Dispatch Twenty

In the Muang Sing market, continued

A cobbler, his nose loaded down with heavy Chinese spectacles, desperately works at fixing the shoe of an old wretch who casts a covetous eye in the direction of the next stall. Sure enough, here are comfortable slippers, not short on style with their green and red decorations. Until a few years ago, they were the specialty of Xieng Tung, the main city of the Shan States, but the Lue started manufacturing them, and they must be congratulated all the more for this initiative since this is a rare occurrence among such an indolent race.

Here are skullcaps, red, white, and green piled on top of each other for children or young monks, the nen with their shaved heads.

We are now back in the section of the mountain folk. They brought snowy cotton flakes plucked in the rai as well as rattan of every diameter and rolled into circles. In the women’s hod, which is held by a strap running across the forehead, came from the forest small bundles of resinous twigs for lighting hearths. But for the most part, we see rice of every color and quality: white rice, nep rice, red rice, black rice.Here is starch,seeds for sowing, and fruit: bananas, tamarind pods, pomegranates, watermelons, small peaches, sloe, lemons, and many more! Here are powerfully scented flowers next to others of strong colors, with delicate contours but odorless mai lan leaves, long, smooth, thin rectangles on which monks and literate people will engrave poems or sermons with a fine, sure stylus, cashew in the form of balls, tea leaves simply dried and pressed by the Tai Neua, two types of indigo, hom and kham, sulfur shaped into sticks, wax in the form of round, flat cakes, dok kham flowers for dyes, si khao, a mineral product similar to alum and macerated in rice water for dying cloth, opium weighed on miniscule scales using a set of Burmese weights representing a collection of animals: elephant, lion, rabbit, pelican, duck, etc. One buyer is purchasing a “rabbit’s worth” of opium.

The crowd circulates almost noiselessly among the alleyways, for only a few Kui and Ko young men in short embroidered jackets entertain their comrades and themselves by playing a khene particular to this tribe and consisting of a series of bamboos fitted at right angles into a gourd. They blow and play very gently, swaying from side-to-side as they walk along. A few bowls of rice wine have made them merry.

Inside hangars on one side of the market are sellers of foreign products of English, German, Japanese, Chinese, or Burmese origin, but not French as communications with the rest of Indochina are yet to be organized. Even French functionaries in the region can only obtain life’s necessities by planning months in advance, and they recently found themselves without flour for several weeks despite the crates having left Saigon nearly a year earlier. By passing through Siam, the Shan States, or Sipsong Pan Na following millennia-old custom as well as natural routes, caravans bring products of all origins relatively promptly and at low cost.

This market is important as it supplies tulle cloth, muslin, silks, cotton goods, and velvet for turbans and the costumes of both sexes. Everything is adapted to the country’s taste and offered at affordable prices.

We wish to purchase velvet of a deep green color at fifty cents (1.20 francs) a cubit of 30 centimeters and the same in width. The piece carries the mark of a German trading house in Rangoon with the inscription manufactured exprend [sic] for Burma. From Germany, too, come scarves of pink cotton dotted with small red puffs, much prized by the Lue, those big children, as well as mirrors, accessories for betel boxes, double watchchains, and red and yellow pearls that trade briskly as mountain folk adore them and pay six times the weight of a piaster for one silver piaster for them. From Germany also we find buttons, needles, scissors, small weighing scales, enamel products, gold and silver flakes and thread, even gold leaves.

From Xieng Tung and Burma come silk goods and printed or brocaded cotton items, bowls, and lacquered boxes.

From Japan, red blankets with leaf motifs and boxes of matches that sell here for ten cents (0.24 francs) a dozen, or two centimes per box despite the remoteness of the country of origin and the difficulty of transporting such delicate merchandise.

In fact, we are in Muang Sing almost exclusively to favor foreign commerce, and the situation will not change until we create convenient communication routes. Custom barriers would destroy the country.

Closing off the market on the opposite long side, the hangars of the victual merchants see their clientele change from moment to moment. It is the specialty of Tai Neua women to attend to cooking in Lue country. No one knows better than them how to prepare steamed noodles, which they hand out in bowls after showering the noodles with a sauce spiced with curry of most appetizing appearance.

