The Song Ma Valley – Sam Neua
Fertile, lush, dotted with numerous villages, the Song Ma Valley, which we have been following for several days in Hua Phan territory, is in effect split off from the rest of the world. It wends its way into our Tonkin colony, but the course of the river is boxed in by high wooded mountains here and boulders create terrifying rapids that present an insurmountable obstacle for the hardiest of pirogue navigators.
Indolent by nature, the Tai joyously seize this pretext to stay at home, while Annamites do not travel to this valley. From time to time, some of the more adventurous Tai risk it as far as Cho Bo, on the Black River in Hoa Binh to sell products from the forest in exchange for cloth, tools, salt, or household utensils; but such people are rare. One of them shared his reasons for being thus discouraged: exploitation by the Chinese, staying among individuals of another race, speaking another language, and so on. Even though it would seem that relations between the residents of both regions should be daily occurrences, it is quite an event for a Tai from Hua Phan to journey to Cho Bo.
Locals claim it would not be too difficult to carve a channel across the rapids. A census of boulders has already been conducted by the Hua Phan Commissariat. In any case, the question ought to be studied, for if navigability were to reach the Upper Song Ma, this would open up the region to the commerce and industry of French penetration, making it one of the most populated and interesting regions of our Laotian colony.
For the traveler, the horse ride continues along the river’s limpid waters, in which impressive schools of fish play. The road is excellent, wide, and almost always viable. Here and there, a tree cover protects from the sun’s ardor. The entire length of the route is dotted with villages, with fine rice fields built into terraces. Several sala await the traveler, first at Ban Nam Lot and Muang Hang, the two roadside shelters closest to Xieng Kho. It is at Muang Hang that the Haw, or to give them their nom de guerre, the Yellow Flags, established their headquarters from 1875 to 1887. They were perfectly situated atop these hillocks, which dominate far down the valley. But a Chinaman, the former deputy chief of the gang, betrayed them. He served as guide and adviser to the Siamese, who in 1888 seized the fortifications, rooted out the Yellow Flags, and chased them out of the country for good.
Let us leave the Sop Hao River and travel up the Nam Hao, one of its tributaries, replete with waterfalls and little more than a long foamy ribbon. Crayfish is excellent, which the fat Hai prepares like a maestro. Riding a horse under the sun is tough after a lunch that evokes so many memories. Crunching crayfish claws, it impossible not to cast one’s mind back to the Parisian boulevards, so very many leagues distant.
Fortunately, the route takes us through splendid palm plantations. Streams bounce along gaily, spreading a freshness preserved by the decorative foliage of this fairy-tale landscape.
We cross the Nam Pen, then the Nam Keng before climbing Phu Tin Keng and spotting a huge waterfall dropping over 100 meters but whose approach is barred to the traveler in a hurry. Then comes Phu Keou Kia and the large villages of Muang Phu and Muang Liet.
At last, we come across a Tai Deng, a Red Tai, or rather a female Red Tai, for it is a woman who is introduced to us as preserving the costume of the ancient tribe. The dear old lady keeps her hair tight inside a scarlet turban, and her short blue jacket is hemmed with piping of the same color. This curator of ancient traditions is very ugly, too!
Most Tai living in this region belong to the red branch, if we are to believe administrative information, but finding the Tai Neua more disciplined and perched higher up the social scale, these Tai first adopted their costume, and like them today, they call themselves Lao – Phu Lao – occupying a higher rung still. Qua non ascendam (Where shall I not rise?), the good, formerly Red Tai, would say if he had cultivated declensions.
Sam Neua, the main town for important Hua Phan, was once part of Assam. There is talk of establishing a French administration there, and not without cause since this is precisely where the center of the country lies, with roads radiating toward other settlements: Sam Teu, Muang Soi, Hua Mong. Administrative buildings would be admirably located on slopes so as to catch the breeze, and the country is proverbially salubrious.
In fact, in all the villages we pass through, we cannot but admire the robustness of this fine Tai race. Men, women, and children show remarkable vigor and freshness of skin. Gangs of children swarm, displaying splendid, strong bodies, admirably proportioned, without scrofula or wounds and well-scrubbed by mothers.
Commissioner Wartelle made the happy decision to send two young men from each canton for training at the Vaccination Institute at Xieng Khouang, and the population appreciate the value of the services rendered to this interesting younger generation by Jenner’s discovery. Here, 70 percent of vaccinations are successful. Previously, dreadful epidemics deprived the race of a future, whereas it is now full of hope.
At Sam Neua, Yao mountain folk, White Miao, and Red Miao came down to greet the local chief. A few even come forward to meet us, playing khene as they climb the slopes. Our cortege is picturesque, following in Indian file the narrow mountain path bordered by deep ravines. At their head are two big men riding Lilliput-sized mounts followed by flute and khene players in short blue jackets, their neck adorned with heavy silver necklaces, then mandarins and their entourage with their suits or armor and bedside rugs garnishing their saddles, and finally the long series of mules and pack horses. All of them climb, hurtle down, glide, brace themselves on rocks, and finally reach the roadside halt.
