Hua Phan (continued)
We breathe freely in this village with its strange name: Sa Loei. It is perched 1,340 meters up, yet judging only by the plain aspect of the immediate surroundings, we would hardly guess it as these high plateaus recall the plains, with their rice fields and pine forests framed by imposing mountain ranges.
The road will once again take us from one basin to the next, with little effort needed to cross the watershed. Soon, we reach 1,460 meters on Phu Kang Long, literally the Mountain that Rises in the Wind, and as expected, we are assailed by whirlwinds. This should be pointed out to the excellent Mr. Ferra as an interesting meteorological observation post.
From Phu Ten Da, the Mountain of the Celestial Hillocks, we descend slightly to hover at 1,300 meters and pick up momentum again before reaching Phu Dang, where the altimeter’s needle registers 1,580 meters.
This is the land of domes, mountain summits with gentle, rounded forms like the domes of mosques. Fertile valleys through which water flows gaily separate the ranges. This is where the Nam Ven has its source before flowing into the Nam San, or Song Chu, a tributary of the Song Ma, the river through Than Hoa territory. A little further along flow the nascent waters of the Nam Dang, a tributary of the Nam Neun, which empties into the Song Ca, which flows through Vinh.
We might as well be in Tran Ninh as we proceed through these grassy hillocks. We see the same undulating terrain, the same splendid wide, marvelously irrigated spaces, the same pine forests, the same lands, rich and promising.
Past the Mountain of Indigo and that of the Pass of the Rapids—Phu Nam Hom and Phu Keng Keo—we reach Muang Peun, a large Tai Neua village, with its huts scattered about at 1,140 meters in elevation. Most gallantly, the women of the village have traveled along the road some distance from the settlement to offer the Commissioner and his companion delightful five-branch candles surrounded by silks of all colors.
This Tai Neua group has been living at Muang Peun for as long as the lives of four men, say the elders among the notables. As we ask them how long, on average, they believe a man’s age to last, these sturdy mountain folk reply that they have heard of men living for 70 years. One lives long in this land!
The village has therefore been in existence for two and a half centuries. Before that, their ancestors inhabited the same region some little distance away. Like all the placid creatures we have met over several weeks, the people of Muang Peun fled before the Haw’s invasion. Wandering from valley to valley for twelve years, they tried to settle first at Muang Xon, then at Muang Kout, Tham San, and Hat Mun and finally at Khang Kao without ever leaving the province.
As in their ancestral village, they grow little more than rice and maize in addition to vegetables. The forest must supply them with rubber, we tell the notables after noticing unmistakable stains on the clothes of a few curious onlookers surrounding us. Unfortunately not: the forest no longer contains any. Clumsy individuals cut down the lianas without a thought for the future; they killed the goose that lay the golden eggs. And yet, as we notice the seemingly comfortable appearance of these villagers, who claim not to attend to anything other than rice and maize fields, and we point at the women’s jewels, we ask the dreaded question: where does the money come from? The Peun finally confess that they draw from the generous forest enough to fill numerous hods with benzoin resin.
In addition, they devote themselves to a small-scale industry peculiar to them: that of manufacturing metal pipe bowls. They buy the metal from the Phong at Song Kao and work it rather elegantly, managing to give each bowl the shape of an open lotus flower. The Peun Tai’s only competitors in this line are the Muang Ven Tai, so the trade yields tidy profits.
The Tai’s imagination is given a decidedly free rein in this mountain atmosphere. As we leave Muang Peun along an excellent road, we find ourselves on Phu Na Kai, the Mountain of Rice Fields Shaped Like an Egg. The rice fields of Muang Peun must have changed their shape since the day of their birth, being clearly outlined as they snake their way up the mountain, for with the best will in the world, it is impossible to detect any of the expected oval shapes. But let us not quibble!
At 1,430 meters, the Mountain of the Dangerous Elephant—Phu San Hai—directly recalls the terror once inspired by a solitary old beast. Let us hope that its rage has abated. The path we follow has been damaged by large, very recent footprints. The area is frequented by herds the natives cull from time to time by removing one of their leaders.
Game abounds here, of a nature no less dangerous that the furious elephant, namely wild oxen, to call them by their name. Earlier, we were critical of the denominations conferred by the Tai on their mountains. But can we favor our own language in this particular case? Why do we insist on calling these animals “oxen” since their savage nature earned them the inestimable good fortune of evading the censors’ knife, those friends of supposedly good manners? O fortunatum nimium, sua si bona norint! What we have here is potentially dogged enemies of civilization, if only they knew the fate it has in store for them!
Such are the oddities of our “beautiful French tongue,” which make it so difficult for foreigners to speak well. This reminds me of being nonplussed by a jokey Englishman who asked me what he should call a male panther?
“Une panthère. A male panther,” was the only answer I could give.
“Ah! I don’t understand,” replied my jovial interlocutor. “I was taught that ‘une’ is used with beings of the feminine sex, so I started off by assigning this sex to the panther and then added the male sex. You French have turned the panther into a hermaphrodite. Our scholars are in error, my dear fellow!”
