The sala of Ban Sok Houn is built not far from the Nam Tia Lan, a cascading torrent, playful today but whose rocky, tortured bed retains as victorious trophies a great many tree trunks torn from the banks that constrain its course, witnesses to an unequal and dangerous nature. But tonight, Kha women frolic under little cascades, uttering little shrieks like playful partridges. They form a line and head back to the village, carrying a supply of water in long, wide bamboos placed straight across a hod held by a frontal belt.
On their shoulders, a few of them balance long branches at the extremity of which are bundles of leaves. These are ants’ nests found in the neighboring forests. The Kha cook these inside banana leaves and savor them like as a particularly delicious dish. The village chief suggests we add this item to our menu tonight, but we would not deprive his subjects of such delights.
Meanwhile, a long line of Khamu Rok stretches out along the banks of the torrent. They march in Indian file, each carrying two carefully covered baskets on his shoulders: men, women, and children pass by in succession, hurrying along, trotting in silence like extras in a fairyland show. Over one hundred savages seem to go past in this fashion. When questioned, one of them informs us that there are indeed one hundred and eighty of them coming from the Nam Beng Valley and heading for the salt wells via Muang Hai. Following custom, they carry with them tobacco and rice, which they will exchange for salt. The group settles down for the night not far from the sala. The open-hearted laughter of these people without a care lasts long into the night, alternating with the bellowing of the deer and the roar of the tiger hunting or fleeing under cover of the forest. The Khamu Rok will have already left when we rise in the morning.
From Sop Houn to Sop Ngin is a short stage through a region farmed by Khamu. Loud noises burst out on and off from the depth of the mountain; it sounds like an avalanche destroying everything in its path. Kha woodcutters are preparing their rai; axe in hand, they fell age-old trees without pity.
Suddenly, the great mountain reveals itself, with its succession of massifs and foothills. We halt, mouth agape, silent, struck by the beauty of these lines still caressed by the freshness of the dawn, admiring the broad vista that sings the glory of nature and the undulations of these giants whose massive forms intertwine in gentle harmony. Here, seeming lost in this immensity, are humble thatch roofs, infinitely small light-colored dots on a somber backdrop, sheltering small, weak, puny beings who are yet masters and kings of these forces, of these lives whose power they have tamed and bend to their needs.
Of Sop Ngin itself, a small village on the banks of the Nam Te, some fifty meters wide and currently fordable, there is little to say. We heard about a Chinaman, a major trader in pepper harvested in the vicinity, but this so-called pepper is none other than mak beng, a rather tasty condiment much prized by the Laotians.
Kha from the neighboring villages huddle around us. Members of the Khamu tribe, they are vigorous and fine of mien. Many have a straight, not a squashed nose; some of the children are truly superb. One of the Kha men has a white figure on the right side of his chest. Inside a circle made of saliva and lime are three dots arranged in a triangle as if following masonic rites. Might I be in the presence of a manufacturer of Laotian index cards? Upon inquiry, it turns out that this is nothing of the kind. For several weeks, this innocent child of the forest has been fighting a malevolent genie, a cunning phi, which has been gnawing at his soul. The village sorcerer having promised that the magic circle would defeat all the Evil One’s efforts, our man confidently and resignedly awaits its predicted departure.
Tall trees mark the border between the two provinces of Muang Xai and Vieng Phukha, between the kingdom of Luang Prabang and the territories of Upper Mekong.
By chance, we halt for lunch in a clearing close by some swamps. We are at 1,300 meters in elevation. Nong Oun, the hot pond, has a history of its own. In the past, a native informs us, over fifty years ago, a large Kha Khouene village stood here, spreading its huts up and down the hillsides. Suddenly, the hill collapsed, and jets of water spurted out, burying houses and residents alike. At the time, a group of men from the village had left for Bo Ten to fetch the supply of salt necessary to families. Imagine their consternation when on their return they found themselves facing ruins. For several long days, the neighborhood echoed with the loud outbursts of their grief, before they left to go and found the village that still exists today, Ban Kou Ta Long, or the Village of People Sitting on Ruins, literally among wooden debris. This is the origin of the swamps we crossed a while ago.
Today, nature has recovered her calm and gaiety. The wind blows through the tall trees, bring to our ears the sound of khene being played in the village of Kou Ta Long. The leaves of tree-like ferns, which are abundant here, sway elegantly. It is good to dream!
Toward the close of a torrid day, from the summit of one of the hundred hills that meet in this devastated region, the buildings of Vieng Phukha are visible. Decidedly modest huts built on stilts and covered with thatch seem to us a restful oasis in the midst of a desert. The flag flutters over there; a Frenchman must reside in this God-forsaken spot.
