Dispatch One

Bien Dien Phu to Muang Xon

 

 

Raquez’s first dispatch from inside Laos was preceded by several that described his voyage from Hanoi by train to Lao Cai, then overland to Lai Chau before heading south to Bien Dien Phu in modern Vietnam.  From there, he traveled overland into Laos, heading toward the provincial capital Muang Xon, located in modern Hua Phan Province at the confluence of the Nam Xieng and Nam Et rivers.

***

Oh, you dyspeptic types, bilious with no appetite, do you wish that your affliction would disappear as if touched by a fairy’s wand? Listen to the remedy.

First of all, resolve to go into the mountains and to strike up an acquaintance with the clouds. Then arrange for a friendly man by the name of Loisy, the main provider of meat to the Tonkin colony, to agree to take as an apprentice your cook for the journey. Then treat yourself to four or five hours on horseback along goat paths, and sit down to dinner at an altitude of about 1,500 meters.

I guarantee that the cold pies of your master chef will surpass all masterpieces by Birot, Durand, Foyot, Joseph, Voisin, even Mr. Mackay’s cook himself.

So, this arduous leg of the journey is finally over, with some fatigue but without accident.

To say that the road between Muang Leo and Muang Tai can be negotiated by motor-cars would undoubtedly be going too far, but everywhere, a horse can put down a hoof or even two on a path up a mountainside or often descend down almost sheer drops. This is good enough for these kindly beasts and their rider as long as he trusts them.

Good Lord! This path is fit for savages and unmarked on any map for the very good reason that no white man has ever passed this way. At times, goose pimples cover my skin when the path, ravaged by torrents, dips toward the precipice; I even emit an involuntary shriek when my horse misses a step, but the intelligent animal is not one to panic. He keeps his composure, transmits it to his rider, and ends up inspiring in him total, blind, absolute trust.

From 820 meters at the start, we need to reach the Phou Houei Lan pass to cover half the leg, where the altimeter reads 1,480 meters. This is where a stone set between two trees marks the border between Tonkin and Laos.

The pass is behind us. We are now in this pleasant land. Vive le Laos!

Ducks echo our cry! We are at Ban Sio Phai, a Red Miao village, whose inhabitants open their eyes wide when they see us dismounting. This is the very first time these savages have seen a white face, but they show no sign of fear.

A broad smile here, a small coin there to a baby nestled in its mother’s arms, a friendly pat on an urchin’s cheek, and trust is established. These simple people, living close to nature, are all decent folk, and nothing is easier than living on friendly terms with them.

The other night, the kindly Ho people of the Ta Phin plateau insisted on taking their horses out of their houses to accommodate ours, and they kept large fires burning all night so the beasts would not suffer from the cold. Today, the Miao of Phou Houei Lan bustle about our animals with gifts of maize and fresh water.

The entire village gathers as the dinner table is being set: men, women, children. Every item is a cause for astonishment: our dress, seats, table, crockery, food; but the clear winner is our watch, which they pass from ear to ear as they listen to the small animal.

How far we are from the Dautriche trial [NB, related to the Dreyfus Affair] and parliamentary questions on the separation of Church and State! How far from discussions over the merits of the comic opera troupe of Nury! But we cannot tarry any longer as another mountain awaits: the Phou Meun, following a 1,200-meter descent.

We will reach the pass over this next mountain range at 1,500 meters elevation to enjoy a magnificent spectacle. Opening behind us are hillsides cultivated by the Miao with maize and rice. Before us is a semicircle of peaks and valleys of equal shape funneling downward to the hollow where Muang Tai huddles, our shelter at the end of this leg of the journey.

The head of the muang, the phaya, as he is called here, comes forward, as is the custom, to meet the traveler. He prostrates himself along with his two accompanying mandarins, and their greeting surprises us.

Joined hands are brought first to the heart then to the forehead and finally to the knees, preceded by an inclination of the torso. Our good Tai folk have nothing in common with the Arabs, and it is the first time we have witnessed such a ritual in Laos. As the phaya will soon reveal, the ancestors of these Tai people acted thus, wishing to show the person they are greeting that their heart, mind, and actions are at his service.

