Dispatch Twenty-Five

The Salt Producing Region (cont)

Fifteen minutes from Boten stands a border marker once placed there by the Demarcation Commission with the full accord of the Chinese mandarins. It was smashed in 1899 or 1900 by the Lue, who threw the fragments into a nearby ravine. The Commissioner for Mueang Hou, Mr. Gérard, if we got the name right based on what the natives told us, picked up the debris a few months later and restored the marker. The Lue overturned it again. Mr. Garanger, the Government Commissioner at Vieng Phukha ordered the people of Boten to reinstall the marker. They had to clear the forest undergrowth to locate the pieces.

All in vain. The moment it was back in place, the marker was struck down again. As he passed by the following year, Mr. Marolle, the Indigenous Militia Inspector, reinstalled the marker, but he was unable to locate all the fragments.

To demonstrate to our protected subjects that they would continue to treat us like negligible quantity, the Lue from beyond the border demolished our tangible delimitation once more the very next day. We too find the pieces in the ravine, and we place the marker back on its base. Has it not been upset once again as we write these lines?

How can we blame the poor inhabitants of Boten for allowing their wells to be taken from them?

I dare not ask them to cry out: Long Live France!

***

All the watercourses in the vicinity contain salt. Stones left uncovered by the receding waters show deposits. In the neighboring mountains, there must be considerable deposits of rock salt.

Let us go and investigate one of the exploitations three quarters of an hour’s walk from the village. Fourteen families have built huts there to house their kilns. Water drawn from a well some ten meters deep is brought to each of the huts through bamboo pipes.

Water is allowed to evaporate in vast basins, and the salt thus obtained is pressed into bricks of dazzling whiteness. Each brick weighs about three kilos; four of them are equivalent to one mun (a unit of measurement used throughout Laos and worth about 12 kilograms) in weight and sell for one salung, or about 13 cents of a piaster. One family manufactures not much more than 50 bricks per day, or 12 mun, or about $1.50.

We are given fairly detailed information about the wells beyond our territory, which are incomparably richer and better organized. We would like to press on that far, but the prohibition on crossing the border without special authorization is absolute and we are conscious of our position as mission heads. There will be no excursion to Sipsong Pan Na, toward which caravans head without interruption. We meet Khamu from Muang Xai, and Khamu Rok and Kha Lamet from Lop Ngin. We overtake a long line of 76 pack oxen; each animal carries 12 bricks in each of its panniers, or a load of 72 kilos of salt. The locals tell us that for four months of the year, two hundred people pass through here every day on average on their way to the salt wells. Not many of them stop at the French wells.

The result is a very busy path, which we follow without mishap first to Muang Luang Namtha, then to Vieng Phukha.

From Vieng Phukha to Xieng Khong via Muang Meung

Here we have another choice of two roads from Vieng Phukha to Xieng Khong or Ban Houayxay, the name of the administrative hub all the populations of Upper Lao insist on referring to by the former of the two.

One of these, the one followed by administrative convoys, is direct and makes it possible to reach the administrative center of Ban Ta Kat Province, Ban Phu Lan, and nearby Muang Mon in five or six days; the other is used by numerous caravans and passes through Muang Meung, the Land of Lahu. In fact, this tribe is of interest to us because it is relatively unknown and we wish to verify a number of points of ethnography related to it, including whether it may in fact be the same group as the Kui, whereas they are traditionally but incorrectly regarded as separate.

Moreover, the road from Muang Meung is little known among Europeans, and even the natives, Kha Khouene and Yuan, who live in the vicinity of Phukham, appeal to us for the same reason.

