Part 1: The Journey

Ban Khoun Kham, Laos, 2009

The story of Tham Kong Lo Cave comes in two parts. We begin with the journey from the sleepy town of Ban Khoun Kham.

I sit on the terrace of my guesthouse. A bus was supposed to pass by as it left town at 10:00, but I fear I am waiting for a bus that isn’t coming.

“Lao time” looks more like a sluggish passing of the hour; no one looks at a watch, rather the position of the sun. The temperature of the day rises and I grow impatient. I politely ask the receptionist again, “are you sure the bus is coming?” He picks up his cell phone. I go back to the table and sit. I look at my watch again. I should probably throw it away. It is entirely useless.

Tired of pacing and questions, the receptionist offers to take me into town. “You will be more comfortable, perhaps, leaving with the bus directly?”

The heart of every town is its market. Villagers stroll slowly as they barter, buy and sell their goods. When I arrive though the sun is high enough that the heat begins to drive most people home.

I am left at the bus, which to my great surprise is not a bus. I am standing at a pick-up truck with a cover fashioned over the bed to give shade to passengers sitting on wooden benches. The receptionist talks to the driver and I am told to take a seat. The benches are all occupied, but a young woman moves to the floor to give me her seat. I am told the driver is waiting for enough passengers to fill the entire bus before he will leave.

More passengers arrive and their goods are loaded; larger items are attached to the roof. There are five people on each of the two benches, six more sitting on the floor between us amidst shopping bags. Two young men hang off the back.

My impatience only begins to subside when at noon we start circling the market; a way to announce our departure and look for any other passengers to take on our way. The driver’s wife uses the time to finish her own shopping, directing her husband when and where to stop, throwing her bags in the front seat.

The high sun beats down on the market, and there are few people left. Sellers pick through their fresh produce, wilting under the heat. Tables outside are covered in blood from butchered meat. The few scraps remaining are feasts for the flies now.

On a second pass of the meat stand the driver’s wife yells out instructions. We come to a stop. She looks over scraps of flesh, lifting each one between pinched fingers. With each gesture a large black cloud of flies swarmed up in the air, then back down again when their feast is returned to its place. As the driver’s wife talks with the butcher, her eyes dart towards the left. I strained my head around the side of the truck to see.

Laying on the ground, in a pool of its own blood is the head of a buffalo who was sacrificed that morning to nourish the village. The exchange looks like a casual conversation. It is only when the driver’s wife moves away from the scraps of meat and closer to the head that I realize the negotiated price is nearly set.

The space was already tight so where would they put the head? My imagination danced around images of an hour-long ride with a bull’s head sitting between my legs. The butcher, driver, and the driver’s wife all take a tarp and wrap the head carefully. Then to my relief, they strapped it to the back of the bus.

We started our journey out of town and down dirt roads to deliver passengers and goods to their homes. As clouds of dust swirled behind us and the bus jostles through potholes, I think of the head. Its final destination will surely be a large pot of water, boiled for the meat and the soup.

The high sun was beginning its descent towards the opposite horizon. I look at my watch. It is nearly 3:00 when I arrive at the entrance to Tham Kong Lo Cave.

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