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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.”

Day Seven

January 9, 2010

The next morning at breakfast, we were talking with Joyce and the team about the american phenomenon of summer camp. Michael recounted his experience at “Mount Misery” and Joyce asked how this experience at the excavation camp compared. He said he was having some difficulty, digestion-wise, and suddenly his face iced over and his hand dropped to his stomach. He backed his chair out from under the table and said, “Excuse me…” The timing of his response got a loud collective laugh from the table, all of whom are well acquainted with digestive issues of all kinds and drop the “d” word without any hint of shame. Michael spent the rest of the day alternating between the hut and the bathroom which was not the nicest place in which to be sick.

Norseng Draws the Buddha Offerings Found in Tham Kok Muh

The film crew arrived before noon. The crew quickly began filming Norseng and Mu drawing the flakes and the Buddha offerings found in the caves. Phou also showed them the ins and outs of his GPS recording process. They were enwrapped. Although Phou could recite the Luang Prabang phone book and I would still hang on every syllable. They gathered with their cameras and recording devices around the women from the village washing the finds in the field area on the tarp right in font of the bathroom. Michael’s digestive system picked this inopportune moment to inspire him to go to that very spot. He emerged from the hut like a creature from the abyss, white as a sheet, his hair still formed to the shape of his make-shift pillow of bundled sweat shirts. He froze as he downloaded the crowd of reporters. The giant video camera swung around to witness the pale giant american standing in his pink linen pants before them. Half delirious and half embarrassed, he pretended to have other business to attend to and started slowly in the opposite direction from the bathroom. The reporters returned to the matter at hand and Michael eventually wound his way to the bathroom. Hopefully they had high quality directional microphones that didn’t pick up ambient noise. Otherwise the network news watching population of Laos is in for a auditory treat.

Archaeology Still Life

Stephanie gave Michael some rehydration pills and we wondered why the travel medicine people hadn’t warned us to bring these along when they seemed to embellish all the other potential horrors we’d encounter. Several of the Lau guys paraded past Michael’s room throughout the day, rubbed their stomachs, nodded and said, “Too much Beer Lao…” Michael tried to explain that it was a crippling bout of food poisoning, not a hangover: “No no, I drink all the time. No hangover….” he tried to absolve himself, but only confirmed their conclusion that he had a “mau khan.”

Elizabeth demonstrating GIS

Today, the Director General of the Department of Heritage in Laos, Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy visited MMAP. Emil Robles a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology from the University of the Philippines, also arrived to assist in mapping and GIS, or as he put it: “Make pretty maps and spatial analysis.” Emil and Stephanie showed Dr. Sayavongkhamdy how the GIS process works.

Reporters at Camp

The film crew returned from their trek up to Tham An Mah a little winded and flushed. I’m not sure they were warned they’d have to drag their equipment up such a steep incline. One of the reporters was giving his seated friend a quick massage and furtively stuck a post-it note with a cartoon drawing of a guy playing the guitar on it. It was amazing to me how a media team could be so professional and so playful at the same time.

Michael was helping the team enter bags into the database. Amid random measures of the tinny pop music coming from Pong’s laptop and the upwelling of scuffling ducks from the nearby farm, Michael’s attempt to remember and pronounce the words in Lau provided endless entertainment. He picked up a bag of bones. “DOO!” They all laughed and annunciated properly.

It will be pretty obvious by the end of this trip that my Lau vocabulary came from an archaeological dig:

shell – hoy
bone – dook
crab – pooooo (not to be confused with mountain which is a more abrupt “poo”
charcoal – tahn
seed – kah pah root
monkey – ling
rock – hin

More functional words I’ve managed to glean are:
drink – doom
good – sep
yes – jao
no – bhoh
stupid – gnoh
good morning – sah bai dee bahn sao

Another linguistic point of confusion: “Boh” at the end of a phrase indicates that it is a question. This is not to be confused with “boh” at the end of a phrase which would be a negative, so it’s quite easy to confuse “Is the buffalo hide I cooked for you good?” or “Sep boh?” with “No, it is not good.” “Boh sep.” Not a mistake I hope to make.

