Dispatch Twenty-Six

THE KINGDOM OF LUANG PRABANG

My coat split down the back! Down the back!

Thus sang the inimitable Louis Lassouche in La Vie Parisienne ten years ago, and the audience fell about, convulsed with laughter.

I was not singing the other day during the festivities marking His Majesty Sisavang Vong’s coronation [see Introduction], but similar laughter shook our compatriots gathered inside the vast hall, when a sudden movement caused my coat to split down the lower middle. True, several of the royal guests were wearing bizarre costumes, for there is not a single indigenous tailor in this capital of Lan Xang. Everything comes from Tonkin or Cochinchina, and everything arrives late and often in piteous condition.

But do not imagine that my wardrobe was not well supplied. It included, among other costumes, a fine black suit, six months old, of irreproachable cut, and elegant to a point I would call refined, a waistcoat and trousers of fine cotton twill, two black dinner jackets, a number of white dinner jackets, and sixteen tropical white suits.

This was the inventory at the start. On arrival, only two jackets and one pair of white trousers were left. Of the black garments, only one looked like it could still be worn, and I have already reported its sad fate.

Almost all the zinc-lined trunks made with the greatest of care and sent as early as October down the Black River, through Lai Chau, Dien Bien Phu, and down the Nam Ou, contained little more than manure. And they had traveled during the dry season!

This brings us to an examination of the question of transportation in Upper Laos.

Two routes are open to consignments: the one through whose stages I just passed, and the Mekong. The great river carries merchandise from Cochinchina with multiple transshipments, especially in the dry season. Let me explain:

  1. Steamship from Saigon to Phnom Penh;
  2. Another steamship (the Bassac or the Vientiane) from Phnom Penh to Kratie or Tha Mo Kre, upstream of Sambor;
  3. Pirogue from Tha Mo Kre to Stung Treng;
  4. Small steamship from Stung Treng to Khon South;
  5. Railway from Khon South to Khon North;
  6. Pirogue from Khon North to Ban Dong, downstream from Khong;
  7. Steamship (the Garcerie) from Ban Dong to Keng Ya Peut;
  8. Pirogue for negotiating the Keng Ya Peut rapids;
  9. Steamship (the Mouette) from Keng Ya Peut to Keng Kala Kay;
  10. Pirogue from Keng Kala Kay to continue upstream through the Khemmarat rapids, sometimes in about twenty days as far as Savannakhet or even beyond all the way to Keng Ka Bao;
  11. Steamship (the Trentinian or the Colombert) from Keng Ka Bao to Vientiane;
  12. Pirogue from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

It is not difficult to see that with such limited pirogue service, merchandise is kept for various periods of time at each storehouse along the way. Depending on whether few or many administrators and their convoy are traveling upstream at the time, there may or may not be room for packages.

Most merchandise follows the Black River route, by sloop as far as Chobo, by pirogue to Lai Chau, on men’s backs or mules as far as Dien Bien Phu, then from there to Muang Ngoi in small pirogues before being transferred to other craft of greater size.

I had taken great care to dispatch the necessary supplies for a year-long expedition: phonographs with their stock of blank rolls, photographic accessories, and trinkets useful for exchanges with mountain tribes: Kha, Miao, or others.

These seventy-five crates and trunks—or almost all of them—took nine months to reach Luang Prabang from Hanoi. Thirty-eight of them revealed little more than manure when they were opened. Even zinc-lined crates had been invaded by water. Nothing is as disconcerting as this kind of unpacking. Cigars for the Lao, purses bearing the mark of the Golden Elephant, tobacco pouches, umbrellas and white parasols, brightly-colored blankets, macaroni, etc.; all of this reduced to a stinking heap with no name in any language.

“You will have to write this lot off,” said a companion. I gave him a black look.

This shows, first of all, that transportation services, essential in a region such as Upper Laos, where French people live, are not all they should be. Everything remains to be done.

At each stage, a transit manager is in post, often a native. In practice, whenever a European is in charge, he almost always delegates the job to a native, and not without reason, for multiple functions take up his time. There is a lack of personnel everywhere.

