Sunday, May 31, 2009

Caving by Candlelight

Inside the caveIt took the ten of us about fifteen minutes to get from where we had landed the longboat, across some rice fields, up slippery rocks to the small entrance of the cave marked only by candle wax a few feet away. Nobody told me we would be praying, so when the group of college students and their professor knelt down in the mud, it was a split second before the one who had invited me yanked me by down by my elbow to join them. After the prayer, several students took candles and one of them turned to me and said, haltingly, “Takes shoes off. It is alive.”

Communism doesn't like religion, but the Lao communist regime realized it just couldn't eradicate Buddhism. I'd heard several ancient religious practices and even some forms of folk magic were still outlawed but widely practiced in Laos, if somewhat quietly. All I'd been told about the excursion up to this point was that the class was going to a cave before going back to Luang Prabang, and would I like to come. But after the prayer, the candles, and this statement, I was starting to wonder if I'd stumbled across a clandestine spiritual ceremony.

I hadn't. The guy's English wasn't very good; when he said 'alive', I thought I caught a 'd' at the end, so I asked him to repeat. “Alived?” he said, “You will alived?” and he made a sliding motion with his hands. “Slide?” I asked. “Yes, aslide!” he said. So that's how I got from thinking I was taking off my shoes off to enter a living holy place to realizing I was told to take my shoes off to get a better footing on slippery rocks. Alive, alived, aslide, slidey, slippery. I wonder how many lost in translation moments like that I've missed.

I thought the candles might still have some spiritual significance, but it turns out they were just using them to mark the path on the way back so as not to get lost. Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, pyro style. Also about as effective, given they'd mostly burned out by the time we came back to the entrance. But the prayer before entering... I still didn't have an explanation for that. And I didn't even get a guess until later.

This all started when I was swinging in a hammock above the mud-colored Nam Khan river overlooking the mountains. The hammock was set up in front of the little bungalow I'd rented out in the tiny town of Muong Ngoi, with a population might have broken three digits and electricity from generators between 6:30pm and 10:30pm. I'd just come back from a walk with the jungle on one side of the muddy path and rice fields and water buffalo on the other. I forget if I was reading or writing in the hammock when a 20-year-old Lao guy shyly walked up my stairs and asked in broken English if he was disturbing me. He asked for help with a few English words, and then we got to talking. After he told me about the usual ages for people to get married in Laos (18-25 in towns, 13 or a bit older in the country, often with kids of their own by the age of 15!) he invited me first to dinner with him, his class, their professor (who looked young enough to be part of the class himself), and their tour guide, and then to share a ride with them back to Luang Prabang the next day, with a visit to a local cave on the way.

The dinner was served in the bungalow place's attached restaurant, Nicksa's (don't worry Firefly fans, no Russian accents or torture chambers involved), and it was served family style, with a gigantic tub of sticky rice everyone wolfed down by the fistful (one told me very proudly that everything in Laos is eaten with sticky rice), several plates of small whole fish that were bitten off just above the tail, heads and all, and then some thin spicy omelets and stir-fried veggies. Didn't have a thing on the amazing pumpkin curry I discovered there earlier, but eating with the class was a lot of fun. I got to try some of the infamous Lao Lao-- rice whiskey, surprisingly smooth, given all the horror stories. Also tried some Beerlao, didn't like it much, and used a guitar somebody handed me as an excuse to fend off an increasingly insistent tour guide who really wanted someone to get drunk with him (“I play even worse when drunk, trust me”).

Then came a cute hunt for a bar. Have you ever seen a bunch of city kids go out looking for nightlife in a country town with only one 50 yard long street and no power after 10:30pm? That mission goes exactly how you'd expect it to. The class was mostly girls and right before giving up, they all got scared back into their bungalows by a light evening drizzle. I ended up playing cards and munching on mangosteens by candle light with a couple Israeli backpackers and a zookeeper from the San Diego Wild Animal Park on vacation, but that's another story.

Anyway, the next day I was with the class in the cave, checking it all out by the light of candles we were carrying and placing as we went. Also by the light of several digital cameras' flashbulbs that seemed to go off every few seconds. As we grabbed stalagmites and a couple stalactites we could reach, I had a flashback to a stern warning I got in New Zealand caves about not touching any of the rocks-- they could break and you'd be destroying something that took thousands of years to make. Whoops.