In fact, I find this greeting from semi-savages vastly more exquisite than that of our most refined boulevardiers. Semi-savages, did I say? The phaya informs us that no white man has ever been seen in his village and that he himself has never seen one up to now. He has never visited Muang Xon as communication is too difficult, and he has never tried to contact the French authorities.

Proceeding along the path in Indian file with the three Laotians leading the way, we perceive on our right a large pond surrounded by trees. Does it have a history? It would be very surprising if it did not.

Whereupon the phaya tells us as we hurtle down the slopes that this is where the muang was once located. One day, a roebuck wished to seduce a woman, and the ground opened and swallowed the entire village. These local roebucks are dreadful animals!

Here is the muang, some thirty huts on stilts, but an entire tribe of Miao has come down from the summits to see the white man. Summits, says the mandarin, with the muang itself at 1,100 meters elevation.

Jars of rice wine offered to the villagers before nightfall allow us to catch a glimpse of the population and its modes of dress.

The women (who, between you and me, I hope love their husbands as much as they love the wine in our jars) wear under the armpits of their jacket not two embroideries like the Tai women of Lai Chau but two long, narrow pieces of red cloth that flap as they walk. Evidently, this is the traditional mark of the amorous embrace of the Dog. The village elders tell us that their tribe descends from this famous ancestor. But they have no written charter to that effect.

Here, the only trade consists of fowls with neighboring villages and along the banks of the Nam Ou to procure salt that has to be fetched from Muang Ngoi. Rice is grown along with maize and vegetables. We see a great many goiter sufferers, with horrid-looking lumps.

And as I write these lines for your benefit, dear readers, on the main square of this mountain village, over fifty curious individuals watch my coursing pen, with not a thought given to the election of the delegate from Annam-Tonkin to the Superior Colonial Council, I assure you.

The phi, or spirits, of Muang Tai are demanding creatures, who must be appeased at any cost lest frightful misfortunes strike the village. Unlike those of Lai Chau, who are satisfied with a modest bamboo hut, they demand a brick house, properly built and whose thick walls must always be snow-white in color. These phi must have earned numerous prizes for order and cleanliness in their celestial classrooms.

Be that as it may, they teach these rare qualities to the inhabitants of the area. The people of Muang Tai collect limestone from the neighboring riverbed, the Nam Peun, which is not marked on maps and is neither the Nam Pheung nor the Nam Peu, into which it flows further down. They dig a series of small ovens fitted with chimneys in the mountainside and manufacture whitewash to please the good genies. The phi‘s small houses are charming architectural models made of brick baked in the sun and carefully whitewashed.

For their part, following custom, the inhabitants of the muang live in huts on stilts with bamboo walls and thatched roofs.

With us march three Miao from the village we passed through yesterday in the Phou Houei Lan range. Unable to stop staring at the bearded white man, they filled their hods with chickens, maize, and rice and march alongside our cortege. Last night at our halt, they could not take their eyes off him, and today, these brave mountain folk are again in pursuit over hills and dales. I never knew I had such power of attraction, and I thank these Miao for making me aware of it. They helped me put into practice the maxim of the ancient sages: Know Thyself, which I would write in Greek if the F.H. Schneider printing press possessed the Iliad’s characters.

In this valley, the rice is tall and golden but not yet cut in many places. As we express our surprise, the Tai tell us that the husks are empty. The grains are not yet formed. This is in fact quite correct. The husks they pull up to show us are devoid of the slightest grain. The cold was too severe this winter, say the farmers.

We ascend another mountain so as not to be out of practice: Phou Kio Kam, whose pass awaits us at 1,350 meters. On a hillside is an attractive village of Khamu people, who for some ten years have been cultivating the surrounding hills. Their rai, or fields, are superb. Rice, maize, yam, cotton, potatoes, squash, and ginger are all grown here.

One of the natives accompanying us buys a small supply of ginger roots to make a concoction against the colic. He pays with a piece of a silver coin: one-eighth of an Indian rupee!