As a result, nobody keeps an eye on the loading of packages onto pirogues, where they take their place among the boatmen, who use them as shelter for smoking opium or enjoy frequent rests. Nobody bothers to cover the packages, which are subjected without complaints to showers and rainstorms. There is not a single tarpaulin in Laos, a single machine in all the transit equipment for sheltering the crates during their long days’ journey. No one makes a note on arrival at each stage of addresses, numbering, or marks on the packages.

Speaking of which, here is a funny anecdote! A box bearing the number 930 had not reached Luang Prabang five months after leaving Hanoi. It contained recording diaphragms for phonographs, and this prevented me from making use of several boxes of blank rolls that had arrived with the instrument. Numerous telegrams were sent at each stage, begging those in charge of transportation to search every corner of their store for box no. 930, send it on urgently if they found it, and if not, kindly indicate on what date it had left their post: forty-eight words to each telegram. All the administrators questioned replied except one, who was unable to locate the package in question and could not supply any news of it since he kept no records of the numbers marked on the boxes passing through his store.

The Lao prince fulfilling this function at Muang Ngoi did give me an answer, which I would kick myself for not reproducing verbatim:

“I do not have 930 boxes belonging to Monsieur Raquez. Respectful greetings.” (Signed) Sithammarat

If I felt fully informed after this, I am not very picky.

I stress this question of transportation and I go into it in some detail not to make my situation seem interesting or to serve as the basis for any complaint but because some twenty Frenchmen live up here, putting up throughout their stay with the same inconveniences and suffering without complaining, for they are not allowed to raise their voices.

What they must keep unsaid, it is my duty to say: their situation is unique in all of Indochina.

In 1904, Luang Prabang was without flour for several weeks. Today, Muang Sing is without wine, despite the fact that orders were placed months and months ago. The crates are stuck in some transit post or other. We came across some of them, buried under other crates of more recent arrival.

It is during these stays in various stores that a second enemy joins the fray: terrible, ferocious, pitiless—the woodlice. They destroy everything in their path; they even burst safes.

No one considers fighting them, and the field is wide open to them. Yet there are several ways to prevent the wretches from devouring the provisions brought here with great difficulty. The Permanent Scientific Mission in Indochina would undoubtedly suggest a way. All they would have to do is to ask the Bangkok missionaries how they managed to protect their vast building, Assumption College, where not a single woodlouse penetrates despite the fact that the neighboring buildings are all infested.

Everywhere in Upper Laos, crates are piled up higgledy-piggledy; they remain in transit posts for varying lengths of time depending on removal opportunities. No one takes care of them, takes a look at them, or shifts them around. The result is that the voracious insects are free to accomplish their destructive task at their ease.

Eighteen of my crates were attacked thus and subjected to looting. Liquids are especially appealing to these wretches, which seem to have a marked penchant fordrunkenness. For them, getting through wax and corks is child’s play. When they come across a seal, they insinuate themselves between it and the glass, working with such skill that the metal seems to have been forced and the bottle is empty.

It would only take ten minutes of surveillance each day, but natives will never take on the task if their chief does not have the situation under firm control, at the start at least.

This additional source of losses adds to the cost of living in the provinces of Upper Laos.

Yet this price is sufficiently high in itself that we must give some sense of it.

The administration, which organizes—after a fashion—the transportation service, draws up magnificent statements of accounts, one of which reaches me as I write, showing a sum due of 507 piasters and 33 cents for transporting my baggage only from Chobo to Lai Chau. Yesterday, I received bills amounting to $339.30 for another leg of the sector, from Dien Bien Phu to Luang Prabang and covering only four fifths of my packages. The total therefore amounts to—and this is only part of the bill to be settled—the tidy sum of $846.66, or 1,989.65 francs, for part of the boxes and the distance.

Let us look at these bills at random. The first one covers transporting 14 crates from Dien Bien Phu to Luang Prabang. Each one contained nine bottles of Saint Galmier wine. The sum due is 35.05 piasters, or almost 28 cents a bottle, for such an insignificant journey. This is excessive, and it is the consequence of the lack of organized transportation in this region.

Would you like another example? Once again at random, I look at the ledger for 26 April for the same sector: eight packages transported by six boatmen in two pirogues; total: 24 piasters from Dien Bien Phu to Luang Prabang. Note that these packages traveled on men’s backs from Lai Chau to Dien Bien Phu, and of the 175 boxes we mentioned, 150 could be carried by a single coolie.

