sai shoed them away saying that the elephants were scared of them, but they moved over a foot and rolled over again with a perturbed sigh. Sai showed us a sign with the commands for left, right, stop etc. We poured over them trying out all kinds of pneumonic devices to memorize them since we were going to be left in the jungle for hours on our own with these giants. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of writing the commands on our hands. I still have Kwa on my right hand and Sai on my left. The Dane was the first to volunteer to mount the elephant. Sai shouted, “Hop!” and the elephant bent one leg for him to step on to hoist himself up. We all took turns on the elephant, testing out our recollection of the directional terms. We were all a little uneasy but said things like, “That was pretty comfortable” and “After a while I felt pretty stable.” Then it finally became clear that we were going to do the longer trek sitting on baskets strapped to the elephant’s back. We finally admitted our relief.

Elephant Sanctuary in Luang Prabang

We climbed a platform and alighted the baskets. It felt a little touristy and even a bit imperious to have the Lau mahout straddling the neck while we sat on cushions and lumbered through the water into the nearby town. The sound of amplified Lao ballads was coming from the town square decked out with orange and yellow balloons. “Party,” our mahout said. It turned out the villagers were singing karaoke and they were pretty good. Children waved from down below then suddenly decided to scream and shake their hands in excitement at the sight of the elephants.

When we got back to the sanctuary, they politely announced that it was lunchtime for us and for the elephants. We lazed on canopied decks overlooking the Khan and considered getting a cocktail, confident in the fact that this experience was going to be easier than expected. All we knew was that the next part included washing the elephants in the river, a waterfall, and a boat trip. They called us into the field again and there was a commotion over by the slate tables. I looked over and saw nothing but 70-year old Danish flesh. If the Dane hadn’t told us everything yet, he was determined to show us everything. He’d stripped down naked and slipped on a bright yellow Spedo. In Lau culture, this is just not done. Maybe he didn’t read that chapter in the guide book, or maybe he just insisted on exporting a little bit of Denmark over here. The Lau mahouts, Sai included, were amazed. Some pointed and covered their mouths. A few of them yelled to each other in Lau expressions of shock which might have been something like, “Why didn’t he do that in the Ralph Lauren bathroom?”

Elephants Sanctuary in Luang Prabang

And then the next shock came: we had to get back on the elephants necks and take them to the river. My mahout shouted “Song!” and the elephant got down on both front elbows for me to get on. I was making universal noises of fear and my mahout laughed and repeated, “It okay. It okay.” We started for the river and my mahout even stood up on the elephant’s back. We started for the steep hill that lead to the steeper descent into the river and I was sure I was going to roll headlong in front of my elephant. I’m sure I left sweat marks on his wire-haired head. I heard Kathleen say, “I’m glad we didn’t go for that cocktail.” We glided into the greenish water and I convinced myself to relax and enjoy scrubbing the giant gray mass with a bath tub scrub brush behind his pink-spotted ears. Suddenly my mahout yelled a command that sent the elephants head plunging into the water. And I went along with it. I panicked and held on for dear life. I imagined falling off and getting pinned under it’s giant foot. I assumed it was safe but then I saw a big round ball of dung float by like a small island and decided to stay on the elephant. I finally managed to get back on top of the elephant and said, “No no no more!” to my mahout, but he shouted the command again and this time I was fully submerged and entirely lost contact with elephant’s head. I struggled not to swallow any water because I was paranoid after watching all those shows on cable about contracting parasites that procreate in your brain. I somehow managed to yank on the poor elephant’s ear to lug my water-logged self back to a seated position. Everyone applauded. I took an elegant bow to make up for the fleshy flapping struggle they just had to witness.

Elephants in Luang Prabang

We managed to make it back up the eroding hill to the field and we soon headed out in a long tail boat to a natural waterfall. Kathleen said happily, “Hey, that’s a tupha!” I was so happy to have the opportunity to use my new vocabulary. It was beautiful. It’s funny that my first instinct in seeing natural beauty like this is to say it looks man-made, like an amusement park. A Japanese man suddenly whizzed above us hanging upside-down on a zip line yelling something in Japanese. A bunch of Japanese girls posing coquettishly for pictures giggled. One of them had a shirt on that said, “It’s party time. Let’s dress up!” That’s just the innocently celebratory statement that seems to typify my southeast asian experience.

Cute Overload Laos

January 11, 2010

I’m now laughing at the fear the travel medicine practitioner instilled in us about the local fauna. According to them we are to assume that every puppy we pass on the street has rabies. I was emphatically told us not to touch ANY animal no matter how cute and fluffy.
There are dogs and cats everywhere and they seem to be relatively well fed and happy. I’ve also encountered (very loud) geckos and chickens. Here is my Cute Overload Laos tribute to the rabid street puppies and chickens of Luang Prabang.

Puppies at the Camp

Campsite Puppy


Luang Prabang Doggy

Puppy in Luang prabang

Market Dog

White Dog in Luang Prabang

Ferocious Guard Dog

Tham An Mah

January 11, 2010

Tham An Mah

On Saturday, I was finally able to interview Joyce at Tham An Mah. She said the reason why they picked this site was because it would make a comfortable place to live. She described it almost like a real estate listing: roomy, well-sheltered, good living and cooking space… I imagined a hunter-gatherer couple discussing if they wanted to install tongue and groove hardwood flooring.


They have finished digging the one by one. Two giant boulders from “rock fall” from the opening of the cave have made digging any further almost impossible. I thought this meant that the one by one might have been a futile waste of digging time, but it turns out the rock fall was actually a happy if not violent event. Joyce explained that the cave basically has Iron Age deposits over what she hopes is a Hobinian deposit. The rock fall near the entrance of the cave as seen in the one by one gives a “nice” stratographic break between the two periods. She said it’s often hard to find undisturbed layers from that time period. An archaeobotanist will be dating the seed they found in the one by one to determine if it is a Holbinian (hunter gatherer) deposit underneath the Iron Age deposit.

The Big Pot in Trench B

Getting the big pot out of the one by two will be a tricky feat. The lid seems to be loose and then there’s the question of whether you empty the contents at the site or remove the entire pot whole and excavate it in the lab. I imagine this is the sort of thing that makes Joyce good at what she does – excavation seems to require a whole lot of planning offset by a whole lot of flexibility.

We were admiring the almost fully uncovered pot and Michael commented that it was a lucky spot to have dug the trench. Joyce agreed, but also said, “For all we know were standing on bunch of pots and bodies.”