A tremendous noise reverberates and echoes, causing us to cock our ears. It sounds like a shot from a high-caliber cannon. The Lao men say a rockfall must have occurred in the mountain. Sent out to explore, one of them returns soon after to confirm the hypothesis: several enormous stone blocks came loose at the summit and hurtled to the bottom of a depression in the mountainside, where luckily they met no habitations or crops.
The noise so scared our animals that five of them snapped their tethers and fled through the muang. We also recovered five of the six mules we had left behind at Lai Cao as they were unavailable. They were sent to us by Quandao Deo Van Tri along with two Chinese—or Chinese-ish—mafou, Lao Kan and Ah Teu, the first of whom once led Mr. Pavie’s convoys. From now on, they will guide our own convoys along the paths of Laos, and as early as tomorrow, they will follow the right bank of the Nam Ou and wait for us at Ban Lat Han on the Mekong, not far from Luang Prabang, the starting point of a road leading to Muang Sai, which we will take to reach Upper Western Laos.
Tomorrow, we too shall journey down the Nam Ou by pirogue to reach the capital of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol.
Four days is the norm in this period of low waters to travel downstream from Muang Ngoi to Luang Prabang, but we do not need to leave until after breakfast, says the nai kuen, for our teams of pirogues are among the best and they will take us there swiftly.
A deck of braided bamboo has been installed across our twenty-meter pirogues, on which six vigorous young men take up their positions. At the very front stands the forward helmsman, who with his long oar will assist the aft helmsman through difficult sections. A high roof makes it possible for us to sit up, and the dry banana leaves that cover it provide protection of sorts from the sun. This is perfect; let us proceed, but gently!
We already explained elsewhere [NB: Laotian Pages] that the obstacles met on the watercourses of this country are of three types: keng, or rocky rapids, hat, or pebble rapids, and fisheries, with their dykes and dams.
All three types of obstacles come in almost uninterrupted succession on the Nam Ou, making navigation somewhat difficult. But the boatmen know every pebble in the river, and they will need that knowledge, for each rapid varies according to the rise and fall of the waters.
On the first day, we come to Keng Khang: not difficult during the rainy season, it is dangerous right now. Waves froth as if exiting a lock, carrying the pirogue and filling it to almost a third. All hands to the pump! We wield buckets with a drive that needs no encouragement.
First night on the bank at Ban Sop Van.
We cannot leave early in the morning for a thick mist covers the river and agrees to become less opaque only around six thirty.
An eddy and a sound of fishtail whipping the water rises not far from us. It is a pa beuk, an enormous fish the size of a shark and just as voracious, which just surfaced to swallow a duck. The fowl did not even have time to utter a “quack!” How unfortunate are ducks on the Nam Ou!
We are on our way via various hat and keng. In one of the latter, the fore helmsman, who probably miscalculated his strike, loses his balance and falls into the water. We believe him lost, but the agile fellow grabs the rear of the pirogue and finds his footing again.
Now comes Keng Tai, tough at the start with its two thresholds in close proximity and its zigzagging channel.
Next are tricky fisheries. The Nam Ou’s system does not lack originality. Sturdy stakes have been planted across the width of the river, about 150 meters here, leaving only a narrow space between them, and at one point a channel just wide enough to allow pirogues to pass through. Leaning against the dam itself but overhanging it over the water, a fairly large hut has been built on stilts and roofed with thatch. In the floor is a large square hole through which the fisherman will lower his net, a kind of creel with floats. The man wants to keep an eye on his contraption and raise it at the propitious moment, so a short distance from the hut, he has set up a tripod made of very high stakes that cross just below their highest point and in whose junction the watchman squats. His seat is very high, for the water is absolutely clear, and he cannot intimidate the fish with human majesty. Perched in this elevated but hardly enviable social position for someone measuring 116 around the waist, imperturbable, the Lao man watches the fish for hours. Then, should the coveted prey become tangled up in his creel, the man tumbles down to the hut with the agility of a monkey.
Six of them are perched thus above the current as we negotiate the threshold formed by the fisheries of Muang Seun: a highly original group, I must say.
In the evening, the pirogues halt on the bank at Ban Hat Tang, a village of half Lao and half Ngouan from the vicinity of Xieng Khouang (Ban Houei Sai), who came here long-ago following events of which the ancients in the group have no recollection. These folk live from fishing and farming rai. For them as for many others, Tai or Lao, the Kha of the vicinity are a providential presence, for they supply cotton, vegetables, roots for chewing, and a multitude of ingredients dear to the natives of the Tai race but which they lack the will to cultivate or search for themselves.
Here, the river is hemmed in by high walls. On the narrow banks left uncovered by the receding waters, riparian folk grow a few vegetables, indigo, and especially tobacco. The Lao is a keen smoker. Almost everywhere, and especially in the vicinity of Vientiane, he has access to excellent tobacco he rolls into cigarettes in a dried banana leaf or smokes in pipes of all shapes and sizes.
The gardens have almost disappeared in the shadows. Night fell quickly, as always in these mountainous regions. The azure’s deep limpidity is spangled with scintillating stars, and the somber walls that guide the gaze heavenward bring out its splendor all the more. The crenelated summits stand out sharply, strange, fantastical against the background of a clear sky. Once again this brings to mind those evenings of yesteryear in “gentilhomme” Salis’ cabaret, when skilled poets and gentle musicians religiously kept the sacred fire of the art they managed to infuse with powerful radiance during a period that, to many people’s taste, ended all too soon.