If we take a look at neighboring routes, we see a very different picture. Commissioner Avis arrives announcing that nine boxes have arrived at his post from Muang Xon carried by 14 coolies from Xon La. One of them is a crate containing nine bottles: the other eight are postal packages weighing five kilos each and containing photographic products. It took 14 men to carry less than one hundred kilos. The explanation I am given is that little rice is to be obtained along the route during the convoy’s seven-day march and that as a result, the men have to take care of their own food, and the porters’ return trip has to be paid for. Still, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

All of this reveals the cost of living in these barely accessible regions.

Here is another example, most eloquent in its simplicity. This is an exact copy of the invoice from a major trading house in Hanoi to Mr. X… of Xieng Khong, alias Ban Houayxay.

Hanoi, 8 June — No. 1,196

Owed by Mr. ….

100 bottles Médoc ……………………………………………………   65.00

100 bottles Graves …………………………………………………..    65.00

zinc ………………………………………………..…    75.00

100 postal packages, 5 kg each …………………………..…. 207.10

Total ……………………………………………………………………….…                                              412.10 francs

“Regret unable to dispatch the wine in liter bottles,” the trading house adds at the bottom of the invoice, “because each postal package may contain only 5 kg since the Post Office does not accept 10-kg packages destined for your office, only two bottles, not two liters, which would be too heavy, especially as crates containing liquids must be lined with zinc as the Post Office will not accept them otherwise.”

Isn’t this exquisite! 285.10 francs in accessories for merchandise worth 130, the price charged not in France but in Tonkin!

Still, despite this excessive cost, our compatriots prefer this system of postal packages. Boxes placed in sacks are less exposed to woodlice, they are monitored by Post Office agents, and as a result enjoy a level of service beyond reasonable expectations and spend less time in store at each stage since the mail goes first.

Things are no different when it comes to exporting Laotian products. Would you like to know how many postal packages were sent from Luang Prabang from 1 January to 30 June this year? Almost fifty tons, or exactly 46,570 kilos in small packages: inconceivable but true. It is dispiriting to see merchants reduced to exporting the wealth of a country subjected for over ten years to our administration by dividing it into infinitesimal sealed boxes, most of which require an enormous amount of handling. This distresses the merchants; Post Office agents are overloaded with work and must sometimes be evacuated on health grounds, and government commissaries and their assistants are turned into cai [master] coolies tasked with recruiting carriers and boatmen. In fact, for most of them, it is their principal function.

If Upper Laos cannot soon be made accessible by managing the Mekong so that steamships can navigate it in all seasons or by building a railway, organizing transportation between Tonkin and these remote regions is essential.

Instead of a transit system that is non-existent or exists on paper only, why not organize a stage-based service with at its head an official delegated either by the Resident Superior or the Chief Commissioner which should exist in Upper Laos just as it does in Lower Laos? A French non-commissioned officer assisted by two natives, one an Annamite, the other a Laotian, would be in charge at each post.

This would be economical, simple, and easy.

Why not introduce into these regions, where the Chinese live so easily that they often make long stays, a Chinese workforce consisting of coolies, who could be hired at will from among our neighbors for 150 sapèques a day and carry their picul, or 60 kilos, from dawn to dusk? French immigration agents and our consuls along this section of the border could easily find Chinese families willing to come, and under the protection of our flag farm some of the thousands of hectares from which workers were chased by successive invasions and that remain uncultivated today. This would be colonization work par excellence and relieve the current population of the excessive burden of transportation that puts a strain on it and that it tolerates only under duress.

This is one solution. If a better and equally practical one is found, let it be tried; but it would be inhumane for Laotians, French administrators, and merchants alike to allow this transportation service to operate as it does at the moment over all of Upper Laos.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:33 (May 15, 1906): 698-703.

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 Khemmarat rapids attributed to Raquez appears in Indochine 1906, par Joseph Ferrière, Georges Garros, Alfred Meynard, Alfred Raquez, délégués de l’Indo-Chine à l’Exposition coloniale de Marseille en 1906 (Levallois-Perret: Imprimerie Welihoff et Roche, 1906).

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