The Salt Producing Region
For a month now over hills and dales, we have been meeting long lines of Lao, Lue, and Kha, who take to the road during the dry season to meet their need to stock up on salt. This is the season for getting the rai ready. The thousands of mountain men wandering from summit to summit and from hillside to hillside fell trees on virgin land, where their axes will finish the job. They burn the grasses and reduce the giants of the forest to ashes, leaving on the ground only a layer of white dust they will mix with the soil to fertilize it. During the second and third years, they will do their best to burn the toughest trees, which the fire has thus far failed to destroy. Wild grasses that grow quickly after the harvest will mix their ashes with those of those recalcitrant trees and the rai will not be abandoned until the third annual harvest, after which the men will move on to devastate (or “upgrade” – the wording varies according to each person’s viewpoint) another plot.
The work of rai preparation and seeding takes place during the dry season, or in Lao country, from mid-December to the end of April. The entire household is called to the task by hook or by crook. This is the season when the mountain echoes with the workers’ cries and songs, the laughter of the young men, who whisper sweet nothings to their paramour during the frequent breaks, the dreadful noise of the tall trees as they crush weaker ones in their fall, the crackling of the fire, whose smoke masks the sunlight by day and reddens even the moon at night.
Yet there is not a single village that does not send a delegation to the salt manufactures, from where it will bring back the necessary supplies of the precious condiment. In any other season, the roads will be impassable in many places and difficult everywhere.
Let us take advantage therefore of our passage through Muang Luang Namtha to join them and head for this meeting place of all Lao tribes.
If we examine a map of Indochina, we notice in the far north of our possession a spur formed by the Chinese border that juts into our provinces between the Mekong and the Nam Ou valleys. The reason? It is very simple. These lands were useful, precious even. The Chinese members of the border demarcation commission knew their importance; ours were unaware of it.
The page of history relative to this sector of the border has not yet been written, but it will be since we were able to gather highly specific information. Once these travel notes, hurriedly written from day to day, have been completed, we will be able to examine at leisure the consequences of this error, which we do not believe to be irreparable.
Let us simply say today that our position makes us Frenchmen look ridiculous in the eyes of all those who come under our protection because the real salt wells, those with regular, abundant, and profitable yields, are located on the other side of the border. The Chinese left us with only insignificant exploitations, that of Boten, as well as heavy transit tolls since the caravans traveling along our roads are forced to cross the border, where they leave their money and their products in order to bring up the indispensable salt in exchange.
Two days are needed to reach Boten on horseback, the tiao luang informed us, but by spurring on our mounts and loading the three best mules with our indispensable luggage, we managed to reach it the first evening after ten hours on horseback and a two-hour extended halt.
This is prime hunting country. There is game everywhere, both furry and feathery. First a boar crosses the road, then a roebuck flees into the undergrowth. For some ten minutes, a deer pursues us, bellowing. We hear a noise in the grasses of a wooded hillside: a veritable flock of peacocks is slowly climbing up the slope, fleeing, but not hurriedly, the racket made by our cortege. A passing Miao sells three fat partridges for a few sous, which we found to be delicious at the evening meal. Another offers bear’s bile, precious medicine par excellence, and shows us the beast’s claws as a sign of authenticity.
Important indeed: bile and claws will go to Marseille, by thunder!
Green pigeons, ponderous turtle doves take flight from the tall trees. Wild cocks utter their brief, proud cock-a-doodle-doo as if to challenge us as we pass. But one of them flees, followed by his faithful hen. The Lao claim that monogamy is the rule among these wild fowls, and roosters become polygamous only as they become civilized. Another one of our victims from a moral standpoint.
Here is a veritable forest of cycas palms. There is no more game here, but how wonderful is the spectacle of these regular crests. Let us hope these destroyers of mountains who respect nothing do not have the unfortunate idea to strike here.
Two meters from the road is a tiger trap. It consists of a low hut made of foliage at the entrance to which hang two heavy tree trunks held up by lianas. At night, a dog or pig will be placed at the back. As it tries to grab the animal, the tiger will prize apart sticks that will act as a trigger and the bamboo trunks will break its back.
We have hardly left the trap that a Miao appears bearing a tiger skin and the animal’s head. Very large, still armed with its formidable claws, the feline repeatedly attacked a poor mountain man’s flock; it had already devoured three calves when our man shot it dead almost at point blank with a stone from his primitive gun. The head and skin of this voracious character will go to the Phoenician City, too, by god!
In fact, we will go to this Miao’s village for lunch today within a gun’s stone range of the road.
We take out seats at a table laid in haste without paying the least attention to what is happening in this Doi Pang Kai village. From a house that was shuttered at the traveler’s arrival emerge little by little old women, then younger ones, and finally girls whom the diner’s placidity and venerable air embolden.
Sardines in achar and tomatoes are the object of a lively discussion among the women in tutus that surround us. This seems a propitious moment for striking a major blow. The half-full sardine can is gallantly offered to the boldest among our female onlookers, who, surprised at first, starts sniffing it before passing it under the noses of each of her companions one after the other. The tip of a tongue then tastes one of the small sardines.
“Is it tasty,” twenty pairs of eyes seem to say to the audacious lass as she ventures into the unknown.
The test is conclusive, it seems, for less than a minute later, the can is empty, and a ball of rice has conscientiously wiped it clean. It is now the men’s turn to discuss the possible uses of the small utensil, and everyone has his say.
