Muang Luang Namtha
Two roads link Muang Sing and Vieng Phukha. Previously, we followed the most direct one, passing through the fiefdom of Phaya Pou Ma, the Khouene lord. This time, let us take the scenic route and pay a visit to the tia luang of Muang Luang Namtha, one of the most respected of all of Upper Laos. From there, we will make a detour to the famous salt mines, where populations from hundreds of leagues around come during the dry season to stock up on the precious condiment.
Amiable as ever, the tiao fa surprised us as we got out of bed, the patron-minette hour, to bid a cordial farewell to this Far-Eastern vagabond who can always be relied upon to turn up again. His brother, gracious Prince Tiao Mom, he with the face of a young woman, will accompany us as far as the foothills, which we discern on the horizon. The immense hat of fine, flexible straw that frames his head fails to give this elegant horseman the appearance of a dominator of tribes.
All is cheerful this morning as the sun wages war on the last shreds of mist clinging to the vast plain. The small horses of the prince’s entourage paw the ground at the start, then joyfully bounce along the grassy paths. With horse riders in turbans of mauve or tender pink silk and mandarins in hats as big as their chest, everyone seems lightweight, slender, and coquettish; a cortege of true puppazzi!
In the small bushes that dot the plain, myriad small birds sing the Hymn to the Sun, and we find ourselves singing along with the lines from the good poet:
Oh, those charming, joyful birds!
How they pilfer, how they loot!
Wither goes this clutch of bandits
That every breeze scatters?
They are headed for the clear firmament.
Their voices rail; their beaks tease;
They will always cause
Innocent nature to laugh.
We too feel light of soul. All is well, as the famous cry item has it. From Muang Sing we take away collections of products of the soil, cloth, weapons, jewels, costumes, photographs, and precious manuscripts in such quantities that a small building exquisitely decorated with Lu fabrics specially woven by princesses will be necessary to do justice to this small kingdom. The tiao fa entrusts us with his saddle and ceremonial harnesses made of velvet and gold, which visitors to the Marseille Exposition will admire.
With satisfaction at mission accomplished comes peace of mind thanks to cloudless health and the joys of nature: all is well, Gentlemen, all is well!
The good horse Quan Dao is of a different opinion. He comes to halt at the foot of the mountain at the summit of which he will have to carry one hundred kilos, and he eyes the harsh climb that arises before him with barely veiled concern. It is the source of some regret that we are not able to follow his equine thoughts.
Come on! Have courage! One swish of the whip, and the ascent of Doi Lak Kham begins: the Mountain of the Golden Milestone, for such is the name of this wall of 700 meters of rocks covered in places with a layer of soil mixed with vegetation. These oriental populations needed a good deal of imagination to give this name to the border marker, which, until the annexation of the kingdom of Muang Sing, or more precisely of Xieng Kheng, the former capital, marked the Franco-Chinese border. But aren’t these precious markers often worth a great deal in gold and, more precious still, in blood?
Though without value today except as a souvenir, the Lak Kham of Muang Sing still stands. But it is impossible to launch into the refrain “She is made of gold!,” for the historic marker consists of a block of limestone of the finest grain. The letters R.F. preceded by Chinese characters indicate the portion of the territory subject to our laws, while the letters C.H. as well as other characters inform passing travelers that they are entering the Kingdom of the Son of Heaven.
In fact, this looks more like the infernal domain, and Quan Dao looks to me like Lucifer, the horse of fire once frenetically applauded by my youthful hands inside the hippodrome of the Avenue de l’Alma, for the road climbs through rai on fire lit by the Yao and Miao. Doi Lak Kham has its summit amidst the burning mountain. Horses and mules, those good beasts, show no fear, marching through the flames without concern for the bursting bamboo or the crackling dry grasses. Only the traveler’s beard is ill-at-ease; a shard of burning wood gives rise to the smell of singeing, which still persists tonight.
A very steep descent following sharp bends under cover of a tall forest canopy takes man and beast to a soothing stream, the Nam Deung, toward which our mounts rush the moment they perceive the cascades. The ambient air is heated by the rai and is almost unbreathable. Hundreds of green, red, and yellow flies as large as beetles pounce on the horses, which grow irritated and lower their head as they descend, to the great inconvenience of their riders, who are forced to adopt bizarre postures.
Finally, a sala appears in a pang (clearing) on the banks of the torrent. It consists of a series of shelters made of foliage, one of which is already occupied. We come near. Two monks stretched out on elegantly embroidered rugs smoke their opium pipe with delight.
Horror and sacrilege! The lethal drug is prohibited by the Buddhist canon, as is contact with women.
As a result, our libertines are somewhat taken aback to find themselves surprised in mid-forest. But their surprise is replaced by astonishment when, recalling the eighth verse of the third part of the Major Precepts, we call out in a voice replicated by the echo the grave anathema that applies to their sin:
Ucca sayana maha sayana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
Lightning striking the ground at their feet would not have had a greater effect on these clerics so forgetful of their duty. They must have imagined a new incarnation of Buddha, and the corpulent form of the preacher was not likely to disabuse them. They are still quaking over it, the unfortunate wretches!
Still: the undersigned moralist fulminating against the slacking mores of the clergy! Risum teneatis amici!
True: I almost burst out laughing!
* * *
The monks’ servants frightened our own personnel. Today’s stage promises to be harder; mules and horses will have to swim across three or four rivers while the men will ford each one with water up to their thighs. But enough of this: we shall see.