Well, why not taste these by sitting on one of everyman’s benches. A crowd of Ko, Kui, Miao, and Yao surrounds us.

“Go on, good hostess: a generous round of vermicelli soup for everyone!”

The benches fill up with mountain folk of both sexes. A Ko woman takes up her seat at the far end of the bench between two bodyguards against whom she huddles fearfully. The steaming noodles circulate and are soon devoured.

One more round, my good woman! The cooking pots are soon emptied.

Wishing to show their belly’s gratitude, two Miao execute their most attractive dance by whirling around to the sound of the khene. The Yao imitate them, then the Kui, and finally some Mousseux [Lahu]. Everyone starts dancing to the gentle sound of flutes.

Such was the birth of our popularity in the kingdom of Muang Sing. Ah, the power of noodles!

***

Among the Kos of the Upper Mekong

The ruses of Apaches popularized by Mayne-Reid and Fenimore Cooper can hardly be compared to those we resolved to deploy to bring on board these Ko, the most timid of the timid.

The phaya luang, the chief of one of the principal settlements of this tribe some five hours horse ride along mountain paths, was forewarned of our visit. He was even requested to invite the Ko from surrounding villages to come and celebrate with him as an ox, several pigs, and some fowls would be killed to mark the passage of a white Mister.

Several mandarins from the senam requested the “honor” of accompanying us. “We heard we won’t weary of traveling with you,” says the tiao fa as a hearty laugh shakes his nascent paunch.

Yes Sire, a little weariness is always possible, but, for in our opinion, gaiety is one of the principal elements of health, in these climates more than anywhere else. A jovial man sees things, and often people, too, through a jovial lens; he has excellent appetite, his mind is free, and sleep comes easily, hence repose for the body and normal functioning of the various organs. Result: good health, barring accidents. Adieu, Sire, and may Buddha watch over you!

Phaya Ton Pha Na Sai, a young mandarin with a fine and amiable countenance, is here waiting for us, his small horse pawing the ground impatiently.

Here we are riding along shady paths while birds chirp under the canopy and giant cicadas deafen us with their metallic grating. The path climbs fairly steep slopes, of course, but it is as well maintained as our classified roads and yet it is used only by mountain Ko, the only inhabitants of this part of Upper Mekong.

A group of men and children appears around a bend in the path, accompanying the notables, who came to offer ritual flowers and candles as a mark of welcome. The phaya luang is about fifty years old. With his waxed face and Tabarin hat, he looks like an out-of-work actor. Highly intelligent, the fellow will recount many an interesting tale with a loquaciousness uncommon among mountain folk, who are not usually very voluble. Two of the other notables wear the same types of hats, which are made of Chinese felt and similar in every way to those popularized by our ancient master of the stage.

Most young men wear red turbans, very clean and coquettishly plaited. In their hair is a kind of long, fat, neatly rolled white cigar, which we find intriguing. We will learn that these are unfamiliar flowers with a suave scent, which these voluptuous fellows enjoy inhaling often.

In the distance, in what looks like a semicircle of gray, bare soil, the fifty houses of the village stand on tall stilts. Each one has its own terrace.

Enormous tree trunks still stand, blackened and twisted by fire that did not, however, manage to reduce them to ashes. Others lie on the ground, providing benches at low cost for resting at nightfall. A crowd mills around the houses, but the moment they perceive our cortege, women and children scatter and flee each to their own house. The houses dominate the road, and each terrace soon fills up with some twenty curious women, all of them wearing a smooth bamboo crown adorned with pearls and pendants, the whole giving their physiognomy a most odd appearance. The women squat and lean forward, the better to see us. Putting our plan into operation and violating our curiosity, we dare not even glance at these bizarre small beings.

A modest sala has been built in the village itself. This is where the traveler will find delightfully fresh water, most welcome after this hot ride. The sun shines above our heads, and it does not seem inclined to moderate its ardor.