Day Six

January 9, 2010

Is that a Duck in the Bag?

While a group of us were waiting for the rest of the team to muster, a loud squawk came from a bag piled against the wall amid other bags of rice and oranges. We all started and stared. “Did that bag just move?” Kathleen asked. Just then the bag seemed to inflate and a black wing shot out of the opening along with another angry honk. “Oh no, did a duck get caught in that bag?” Michael asked. We all moved toward it hesitantly. Another loud honk sent us all backward. “Should we help it out?” someone asked. Elizabeth, who was setting up the computer stations, witnessed our confusion and told us that the duck was not, in fact stuck, and she, in fact saw the cook put the duck in the bag very much on purpose. We all frowned and issued sounds of sympathy. “Poor duck, from someone. “Well, I guess that’s what you do with ducks,” from someone else. We all laughed at the prospect of setting the villagers’ dinner free.

Michael and I trekked up to “Pig Stye” Cave again with Kathleen, Mick, Stephanie, Pough, Norseng and Mr. Khamput, Deputy Head of the Village, to retrieve one of the stalagmites and collect samples of the Buddha statues they had found. I was feeling optimistic about the harrowing verticality of the hike until I felt the first drop of rain that signaled a downpour turning the path into a mudslide. This might be fun if there weren’t jagged rocks jutting out every few feet. I thought of my couch at home and how I should be on it, wrapped in a blanket watching cable tv eating a burrito. Kathleen said encouragingly, “Hey, how often do get an adventure like this?” “We did this yesterday,” I whined. Michael encouraged me from behind. Quite literally, he continuously head butted me from below to move me along. The mud made it impossible to get any traction. And again, the guide from the village skittered ahead on his trusty flip flops.

The Trees Don't Help Us Get Up the HillThe trees didn’t help us at all in our ascent because I discovered as I groped blindly from behind my helmet which had slipped over half my face, that they were spiked with giant thorns.

We made our damp descent into the mouth of the cave. Kathleen and Mick unpacked a bunch of colorful caving gear. Stephanie, Pough, Norseng and Mr. Khamput were the only intrepid explorers among us who could contort comfortably through the small hole that lead to the “meandering galleries” below.

Michael, Mick, Kathleen and I waited while the four of them found the stalagmite the team pointed out and began hammering at the base. Don’t let anyone tell you speleologists make for boring conversation. I could barely keep up with the vocabulary flying around. Words like tupha and karst. I asked Kathleen what a tupha was and she said it was a kind of “trevertine.” I hope I will get the opportunity to drop this word into conversation at some point.
Kathleen Johnson and Michael Griffiths Survey Pig Sty Cave

Stephanie, or at least a portion of her face and headlamp, reappeared in the hole. She said Norseng and Mr. Khamput had stopped to pray before the Buddha figurines before taking them. She showed Kathleen the picture of the stalagmite to make sure it was the correct one.

Buddha Statues in Pig Sty Cave

Michael was joking about setting up a picnic table with wine and cheese while they were down there working away when we heard a heavy rustling in the leaves above the cave. They all said they’d hoped to see tigers and snakes. I would be happy with a monkey sighting, preferably a small gibbon, but I am perfectly happy avoiding encounters with fanged fauna.

The group emerged from the hole carrying bags of Buddhas and three pieces of stalagmite. We packed it up and carted it back down the treacherous mudslide with the instructions that if we should fall, save the sample first. I’m pretty sure this was a joke, but given the amount of effort that went into collecting the sample, I was more concerned about cracking the calcium carbonate block in my backpack than my own head.

We returned to the Conference Center and the cook had prepared a beautiful lunch of fried eggs in a tangy fish sauce, fried water buffalo rind (which are quite good if you eat them next to a field of water buffalo) and the ubiquitous sticky rice in a basket. I have gotten so used to the custom of grabbing up a big sticky chunk of rice with my bare hand and using it as both plate and fork.