In these regions, it must be said, natives only rarely follow the official price of the piaster or the exchange rate of the Banque de l’Indo-Chine. Following the principles of political economy, their money has its own value, and for them as for their neighbors, regardless of its form or stamp, silver is the only appreciable store of value. They do not invest their savings in government securities but throw them into the melting pot to manufacture necklaces, bracelets, or earrings for themselves, their women and their children. Holders of demonetized coinage can therefore come here in all confidence and stock up on ginger. The famous root can come in handy sometimes, even though some call it horse medicine.

While we devote ourselves to these reflections, our mount, which the scent of the rai alone seems to excite, reaches the summit of the mountain, where we run into a village of Red Miao: Ban Cha Chao. The convoy halts for a few minutes to let our animals rest, and humans a little, too. These Miao differ from others—I refer to women—by the color of their skirts and turbans. Their tutu is less plaited and made of gray cloth embroidered along the hem with brown and red motifs. The turban, smaller than those of the White and Black Miao, is also made of gray cloth. The short jacket is always open, without any modesty whatsoever, as Mr. Bérenger would say. And yet I wager that the Honorable Member of the Superior Chamber himself would not lower his eyelids at the sight of the delicious mountain lass who came forward to receive from the traveler’s hands one of those small vials of triple extract that must always be present in his bags. She would surely cause a lively aesthetic sensation in the venerable moralizer. Diabolic ginger!

These Miao raise cattle and grow opium poppies but only for smoking among themselves, they tell us.

We descend rapidly, from 1,350 to 780 meters, in one hour, and reach Ban Tia Fai, a newly formed Laotian village, whose headman advances, following custom, to greet the passing traveler by the roadside and offers him a small cup of the year’s best alcohol on a copper tray. To your good health, mountain man! And why not? This alcohol is not bad at all, but what will the President of Hanoi’s new Commerce Circle say as I draw to his attention this interesting competition for his own distillers?

We pass plantations of koc phoua he, the small tree that produces sticklac.

Next, we notice a fleet-footed militiaman racing at top speed—another Greek expression— to warn the authorities in Muang Peu. And indeed, a few moments later, a deputation of women appears on the road bearing candles and flowers. How could we fail to see as less than ideal a country where such customs have existed for centuries!

The dozen or so matrons are of a certain age, I must say, but their costume is picturesque: long purple tunics with strips of red and multicolored cloth down the front. These look like the cassocks and stoles of bishops. For miter, these women display an abundant knot on the top of their head.

Muang Peu is a very handsome, prosperous village: clean, and with large houses.

The linh, or scout, of a moment ago comes forward to hold my horse on our arrival. He is a former Muang Xon militiaman who, schooled by our instructors, learned at the very least the correct presentation and neatness of his dress. He made himself a small costume, and his jacket is decorated with brass buttons purchased from some Burmese or other and displays quite simply the coat of arms of England.

The good lad is delighted to make himself useful. I suggest he accompany us on our tour, and his immediate response is to say that he will follow his father’s advice. The father consents; a bargain is struck, and this recruit will allow me to replace an exceedingly lazy servant.

The Muang’s headman wishes to detain us, but we long to reach Muang Xon as we are informed that a single day will not suffice to cover the distance that separates us from the capital.

We therefore decide to follow the Nam Peu valley over some ten kilometers along a thickly shaded gorge, and we camp at the foot of Phou Pa Vi, one of the mountains we will have to climb tomorrow. Four more are promised before we reach Muang Xon.

Our campsite is marvelous. Imagine an absolutely regular half-crater. Opposite is a sheer rock wall irrigated by a torrent. In less than an hour, a shelter is raised by our men with bamboos and tree leaves. Our horses and mules are tethered to stakes, and we taste the infinite enjoyment of a reverie before nature. The moon rises early, illuminating the summits, lining dark silhouettes with silver trimmings. The Pallid One’s lighting effects change every few seconds in the incomparable scenery she reveals. Good night, Lady Moon, good night!

***

This passage was originally published with the title “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:17, (September 15, 1905), 1225-1230.

Like what you’re reading? Check out our translations of Raquez’s travel books published by NIAS Press, In the Land of Pagodas and Laotian Pages.

 

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