As early as four thirty, the tom-toms and cymbals of the village pagoda beat reveille, and the monks begin to recite the rite. Good Lord! What a ruckus! Why don’t we apply those famous laws to these congregants who so disturb the public’s rest? At least, when the Carthusians sang matins in the desert, they only awoke the echoes of cloisters, whereas Lao religious men cause a stir in an entire village as well among those whom the needs of navigation force to halt there.
“Them folk need to be kicked out,” as the sociopath Mac-Nab would say [NB: a postal worker and chanson singer, Maurice Mac-Nab (1856-1889) specialized in macabre songs with titles such as “Suicide en partie double” and “Le Foetus”].
All the more so as this morning’s forces include a young monk, a boy soprano whose vocal chords would be the envy of a Notre-Dame preacher. He launches into his Adinnadana vermani with religious fury! If Buddha cannot hear him, it must surely be because deafness came with old age.
But we cannot be on our way because the mist is thicker than ever. We do not begin to see the end of the pirogue until about seven o’clock, and it would have been utter folly to set off in this fog in the midst of the obstacles that dot the river.
Toward nine o’clock, the sun chases away the last cotton-like shreds that darken the horizon.
A band of small russet-colored monkeys wander about on one of the banks with the grave deportment of senators. There are at least fifty of them, small, cute, adorable enough to eat: totally lovable bouzous, as one of our handsome Hanoi ladies would exclaim. But they remain insensitive to all our calls, and it always struck us as barbaric to shoot at monkeys. Anyone who has ever held a wounded bouzou in his hands, who has heard it moan like a child, who saw real tears flow from its supplicating eyes, shall never use these petite gambollers as targets.
For example, here is a peacock with superb tail hurrying back to its wooded home: Quick, shoot! Missed! The pirogue was moving too fast and the bird was too far away. But aren’t these feeble excuses to mitigate the hunter’s lack of skill? In contrast, the boatmen shot a toucan perched on a treetop. They will lap up its flesh, and its head with its curious head will take pride of place in our new collections. But let us sheath our gun for we have reached Keng Luang.
The rapid we just exited and where we write these lines in the pirogue, which is being unloaded, is most impressive. More than any other, it demands strength, a sure eye, and decisiveness. In one leap over the waves that burble furiously and jostle each other like stampeding sheep, the pirogue crosses a threshold 70 to 80 centimetres high, then maneuvers in mid-current to perform an about-turn, if I may use this expression, which describes the move perfectly. Navigating the same channel directly would be impossible in the current state of the water as rocky points would gut any audacious pirogue. An islet splits the river here, and we are forced to reverse course for a few moments in order to round the upstream point of the island and continue past the obstacle.
But our difficulties are far from over. Further on, while the pirogue glides like a seagull over the crest of the waves, which try in vain to scare it with thunderous growls, we once again have to tack sharp right to enter a narrow channel strewn with rocks to the right, to the left, everywhere. The boatmen have dropped their oars and grabbed gaffs. They push the pirogue to one side, then the other, taking it through dangerous torrents, but finally manage to steer it without mishap to a free section of the river and calm waters. This was not the case of the pirogue of a merchant, stuck half demolished on a rock, and which the unfortunate boatmen are unloading as we pass. They do not call for help as we glide past them. Our boatmen explain that wrecked crews are in no serious danger, for if their vessel is too badly damaged to continue on its way, the bamboos fitted to her sides will always allow the merchants to continue downstream on rafts to the next village.
The descent of Keng Luang took over a quarter of an hour.
From here to Luang Prabang, we only come across hat, which lulls us in the lapping of its small waves.
Boxed in tightly, the Nam Ou flows between rocks uncovered by the receding waters. Its gorge seems closed off ahead of us by a pointed peak, Pa Tung, the Very Sharp Peak, whose base seems embedded in the river banks. We spend the night at the village of the same name: Ban Pa Tung.
We awake to even thicker mist that on previous days, it that were possible. It is certainly more tenacious, for at nine o’clock, it has not yet lifted, and we are forced to beat the oars in the air along with the boatmen to defeat the damp, penetrating cold.
More fisheries and hat, but the water is so low that at one point, our pirogue’s helmsmen have to climb onto the bank to ascertain the position of the channel through the bushy forest formed by vegetation growing among the rocks. We fear becoming stuck.
Yet everything goes without a hitch, and before noon, we reach first the Rock of Seagulls, a colossal limestone formation standing erect as if to dam the Nam Ou and forcing us to change course at right angle. The river takes its revenge by gnawing at the base of the rock. Its enormous mass is pierced through like a sponge. Clouds of birds burst forth with strident cries.
Finally, here is the Mekong: immense, majestic, whose mass glides along, calm, of a single piece. In the rock at Pak Ou, a grotto houses hundreds of buddhas. The boatmen bow and mutter an invocation as they pass the sanctuary, which has been visited for centuries by those who navigate the High Mekong.
Then comes the confluence with Nam Suang, and in the distance, Tiom Si, Luang Prabang’s sacred mountain, whose pyramid sparkles in the fiery midday sun.
Here are the banks, with their wide staircases at the bottom of which women come to collect water. This is the royal city, with its pagodas and its tat; Luang Prabang, the city of Buddha, palladium of Lan Xang Hom Khao. All passengers alight!
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:21 (November 15, 1905): 1533-1538.