Meanwhile, fully active life manifests itself in this village seemingly deserted a moment ago. Everyone returns to work and we are free to wander about, even to enter a few houses without arousing anxiety.
We are in a village of White Miao recently arrived from China. No one speaks Tai or even Lao, but our Chinese mafu make themselves understood perfectly and obtain maize for the horses and mules without difficulty.
In the distance, a woman intrigues us strongly. She seems to be sitting on a large log as if on a swing. She is busy shelling textile fibers using a singular process we note right away.
A flat stone, long, heavy, and rough is balanced on a log of hardwood. Between herself and the log she places an armful of green, damp fibers torn from the small tree that produces them. Then the dancing woman, who wears a costume designed for this kind of activity—a pleated skirt reaching down to just above the knee—takes her place on the stone, feet apart. She leans on a wooden bar fixed to the partition of the family hut and sways left and right in rhythm while the fibers are flattened, thus releasing the vegetable matter and becoming threads.
Inside the house, another woman has perfectly lined up four heaps of these fibers she first linked together within each heap. She sits on a bench, bundles of fibers to her left; to her right is a vertical wheel supporting four reels and set into motion by an ingenious but very simple pedal-activated mechanism mounted on a pivot and worked by the operator’s two feet while her hands guide the thread as it winds around. This is the spooling stage.
An old woman boils these threads in a basin and tells us via one of the mafu that the fibers thus worked in the village are those of a small tree reaching about two meters in height, called ma by the Miao and fet ko by the Lao, and that the threads turn white after being kept in cold rice water for a day and a night. It is with these very fine and sturdy threads that the tribe’s clothes, and especially those large polo necks so prettily decorated, like the one being embroidered by a small chubby Miao girl tamed by a sparkling mirror pulled out of our bags at the perfect moment. The threads will remain unbleached as the aim is to make nets for hunting or fishing. We purchase a complete sample for Marseille.
In each house, there is also cotton in abundance. Several baskets contain bee’s wax. Superb pigs grunt in boarded sties built on stilts. Rice and maize granaries, also raised above the ground unlike the dwellings, whose partitions rest on the ground, are bursting with grain, proving that these new occupants are hard workers and that even though they systematically devastated the surrounding hillsides last year, they drew considerable benefits from their actions.
* * *
The road to the salt wells is most interesting. Leaving the muang, we first pass through the village of the phaya kham, the old Lue chief with the gigantic turban. Immense finely worked pennants drop from four flagpoles standing at each corner of the pagoda, reminding us that a new year has just been recorded in the Lu calendar. Two of these pennants are most amiably handed over to us by the phaya in return for an offering to the pagoda. Their effect will be most original for the decoration of the Laotian section.
After the Miao village, we see a Yao settlement, Ban Mok Lok, but we are unable to stop there. In any case, we are already amply acquainted with this other nomadic tribe.
Though beautiful in many places, the road is sometimes made difficult rockfalls caused by torrents during the rainy season. At times, it is also overcrowded. For example, in a bend as we descend, we run into a convoy of pack oxen. Like all his comrades, the head animal wears a muzzle made of rattan, but in addition, he has been fitted with a specially made mask, hideously daubed to scare away any phi that might be met along the way. A tall peacock’s tail also stands between the good beast’s horns, which has never looked at itself in a mirror and has no idea of the effect it produces.
I leave you to judge the effect the sudden apparition of this ox transformed into an apocalyptic beast has on my mount: an about-turn as quick as lighting and an attempt to tumble over the edge of the ravine since the other side of the road is occupied by my personal convoy. A few moments’ anxiety… then serenity returns. The oxen turn around at their drover’s command to park themselves on the bed of a stream, and we pass without hindrance.
All right! One more time, at least.
Finally, in a plain with rice fields framed by hills covered in pine trees, Boten appears, the village of the salt wells.
Four wells are included, and we come across the first one, Bopet, the Well of Ducks, before entering the village itself. It is exploited by a few Chinese families from Yunnan, Ilo folk, as they say in these parts. Bokachou, the Well of Earrings, is also occupied by foreigners. As we express our surprise at seeing the wealth of French soil being abandoned by those under our protection, these unfortunates insist that this is true in name only. Their circumstances are thus reduced because they dare not stop them. The eternal “let’s keep out of trouble” is the rule in this far corner of the borderlands, even more than in any other part of Lao. I truly blush to be a Frenchman as I listen to the people of Boten.
I related elsewhere [Pages laotiennes, p. 214] how an agent of the telegraphic line, Mr. Rousseau, was murdered in 1899 by Lue from Sip Song Phan Na. The three gang leaders who assaulted our unfortunate compatriot in the sala at Kiou Klai are known to all as they bragged publicly of their crime. They are the phaya muang, his son Thao Mai, and the luang amat. They have never been troubled. The phaya is dead, but his son and the luang amat live peacefully at Muang La, a village six kilometers from our border. How could we pick fights with the Chinese who grab our wells, say our timid subjects, when the murderers of a Frenchman are assured of complete impunity?
But there is more. In January 1904, thirty armed men from Sipsong Pan Na crossed the border and kidnapped an entire family consisting of the father, mother, and three children from a house we were shown in the middle of Boten and took them to Bo Luang to deal with an inheritance dispute there. Those we “protect” are still in captivity there.
The Lue of Sipsong Pan Na do not conceal their contempt for us and do not miss an opportunity to display it. You be the judge.
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:31 (April 15, 1906): 535-540.
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.
The image of the “sala where Mr. Rousseau was murdered” is from Laotian Pages (NIAS), p. 219.