While the boy sets the table, the women come out of their houses to observe, from a safe distance, the goings-on in the vicinity of the sala. The phaya luang shows everyone an enormous pipe in carved wild cherry we gave him to thank him for readying our shelter. In return, he offers us an ox, three fat pigs, and some thirty fowls. The chiefs of neighboring villages also offer candles and flowers. The Ko answered the call of the old chief, who told us he has four or five hundred mouths to feed in our honor today. Let the victims, adorned for the purpose, be sacrificed therefore, and let the festivities commence! A collection of jars with fat bellies assuage all fears regarding refreshments. The rice wine will flow though bamboo tubes.

First, a group of old women, the phaya‘s wife and her female relatives, wish to watch the “Dance of the Warm Welcome.” They arrange themselves before us and, after curtseying deeply, the good women throws fistfuls of white rice into our faces while performing a curious dance to the sound of a small khene, jumping with both feet as a kind of entrechat and doing semi-pirouettes, first to the right, then to the left. Another old woman dances to the same steps, fists on both hips, while a third swings a small basket through the air, which she strikes in rhythm like a tambourine.

These Ko women are gypsies, I assure you. They dance just like our Roma women: same complexion, same hooked nose, same unsettling eye, same hair, when you can see it, black as a crow and curly. Several old women reveal skeins of hair from under their headgear, covering their forehead in the manner of Cléo, the comely ballerina. In contrast, the younger women wear their hair stiff, and the diadem that covers it reaches down to their eyebrows so that they often have to raise their head to force it back to be able to see what is going on around them as the headgear weights on their eyelids.

We note all of this with a seemingly indifferent eye as a crowd gathers in a circle around the dancers. Behind the children and next to their male protectors are the women and young girls, whom the stranger’s calm demeanor emboldens.

“A thousand thanks, my good lady, who, despite her fifty years, dances like a young girl in the honor of one who is new among you. You shall have a memento of his visit.”

These words, translated into Lao by a learned Lue who speaks the Ko’s language, seem to make an impression on the crowd. We had guessed that collectors of baubles such as these women, who wear the most unimaginable tiny objects hanging in garlands to their headgear, their chest, and their belt, would be susceptible to taming if approached via their weak spot.

The dancing group has become a crowd that follows us all the way to the trunk containing the trinkets, which stands in full view on the low terrace of the sala.

We take a calculatedly long time over working the key; the lock is in no hurry to cooperate. All the women are right here, neck extended, wondering like true daughters of Eve what will emerge from the box and be offered to the phaya‘s wife.

But we realize that even now, if we were to as much as glance at these intrigued faces, the girls and most of the women would take flight like a flock of sparrows. As I said, the cunning of the Apaches!

The trunk is open, and out of a silky paper comes a long necklace of golden pearls that sparkle in the fiery sun. The old woman around whose neck the necklace will be placed cannot believe her eyes. To allow her to better appreciate her good fortune, we pull “out of the bottom of the box… a mirror.” This is pure Faust, and we find ourselves singing in Mephistophelian style:

Her neighbor is a little too old

Her neighbor is a little too old

(See the score for the melody)

Then our tempting hands draw up an inventory of the content of the trunk: gold-colored pearls, red, blue, white, and salmon; small, pretty pearls; enormous pearls cut into facets; mirrors, round, oval, square; fine, baroque-looking pipes for men and women, for the latter smoke all day long; small vials of triple extract, a few drops of which we pour into the phaya‘s hand, leaving the small bottle with him, which immediately passes from hand to hand; porcelain buttons perfectly aligned on blue cardboard, etc., etc.

The crowd shudders and comes closer still. The women prattle.

Boy, lunch!

The trunk is now closed. A steaming, underdone omelet sits on plates. When we go back for a nap in this oppressive heat, we are conscious that the timid inhabitants of the Ko mountains will soon be our friends.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:28 (February 28, 1906): 288-291 and “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 354-357.

Do you like what you’re reading? Learn more about our translations of Raquez’s travel books published by NIAS Press, In the Land of Pagodas and Laotian Pages.

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