We said desert, and we are not wrong. Five years ago, when we halted our mounts opposite the Commissariat building, a crowd gathered all around us [See Laotian Pages]. Near the Nam Tok, the houses of a large village clustered at the foot of the post’s hill. This is where Phaya Patavi, one of the two chiefs of the important Kha Khouene tribe, resided, and his presence was the cause of perpetual toing and froing by natives. The Government Commissioner, Monsieur Fernand Ganesco, divided his activities between three official residences: Muang Sing, Vieng Phukha, and Xieng Khong. At the time, his residence recalled only distantly the Headquarters of the Lieutenant-Governor of Cochinchina, but gaiety reigned supreme. Disturbed in their repose, the phi of the environs, showed their irritation and made sure we knew it, for a sudden gust of wind blew away part of the dining room of the Commissariat just as we were getting ready to savor a meal prepared according to the rules of Brillat-Savarin, and two enormous trees collapsed on the unfortunate hut that served as kitchen, thus wiping out all our hopes.
Further on were the dwellings of the Garde Principal and the Head and Supervisor of Posts and Telegraphs. An elegant bridge made of lianas linked the village to the administrative hillsides, adding a picturesque note to the landscape through which circulated Khouene women wearing skirts with multi-colored stripes and smoking pipes made of roots or bamboo almost as long as their small person. Kha militiamen clad in jackets of blue silk and trousers of the same color held tight, one end at the belt, the other inside red gaiters also displayed a brilliant turban. These were the Tigers of Phukha, and they retain that title.
The real tigers, those of the neighboring forest, paid regular visits to village and post alike. On several occasions during our short stay, gunshot woke us with a jerk in the middle of the night. The wide print of a powerful paw and a half-devoured goat inside the Phaya Patavi’s enclosure testified to the passage of a tiger, and the next day, devastation in the chicken coop, traces of blood, tufts of hairs, and tracks in the damp earth showed that the Postmaster’s gun had hit a panther in its flight.
Finally, a vast, well-built market sheltered passing caravans, its compartments providing accommodation for a few Ngouan and Burmese merchants who set up stall there. The life, animation, and energy of Phukha had charmed us in this delightful setting of mountains of such diverse aspects.
Today, all is inactivity, sadness, and brush. The Commissariat has not been raised from its ruins, and it takes effort to assign a location to these vanished buildings. The Tigers only have a small detachment commanded by a native doi. The supervisor of the telegraphic line, whose domain has expanded, is permanently on the move. We ran into him the other day. Only the Postmaster, Monsieur Hurtin, a valiant man, continues to live in the same thatched hut as in the past, a little shakier, with a floor made of bumpy attap that gives the visitor the sensation of being aboard a rolling steamer. [NB: Hurtin is listed as “commis du cadre local” for Vieng Phukha in the Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines, &c, for 1904].
The liana bridge, the market, the pagoda, the natives and their village: everything is gone, vanished as if by magic. All that is left is thick brush, vigorous, astonishing, even. We can scarcely believe our eyes, yet our memory does not deceive us.
The tigers themselves, the real, ferocious ones, have fled this desolate spot. The beasts in our convoy will spend the night in complete safety and the day wallowing in tall grass.
The good Monsieur Hurtin welcomes us with open arms. He has not seen a white face for many a long week, and European visitors to Phukha are rare. You need a truly special temperament to live in such isolation, which is nothing short of splendid, far even from any native village, often separated from the rest of the world by frequent cuts in the telegraph line, deprived of all medical assistance, and forced to order even wine in zinc-lined postal packages of five kilos at 94 cents, or 2.25 francs, each containing two bottles. In a few months, things will be very different, when torrents of water cascading down every mountain will make all communication with neighboring regions truly impossible. Yet he utters no complaints. To your good health, from the bottom of our hearts, O Isolated One!
Memories unfold. My old comrade, Phaya Patavi, had the unfortunate idea of departing this world, and his brother, Phaya Chaya Bout, succeeded him, moving the village to better rai a short distance from the former settlement. We will go and converse with the Kha Khouene again.
Lanten, Miao, Kha Tiol, and Lamet groups have also built their huts in the mountains adjoining Phukha; we will pay visits to some of them. Already, the amiable Monsieur Hurtin has sent notice to the Kha Lemet chief of our desire to visit his village, but he met with a refusal from the chief, for phi have set up residence if the ban, and they would not tolerate the presence of a stranger. A native, a skilled diplomat, is dispatched to the tormented, superstitious souls. He will try to persuade them that the best way to drive away the Evil One is to kill an ox, a pig, and chickens and to empty a few jars of alcohol at the expense of the passing guest, who is the possessor of a musical phi more powerful than any other. The next day, the reply arrives. All the Lamet of the vicinity have been summoned; we are expected, and the festivities promise to be splendid. Coming to an agreement with the big children of the bush is quite easy, in most cases.
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:26 (January 30, 1906): 129-132.