When we last passed together through this settlement, the Provincial Commissioner, Mr. Serizier, suggested we travel through the village of the chief of the local Yao, Sen Luang Lao Ta, then follow the road we would be shown by the guides supplied by this mandarin. But since we went our separate ways, the Commissioner reached Muang Meung directly via Xieng Kok, and last night, with all our panniers already loaded, we received a telegram from him sent from Muang Meung to Ban Houayxay and transmitted by that last post. The telegram requested the postmaster to warn me that I should definitely travel via Ban Phu Lan, Ban Miao, Bam Lahu, Muang Noi, and Muang Meung as “the other road no longer exists.” It even stressed an express message should be sent if I had already left.

The map we consulted has nothing to say about Muang Noi, which neither the postmaster nor the agents of the Posts and Telegraphs know any more about than we do, not even the major Kouen chiefs Phaya Phu Ma and Phaya Soya Bou, who kindly came to offer their goodbyes. No one among the natives who surround me has ever been to Muang Meung.

Ban Miao and Ban Lahu mean Miao and Lahu villages. They are found all over in this area, dotted along the various paths. Ban Phu Lan, which is known to everyone at Phu Kha, is located on the direct road to Houayxay, which takes us out of the way to Muang Meung. The Commissioner has not yet reached his headquarters, so we cannot ask him for additional information. We are left perplexed. This uncertain feeling is resolved by deciding to go visit the Sen Luang of the Yao anyway, and it is from his house that we write these lines at 1,100 meters altitude after climbing two mountains along rather steep paths. Calm has largely returned to our mind, for some of the Sen Luang’s men inform us that we will sleep tomorrow in a Ban Miao, the day after in a Ban Lahu, and that a Muang Noi lies further on, but this information, which we extracted with great difficulty, lack authority and precision. Full peace of mind did not return along with certainty. Let us hope we are lucky! The roads have not yet been plowed up by the thunderstorms of the last few days, and we trust we will be able to negotiate all the mountain paths.

This large village in Doi Kong Kap is truly Yao, with its houses made of boards arranged straight and ill-fitting forming an enclosure on a patch of beaten earth, its bamboo piping held above ground with wooden poles and bringing water from a neighboring spring, the roofs of these huts made by joining two bamboo halves placed in such a way that water falling on the convex section, which is outside, lands on the concave sections of neighboring bamboos, which form a gutter.

The Sen Luang Lao Ta came to meet us with his gongs and flat tom-toms made of buffalo skin stretched over a hollowed-out tree trunk and held by large iron nails. This Yao is progressive, as for the occasion, he wears trousers of blue cotton cut in the European manner and a white jacket with copper buttons like those all the Ao-Pak and A-Cam [Chinese tailors] of Indochina make for Europeans. Fortunately, the Yao women have retained their fully embroidered wide trousers, their tunics with red tufts, and their long strips of red silk adorned with small multi-colored enamel items. No doubt, all of this will disappear in a few years now that Japanese ladies have set the change in motion, when all the beautiful Annamite ladies adopt the European costume despite the fact that it is so ill-suited to their type of beauty, and the pioneers of Civilization claim victory because—on the surface at least—they will have homogenized all peoples. Let us enjoy what remains picturesque for now.

Like any Chinaman who makes every effort to be kind, this good Yao is most hospitable. A bamboo bed, a small masterpiece of ingenuity, is prepared in the large room of his vast house.

This leg of the journey was covered in a single march, and we reached our destination just as the prospect of lunch was churning in our stomachs and with the sun at its apex. Invited to share our meal, the Sen Luang cuts a fine figure, observing without any rehearsal how we manage things and handle the various European utensils with perfect ease.

We encourage him to talk, along with his old mother, a vigorous woman of 59 years. The village has been close to his current rai for only six harvest years, and among the multiple peregrinations of this portion of the Yao tribe, the recollections of the good old lady do not go back further than those associated with Muang Lai Chau, just as all Tai who are not Annamite claim.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:31 (April 15, 1906): 540-543.

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 images of salt wells are sourced from http://www.gopowerkick.com/6110/bo-kluea-salt-wells and https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/0a/40/b9/46/fire-under-the-water.jpg.

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