Be that as it may, the route is most extraordinary as there is no doubt it causes us to hold the record for the number of rivers forded in a single morning. But one hundred and five crossings of the Nam Deung before lunch would be without charms if they did not allow us to admire a rocky, picturesquely shady valley alternating with a superb forest of century-old trees spared by both fire and rai and lovingly hugged by capricious lianas.
Here is a Miao encampment. Two families are preparing a fire and shelters while squatting on a rock, and one of their members is line fishing. Grilled small fry will probably form the sole dish of the meal, with sticky rice from the rai as the essential basis.
Further along, our guide picks up fruit as large as Calville apples. These are mak san. Their flesh, which resembles the inside of a banana tree, is highly nourishing and highly prized by the Lue and Lao, who season it with salt.
Then come wild mangoes, which to our European palates taste a little like turpentine but delight the boys. They are found in abundance in the bush, where we halt for the morning meal in the shade of tall mango trees.
For the observer, the crew that accompanies us and drives 22 horses or mules is not without interest. We had to send away seven Annamites who were ill-suited to long stages or relied a little too much on their comrades to see work done.
Now, it consists of an Annamite cook and boy, followed by three of their compatriots acting as pack coolies. The two Chinese mafu still authoritatively control the pack of mules, which responds docilely to their voices. They are assisted in their task by a White Tai, a former militiaman recruited along the way, a strapping Black Tai, a former boatman from the Nam Ou valley tempted by wider horizons, a Laotian from Luang Prabang, a lad of 18 with no family who came up and asked us to serve as his surrogate father, and finally a Gurkha who escaped from the Shan States, no doubt after getting into trouble but who is the bearer of a certificate exempting him from military service. “His character is bad,” says the King’s document. We have been warned, but this “malabar” [bruiser], as the Annamites call him, is a wonderful horse groom. He massages the horses with such care and practical knowledge that our beasts were transformed in just a few days; this is why we take this lad picked up in Muang Sing along mountain paths and whom we christened Is Bad for want of knowing his name. Showing truly British correctness and stiffness, he never appears except in the prescribed posture of a soldier and always salutes as per regulations. His principal occupation in Xieng Tung, he says, was to care for the horses of the English officers after they returned from playing polo, the favorite daily pastime. Horses suited to this kind of exercise are sought from far and wide, and they can sell for 200 to 250 piasters, an enormous price for Upper Mekong. It is most probably for the Xieng Tung polo that the animal we saw being bought under our very nose for 150 piasters at Dien Bien Phu was destined.
This entire world forms small groups when it comes to preparing food. Two of them are Chinese. The boy and the cook have no difficulty garnishing their own table once the master has been catered for. The two other Annamites live together, but the White Tai is wary of the Black Tai, whom he says is a petty thief, and the Laotian from the Nam Hou does not get along with the orphan from Luang Prabang. Each one lights his own fire at stage halts and prepares his own meal. As for the Gurkha, more than any other, he eats apart, thus not availing himself of pork or beef, as is the custom of his race. Inevitably, his diet varies little as this only leaves him with fowls since fish can only be bought in large cities.
Yesterday, a frightful noise filled the boys’ encampment, followed by violent shouts from the Gurkha. The boy tells me that one of the Annamite sai [low servant] “inadvertently” placed pack straps made of ox hide on the Gurkha’s padded mat. Back from grooming, the Gurkha flew into a fury. He was convinced the Annamites wanted to make fun of him, for, adds my Annamite, “say him ox same father.”
His character is bad!
Tonight it is the turn of another Annamite to mock one of the Laotians as they suck raw eggs. “You eat same pig!”
There follows fisticuffs and shouts. The Gurkha separates the irascible combatants, who receive a severe reprimand before the Lanten of the village where we are encamped for the night. They are mortified in their self-esteem. Like a good policeman, the sturdy Ghurka grabs hold of one of the wrestlers in each hand and rolls blood-curdling eyes throughout my remonstrance. I have all the difficulty in the world not to bust out laughing.
A few strokes of a cudgel would sometimes come in handy, but what would Monsieur the Public Prosecutor, the head of Judiciary Services in Indochina, say? I would not sleep well until the expiration of the sentence.
In any case, I am of the opinion that here as much as in France, a fine is profoundly immoral if it is imposed by whoever profits by it. A worker is entitled to the agreed wage; if he commits an error, there must be ways of punishing him. Legislation that does not provide for this is ill-conceived.
While meditating on these ponderous questions, we continue fording rivers, no longer the Nam Dang after lunch but the wider Nam Tha, though with more difficult access ramps in two or three places. The two horses we ride on this leg of the journey are extraordinarily vigorous, drawing the admiration of the Gurkha and taking us everywhere without us having to set foot on the ground.
Phaya Anaket’s Lanten village, which had been indicated to us as a stage halt, is now abandoned. The doors of the twenty houses are wide open, and a vast indigo basin carved out of a colossal tree trunk shows that the population was once highly active. We learned later that the old phaya was dead and that his fellow-citizens had moved to another mountain.
It is early yet; let us ride on despite the guide insisting that there are no more villages before the vicinity of Muang Luang Namtha.
One and half hours later, we come across a village of Lanten with heads like Bretons, short jackets, long hair down to the back of their neck, and a wide black turban that from a distance looks like a hat.
The welcome is excellent. We spend the night in the house of the village chief, who calls out Pho Mae, “Father and Mother,” with touching prodigality.
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 367-372.
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