Somehow we mustered the energy to hike back up the other side of the mountain to Tham An Mah. We were laughing deliriously at how tired we were. I had to pick my legs up to move them up to the next rock.

The team had managed to map out the extensions of the one by two. No digging yet. But Helen was elated to have found another pot in the opposite end of the trench. Kathleen and Mick wanted to take a look at the stalagmite they wanted to lug down he hill and rig up a rope system to get it off it’s base. The four of us climbed into the cubby hole straddling the ledges on either side of the opening looking down at two separate holes filled with dried leaves and sticks and my imagination filled them with all manner of viper. Kathleen unraveled a hot pink rope ladder. And hoisted herself up on the platform next to the stalagmite. Her eyes widened with whatever quality she witnessed that made it “a great sample!” I love how people like Kathleen can get so excited about something so specific and basic as a limestone deposit.

Critters in Tham An Mah

At the end of her visual scan, she jumped. I think she might have even held on to her stalagmite friend for comfort. “There’s a huge centipede over there.” I couldn’t see it from my vantage point, but I imagined it couldn’t be anywhere near as gruesome as a milipede. Why would a hundred legs be worse than a thousand legs? Mick hopped up on the ledge and craned his neck to get a gander and gasped. He snapped a picture and the camera came back to me with a horrifying image of entomology at its best or worst depending on what side your on. “It’s beautiful,” Kathleen lilted. Not the adjective I would have chosen, especially if it was only a yard away from me on a ledge with a rocky snake pit below. Unphased, she continued strapping and buckling and doing what she knows and loves best. Fortunately all we had to lug back down the mountain this time were soil samples.

Jaw and Teeth Among the Findings

By now the team has gathered, cleaned and labeled quite an impressive cache of findings. The electric blue tarp laid out in the clearing is scattered with mounds of bone, flakes, shell, etc. At the end of the day, the tarp flits away somewhere and the team plays a game called Gha-TOH with a woven bamboo ball similar to hacky sack. Last night with the help of the plastic string used for the excavation, they modified the game into a kind of volley ball. Michael was amazed that “all they need is some bamboo and string and they are happy.”

We slept at the camp site last night for the first time. We were actually looking forward to getting away from the urban trappings of Luang Prabang. Imagine that. The ghosts of pinhole lights coming through the woven bamboo walls rippled on the mosquito net. Some of the Lau guys were still singing to Mou’s guitar around the campfire. I could hear the syrupy trebble songs from a distant radio and the murmuring voices from the guys in the adjoining hut. A momentary landscape of sound and light I could never recreate anywhere else.

Day Five Digging at Tham An Mah

January 7, 2010

The team has dug the one by two down to about a meter revealing a beautiful pot completely in tact. Joyce deliberated with BeunHoung about digging a square meter around the pot to get the whole thing out. This of course means more sifting. She said it was most likely a burial pot from the Iron Age, anywhere from 500 BCE to 500 CE. She has found many of these with the skeletons of children inside.

The Lid from the Plain of Jars in Trench B

Phou was showing me a large molar they had found sifting when I heard a commotion from the group around the one by two. Joyce and Helen were intently staring into the trench and motioned for me to come over to film. A crescent of white stone was peaking out of the corner of the trench. Helen said, “This is really exciting.” It looked kid of unassuming to me, just a white cookie. “Very exciting,” said Phou. Phou and Nor Sin work for a government organization that oversees the Plain of Jars, a series of sites in Xieng Khouang strewn with large rock urns. They recognized the lid immediately as something similar to those found in the Plain of Jars.

So the team will now have to expand the trench another meter in the opposite direction to unearth this feature.

While they were digging and sifting, Michael and I accompanied two Speleologists who are collecting core samples from stalagmites in the area for paleoclimatic change. They were hiking to a cave called Tham Kok Muh which translates as “pig sty cave.”