There were no glow worms around here, but we still saw some really strange and cool natural rock formations after crawling through tiny hidden tunnels and skirting around big underground pools. There were a few bruises, and I'm pretty sure I learned by example how to swear a lot in Lao. None of them spoke very much English, so I didn't get much background information, or even the name of the hidden cave. But it was worth it just to experience caving by the light of candles.

That was this morning. This evening, after a boat ride, a bus ride, saying goodbye to all of them, checking back into my old room in Luang Prabang, and going back to one of the market vegetarian buffets, I met a theme park engineer from Ottawa with a heavily bandaged hand. He told me he'd fallen and sliced his hand open on a sharp rock and gotten five stitches. I asked for the story. It happened near Nang Kieuw, a bigger town not far from Muong Ngoi. “It was just a couple days ago,” he said, “you know all those caves around there where the people used to hide back when the US was bombing the place?”

Of course. The prayer outside the cave. I don't know for certain, but there's a good bet that we'd been paying respects to those who had either died during the semi-secret US bombing raids during the Vietnam war, or those who had survived, thanks to the cave. The areas further east of here in particular are filled with bomb craters, and even worse, bombs and mines that haven't exploded. They call it “unexploded ordinance” or UXO. It claims lives every year, and at the current cleanup rate, they'll still be removing it for about a century from now.

As a young American, it's a weird experience traveling around a place that you start to recognize from slightly faded war photos and episodes of M*A*S*H. With the gray skies of the rainy season, the muddy water, and the general lack of anything red or orange in the natural scenery, the whole place looks like a living faded photograph. It must be even weirder for those back home reading about me going to all these places so many Americans killed and died in so publicly not all that long ago. But even after all that destruction, some of it still ongoing through the UXO accidents, I've yet to hear a single bad word about Americans here. It's early yet, but I even met one older Lao man with a baseball cap that said USA in big letters.

I've been lots of places where the American government has done terrible things to the local people. But I've never before been somewhere where a lot of teen and twenty-something American guys were killing and dying, drafted against their will. Guys not that much different from me-- just born a few decades earlier. These next couple weeks might be a little intense.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Yes it is odd to read and hear names that those of us of that generation associate with war news....and not war fought by someone else, but because of the draft... by people we knew. Prayer seems like a good idea anytime, but perhaps it was for protection against land mines? Land mines are a serious problem in SE Asia, Africa and I suspect in many other places. Glad you had a good experience and no problem with those. Great pictures. Anonymom.

  2. It's...strange to think of traveling somewhere the US has fought as invaders. Although I guess technically Mexico counts, but it was so long ago.

    "I ended up playing cards and munching on mangosteens by candle light with a couple Israeli backpackers and a zookeeper from the San Diego Wild Animal Park on vacation, but that's another story." I want this story!

    The caves sound cool - and doubly so when you realize they saved lives.

  3. Anonymom- Was it you that said my kids would be tourists in Baghdad? Somebody said that recently. I think the draft still makes this a little different... though not much.

    Count C- Technically Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras count too, and you could make an argument for Chile as well. Look up William Walker sometime, one our more colorful crazies. Also some of the Cold war activites in Latin America... less amusing.

    The story? Well, the American from the SD wild animal park I met at a restaurant in town for lunch. He was traveling there to do some investigating for a friend of his who'd been investing in an organization helping orangutans, but who hadn't seen the operation on the ground yet. I told him where I was staying before we split. The Israeli travelers came into the restaurant I was eating dinner in and were clearly intrigued by seeing a white guy eating dinner with a dozen Lao guys and girls. After they had a couple beers, one plucked the courage and asked me for the story. The tour guide and I invited him and his friend to join us, but they declined, though they asked if any of us wanted to hang out after dinner. I ran into the three of them later after the bar-hunt farce, while the Lao girls in the class were running away from the drizzle squealing, and they offered to play cards. I chatted with them a bit, then we all went to the guesthouse, picking up a couple candles on the way since we knew the electricity was going to cut out in half an hour. We played cards, chased off a leech that appeared in their room out of nowhere,and passed around a couple mangosteens, some peanuts, and a tasty concoction we improvised using bananas and peanut-butter oreos (oreos are all over Laos for some reason). We played an Israeli version of Crazy eights and then some whist before I excused myself, saying I had to get up early the next morning for some caving.