A lavish boun is underway at Sam Neua, with numerous jars of rice wine that must be tasted at the invitation of the authorities and then of local beauties who insist on travelers sucking up the content. This Laotian beverage is a remarkable remedy for constipation and serious competition for sulfate sodium or Dr. Frank’s pills. But the spectacle is highly entertaining, with this entire crowd in multi-colored costumes squatting in groups around stools or rattan tables on which bowls offer innumerable sauces along with strips of buffalo meat: roasted, boiled, grilled, even in compote! The entire village as well as guests from all around march in procession to the boun‘s esplanade to the sound of cymbals and pagoda tom-toms, or long wooden cylinders fitted with skin at one end. At the head of the cortege, young boys, their face covered by a mask, their head topped by a tall theatrical hat, and their fingers extended out of all proportion by bamboo tubes indulge in a thousand grotesque contortions while the phaya, Phaya Hua Phan, Phaya Pa Lat, and the tasseng march at the head of the already effervescent troupe of mae sing [wild female dancers] and pou sao. The brightest sinh have been brought out, and the miter-like turbans are more coquettishly rolled, their tassels rather provocatively hanging down one side of the head. Long, carefully polished silver pins sparkle in the sun.
The gentle sound of the khene accompanies the voices of male singers and their female companions. Night has fallen. The songs have become softer. A confused murmur rises from this joyful crowd. Blankets are brought. They will cover many a turban before the moon disappears.
From Sam Neua to Muang Xon via Hua Muang
When a faint light appears on the horizon,
When the day’s gate, nebulous and dream-like
Begins to open and whitens the horizon…
The last indigenous revelers from Sam Neua leave the boun while we mount our horses to enjoy journeying during those exquisite hours when the chill morning breeze sends a frisson through the awakening body.
But today’s leg will be short: barely four hours’ travel bring us to the large village of Muang Ham. But first, we must visit Sam Neua’s main economic attraction: the sulfur mines.
On a wide strip of land close to the Nam Sam is a rich seam of sulfur ore natives exploit using interesting processes. They built kilns from refractory metals with ingeniously combined backfiring that reminds us of the kilns of Sicilian solfatares. Four earthenware retorts containing the ore will be heated on a fire, the neck pointing downward. Under the effect of the heat, the sulfur rises and flows into receptacles on each side.
Prohibited for several years as it served mainly to supply the pirates of Song Ma, exploitation of these sulfur mines has just restarted. Is this not an interesting resource first and foremost for the defense of our colony? Sam Neua is not far from the Black River which starts in Tonkin [NB: Raquez is in error; the Black River starts in Yunnan].
The locals confidently drink water from the surrounding springs, which is loaded with sulfur. These waters cure goiters, they assure us.
As for animals, they particular favor the area, sometimes to their detriment, for the hiding places set up near some of the ponds show that deadly flying lead awaits them. For now, large, placid buffalo voluptuously inhale the vapors rising from the sulfurous mud and wallow in it delightedly. These gentlemen are having their season at Barèges.
Several mountains have to be scaled, christened no doubt by a local botanist, for one is Phu Sa Neua (1,240 meters on the altimeter), named after a tree, the dok sa neua, and Phu Phra Dit (1,050 meters), which recalls a vegetable. Then comes Muang Ham, with its elegant tat, its slender forms, and brand-new monastery. One small detail clearly reveals the religious eclecticism of these people. At the entrance in the fence that surrounds the pagoda and the Buddhist monastery stands an altar devoted to the phi, those genies, kindly or malevolent, which every Lao, every good Tai, and every Kha fears and whose favors they seek.
Our mounts’ muscles are subjected to serious training in these mountain excursions that take us from summit to summit. But today, we follow the crest, not descending below a thousand meters to reach Ban Sa Loei, which spreads its huts on a vast plateau 1,300 meters high.
We had to pass through the Elephant’s Ladder, Phu Kham Dai Sang (1,215 meters), where beneath a delicious tree cover we find the wide road and pure air dear to the exiled poet. Further on, these heights feature forests of wild banana trees alternating with tall pines and their balsamic scents. At 1,120 meters is a plateau covered with rice fields and watered by the Nam Ven, then Phu In Kang (1,200 meters) with its oaks, real oaks similar, at least in appearance, to those of France, with their Capuchin-brown leaves strewn on the ground in this winter season, their acorns, and their superb, haughty trunks. Further on still is a gigantic waterfall, with the Nam Ven bounding through the rocks with an infernal din.
On the slopes of Phu Poung, the Swamp Mountain (1,310 meters), some rai fields do not seem to be farmed in the usual manner of the Kha or Miao. In fact, there is here a small village of Muong who came from Cho Bo a few years ago, an isolated colony in the midst of these Tai-speaking populations.
But in Ban Sa Loei, we even find a group of the greatest interest, the Phong, the last descendants of a race that long ruled over the country, if we are to believe tradition.
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:19 (October 15, 1905): 1394-1398.