First Day in Luang Prabang

January 3, 2010

I was terrified to see that our airplane actually had propellers, but the flight was surprisingly steady. The airport was right out of Fantasy Island. Even the customs and visa staff were smiling ear to ear. We met Elizabeth from the MMAP team and two other researchers and took a van into town. The drive was surreal. We were suctioned to the windows in disbelief that the views we were seeing were not on a tv screen. Colorful tuk tuks sweeping around hoards of buzzing motorbikes, women in silk skirts selling tamarind pods that look oddly scatological when heaped in a pile on a truck bed, and happy children running and giggling for no apparent reason.

The guest house where we are staying is like a spa resort. Michael was quick to point out that there was no “J-trap” in the plumbing under the sink that accounted for the swampy smell. He has a thing for waste removal systems in any context or country.

After touring the night market and resisting the urge to purchase an armful of slippers embroidered with technicolor elephants, the four of us had dinner for what amounted to $20 at a beautifully bambooed and orange-lit outdoor restaurant on the main street.

The next morning we headed out to the site, Tham An Mah. The views of colossal bamboo and palm trees distracted us from the fact that we were being throttled around the back of the truck bed and we probably consumed a few kilos of dust each.

We met the rest of the MMAP team at what has been described as a Community Center for the small nearby village at the foot of the mountain where the cave site is. I can’t imagine their community council meetings are anything like the vapid affairs I’ve been to in East Bradford township with people complaining about dog leavings in the playground.

We took a very hot hike up the side of the mountain to the cave. I had to struggle to look at the view with my own eyes rather than through the lens of my cameras. I was really there. It was tangible and looming. The smell of smoke and the raucous strangled din of roosters. And the leeches. Oh the leeches. One of the Lau team members stopped and pointed to his shoes and said something like, “Liche, liche.” Elizabeth held up a knife and came toward me to show me the vile parasite craning its invertibrate horror at me. I too had one slinking up my boot. On we went. The make shift bamboo stairs were not constructed with a 6 foot 4 american man in mind, but Michael made it to the top okay loaded down like a pack mule. The gray maw of the cave yawned above us as we scaled to the top of the mountain.

The team immediately began setting up with mechanical alacrity. Joyce was delegating directions in English and Lao. They set up a “one by two” and a “two by two” near the mouth of the cave after much discussion. This means that they stake out a one meter by two meter (metric metric!) trenches. We sifted the “disturbed soil” for shell, bone, plant material and anything important. I plan to ask why bits of charcoal are important because this tedious task what not the sexy archaeological stuff that movies are made of. You never see Robert Downey Junior kneeling in six inches of dirt with a face mask and a head lamp for hours on end.