Whereupon a hearty sonorous laugh shook King Edward’s subject, to the point where he forgot to finish his Manhattan cocktail. Feeling somewhat sheepish, I remained in a reverie, for I had hitherto believed I knew the language of my country and considered it rather admirable.
But to come back to our elephants and wild oxen, none of them shows any sign of life other than as footprints as our cortege passes by, and in truth, no one complains.
Here and there, we notice smooth stone blocks driven straight into the ground and looking like the foundations for druidic dolmens. Our guide, a Tai notable from Muang Peun, declares in all seriousness that these blocks were once placed here by the ancient Phong, who were endowed with colossal strength and who used to walk about, each carrying one of these stones to keep up his strength. Is this an echo of Chinese military examinations? We know that in the Celestial Empire, those aspiring to officer rank must demonstrate above-average strength by lifting blocks of dimensions determined during the initiation rites, presumably in inverse proportion to the number of stripes coveted.
Be that as it may, this kind of walkabout could be profitably brought back into fashion among our colonials. But who will take the initiative? Come on, Hanoi residents, do us all some good! Walk half an hour along Rue de la Digue Parreau carrying a stone every day: nothing keeps up the muscles and the health like this kind of exercise, they say.
From the summit of Phu San Hoi a few kilometers further on, we ascend another high mountain separated from our Phu by a deep valley. This is where once stood the famous tower from the top of which the wonders of Luang Prabang were supposed to reveal themselves and where all the hopes of the Phong race perished within their flesh-and-blood envelope, including the king, his courtiers, and the tribe’s main notables.
We would need to stray from the road for a day or two to reach this mountain before rejoining the direct path. But duty commands us to silence our curiosity so as not to sacrifice to this feminine defect the travel time made ever more precious by the fast-approaching rainy season.
In the forest crossed by our path, we spot a few rubber lianas of the ox horn species—kua mat kao ngoa.
As we emerge, an admirable crest line appears: a flock of mist-shrouded mountains the higher Tran Ninh range encloses like a surrounding wall.
We hesitate to set off along the road to the Mountain of the Hidden River, Phu Nam Lat, and Phu Mou, the Pass of Pigs. Yet there is no other way, and we are forced to lay bare our shame at our failing fortitude.
The path hurtles down, and the descent never ends. The altimeter registers 1,430 meters at 7:34 am, 1,250 at 8:40, 1,360 at 9:25, 970 at 10:23, and 870 at 10:45, until at 11:00 am we cross the Nam O, rolling along in gentle waves at 800 meters altitude before the village of Muang O, our shelter for the night.
Our ears buzz as a result of an abrupt change in social standing: all of our lips, whether European or native, are chapped as a result of the violent jumps in temperature between the night and the middle of the day: nearly 40 degrees apart.
But we are not out of the woods, for after leaving the shelter, shivering in the fog even just before midday at 1,380 meters on Phu In Phang, we run into high temperatures so extreme that the forest bamboo splits spontaneously in the heat. Luckily, our constitutions are more resilient than the bamboo, a source of great pride in human nature.
A strong odor of surgical spirit rises from some bushes along our path, but our lack of chemical or botanical knowledge prevents us from discovering the cause.
The Nam Neu, a wide river crossed by pirogue or even forded at this season, bathes the village of Hua Nuong. This large agglomeration, which along with Xieng Kho was once, as we saw, the glory of the Hua Phan, Hua Muang Pen Po, Xieng Kho Pen Mae, Hua Muang the Father and Xieng Kho the Mother of the Nation, is today shorn of its ancient splendor. More terrible in its consequences than the Haw invasion, opium, that abominable drug whose dissemination should shame civilized nations, is doing its dirty work here. Some twenty years ago, the craze gripped the residents of this village, and it is distressing to see these haggard faces, these skinny bodies next to the opulent forms of the women, who recall the plump figures of the Flemish school. It is now impossible to obtain any serious cooperation from either the mandarins or the men of the people, the Commissioner tells us.
The women, too, complain, for they are as full of vigor as they are lively, and the males of the tribe are no longer either of these, spending hours and hours, day and night, reclining next to a small lamp in the heavy atmosphere of the opium den.
What crimes, what disasters! Yesterday, the Commissioner’s interpreter received a short letter from Muang Xon announcing a tragic event. Lao Boua, the prettiest girl in the muang, whom we had noticed during the Harvest Festival, tall, with vivacious eyes, fresh cheeks, upright and of proud demeanor, was married to the son of one of the principal mandarins of Hua Phan. The young man smoked, but even his marriage could not convince him to give up the pipe with the wide bore.
All the lady’s efforts were in vain; her husband was not hers but the pipe’s, his true mistress. The unfortunate girl was left alone in the evening, when she had envisaged a very different existence.
Wishing to remain an honest woman or live no longer, she abandoned herself to despair and poisoned herself with a ball of that same drug that had caused her misfortune and that of her husband. Poor girl!
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:19 (October 15, 1905): 1402-1406.