Expedition to Pig Sty Cave

The trek was (what felt like) a 70 degree angle hike up a loose dirt hill. At one point I was grabbing onto nothing but a root and my toe on a small rock. I had to pull a jedi mind trick to keep myself from thinking about the potential snakes and centipedes crawling around. Our guide from the village, however seemed to saunter up the path like a wind up toy. And he had flip flops on. Phou kept asking me in Lau if I was very very tired. “Moo-ai lai lai?” “No!” I declared bravely, not before tripping over a root and falling flat on backback. Confident that my embarrassing squeal scared away any unwanted wildlife in a mile radius, on we went.

The cave was nothing near a pig sty. The entrance was a deep hole that lead to one entrance way choked by a hole about a foot and a half wide. Phou, with his slight frame, was the only one who could fit. Kathleen gave him a CO2 meter because the caves around here have infamously bad air. He wriggled into the hole. I could barely look and his head disappeared behind the beige undulating columns.

Every so often Michael would yell monkey noises down into the hole to make sure he was still there, and conscious. We’d hear a faint high pitched animal noise in response.

Finally he came out with pictures of beautiful formations that the team hopes to drill and collect. But they will have to ask permission from the local village first.

Phou Searches for a GPS Reading in Pig Sty Cave

Phou then set off on his mission to enter the information about the site into his yellow GIS gizmo. It wasn’t picking up the satellite GPS signal, so he was scaling the walls of the exterior walls of the cave like spiderman leaping from one jagged outcropping to another. FInally he got a signal, and did a double fist pump and danced around in a circle like Rocky Balboa.

In the midst of our descent, I had to reserve all my attention and brain power to hand-eye coordination, but Phou of course was even making side-journeys into the brush. He emerged from behind a ganglea of vines with a knobby stick and said, “You eat it!” I asked what it was and he said that the Chinese believe it makes you live 100,000 years. I said I didn’t want to live that long. I would get “moo-ai lai lai” (very very tired.) He explained that it’s called bitter mountain vine and is used like penicillin. Chinese farmers slice bits of it into the drinking water for chickens when one gets sick. I said I wasn’t a sick chicken but I stuck my tongue out to taste whitish sap that exuded from the fiberous break he made in the vine. I recoiled at the taste. I braced myself for other more psychedelic symptoms, but the awful taste was the only thing I consciously experienced. He tapped me on the head with the vine like a magic wand and said I would live to be 100,000 years old.

We are spending two nights at the camp. I’m told the bathing water has leeches in it. Not part of my usual toilette, so I will pass on the bathing. Today we find out about what they’ve discovered about the lid and the burial jar!

Mount Phousi

January 5, 2010

Oreo Offering
Yes, that is an Oreo cookie.

While sight seeing around Luang Prabang, we had to start with the climb up Mount Phousi. The route is peppered with marigolds and sticky rice offerings. Little orange candles also pop up in unexpected spots. Tourists were buzzing around the Wat snapping photos of other tourists smiling in front of other tourists smiling for other photos. The view of the town stretching out like spokes from the green hill was like a drawing in a children’s book. Drifting smoke, motorbikes purring all over the streets obscured by lush pinks and greens.

I entered a small room where a girl was shaking a jar of incense sticks like a metronome in front of a shrine to Buddha. The scene was meditative and backlit by the opposite domed entrance way. I stood in the threshold wondering if I was even allowed in when a tourist shoved me a little to the side bent down next to me and snapped a picture. With flash.

I finally took my shoes off and went inside and absorbed the colors and suddenly felt something plop onto my head with an organic sort of thud. I had time enough to exclaim to the German woman next to me, “Something just plopped on my head,” before I actually felt around up there to find a gecko. I let out a staccato gasp and it leapt to the floor and just sat there in a curly que.

At the Foot of the Stairs
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we ended up in an alleyway with the backs of houses butting up against a monastery with the flowing orange laundry of the novices. A little girls was on the third to last step playing with a little green propeller stuck to a straw. She rolled it between her hands and it took off into the air. We clapped and she gestured for me to pick it up and give it a whirl. I did so and again we all clapped. I asked to take her picture and she nodded. I read in the guide book that you save your prayer hand bow for adults but I gave her one anyway because she was so precious. She did so in return. I was probably terribly confusing to her.