Ten Million Elephants

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…My destination was the ancient Laotian city of Luang Prabang, and short of riding down on another human being like a khaki-clad British imperialist squinting his rabbit-like features, his “little triangle of fore-teeth visible between the lips”, there were three different paths I might take to this place that lay over the world’s edge: bus, airplane, or boat. The first two options weren’t exactly adventurous. The third suggested the possibility of re-enacting Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, Huckleberry Finn, and Heart of Darkness, all at once, while drifting beneath the lanky green starfish leaves of innumerable palm trees. Which one do you think I chose?

To get to the distant Huay Xai pier, I decided to take a tuktuk, which, if you don’t know, is a motorcycle-propelled carriage of vibrantly-painted steel, sometimes flashing with wreathes of Christmas lights. The name comes from the engine’s sound, which could be rendered as put-put in English, and this makes the tuktuk aliving, breathing onomatopoeia, an expression of Thai in sheet metal, interesting even if its brown-black breath permeates Southeast Asia to the extent that it smelt like I was standing behind a gunning eighteen-wheeler even as I sat in a cool blue quiet Lao morning, munching a pineapple pancake and a soft warm French baguette. A stray shaggy white-haired mutt sprawled in the dirt, missing a front leg and scratching at the fleas on its raw pink belly while panting in anticipation of the coming afternoon swelter.

A sudden compulsion seized me, upon noticing this dog, to get a haircut. By then I resembled Victor of Aveyron running the forests on all fours with a beard-mane sprouting from my head and meeting down beneath my pelvis—I needed a haircut, in other words—and luckily there was a barbershop just next door, with rectangular gaps serving as windows in the cement block walls, through which the Lao barbers and customers stared as I approached. Their bodies froze so that nothing moved except snipped black hair drifting through the morning sun, while the only sound was the panting dog and the silver dribbling from the wrinkles of his purple lips.

I asked for a haircut with two hesitant fingers miming scissors sliding through my woolly locks, and the Laotian reply was instant flight. They took off. Disappeared. All of them. Customers and employees, all in cahoots. Think of the dustbunnies in My Neighbor Totoro rushing into the alcoves. Think of Deep Play: Notes On The Balinese Cockfight, by Clifford Geertz.

This excerpt comes from Kingdoms in the Sun, an ebook which costs less than a single AA battery.