Dispatches

Dispatch Twenty-Nine

Among the Miao of Tran Ninh

Let us scale the slopes of Phu Khe, the mountain neighboring Xieng Khouang, to go and meet the Miao on their patch. This very important mountain tribe forms the greatest proportion of the population of Tran Ninh. Every day, women in sailor’s collars, short pleated skirts, and wide turbans come down from the summits to the town’s market. Not overly skittish if one behaves properly toward them, they quickly become fearful if some ill-advised person allows himself familiarities in their direction.

One of the principal chiefs of these scattered groups, the Lhassa, has invited us to pay him a visit.

The road is arduous in this rainy season, and the mandarin who accompanies us claims that one has to be possessed of the phi of wanderers to climb in this manner beneath torrents from heaven.

Yet we managed to reach a first village, that of the Flat Stones, after a six-hour walk to the chief’s village.

A sunny spell is granted us by the genie of showers, who no doubt wished to reward our perseverance, and we are infinitely grateful to him, for the panorama unfolding before our eyes would extract a cry of admiration from the most skeptical. On one side, the Agricultural Station, with its patchwork of crops sloping up in terraces; on the other, the Plain of Jars, with pine woods providing a somber smudge against the green of meadows, the mounds looking like molehills, and the crest of the blueish mountains encircling the plateau.

Only a signal was needed for a superb ox brought in for the festivities to be put to death; three pigs whimper under the killers’ knife, and a dozen chickens desperately beat their wings before passing on. Numerous families have come from the neighboring villages. The men look most stylish in their very short jackets, especially on the front, leaving a strip of yellow flesh bare, wide blue trousers held up by a red belt, a black turban, one end of which, elegantly embroidered and adorned with fringes, drops coquettishly over their shoulder, and a silver necklace as thick as a finger, with its two curved ends joined over the chest by a small chain of the same metal. The women wear tutus, superbly embroidered collars, long aprons reaching below the skirt, a belt holding long threads of red silk and pendants of multi-colored pearls, and especially the colossal turban wrapped around their head, which is shaved except at the very top.

Here it is the men who do the cooking, washing the meat in abundant running water before placing it in a basin in which they will leave it to simmer in fat mixed with water.

Workers are returning from their rai. Most of them, men and women, wear on their left ankle a thin ring made of three threads of copper, iron, and silver, a combination that has the effect of warding off evil spirits.

The Miao are the most superstitious of all. In the Lhassa’s house, we notice two long narrow ladders hanging from the roof. The chief explains gravely that in case of illness in one of the residents of the house, they will exorcize the sufferer in order to chase from his body the phi that obsesses him. But phi demand certain attention. They can only leave a house through a special opening, so one of the ladders is raised inside the hut at a spot where the overhanging roof leaves a free space for the phi to pass, and the second ladder is set up outside on the other side of the wooden partition that serves as a wall.

Vigorous banging on tom-toms, ardent prayers, a few gestures, and the patient is rid of the evil genie. But sometimes the phi resists, and the patient dies in its embrace.

Trusting, the children come and sit on the lap of the man with the long beard, who begins to empty his boxes of trinkets. It rains without interruption, so the crowd has gathered to celebrate in the Lhassa’s house as well as those of this son and his brother.

Many a toast is raised to the foreigner; then the women, adorned with the pearl necklaces and bracelets they have been gifted, form a gracious circle. Without having to be imposed upon much, they will sing.

One of the chief’s young women, a superb girl with long eyelashes and perpetually smiling lips, begins a melody in a gentle voice ornamented with vocalizations of admirable purity. Following custom, she improvises, and the gracious thoughts developed by this beauty are translated. Once the festivities are over, we will ask for the poem to be repeated and written down in Lao by the great Miao chief’s brother.

With complete freedom of expression, under the gaze of her old husband, the pretty girl sings of former lovers. Perhaps some of them are in the audience. We translate literally:

I was a young girl in my mother’s house;

I told you to take me.

Why didn’t you take me?

Now I am married. Don’t you regret it?

You went back home.

You looked for another girl to make her your wife.

Is she as good as me? Answer me!

We miss each other,

But in future,

When we meet in the forest,

We will resume our talk of love.

Your wife shall not know of this;

I don’t talk to my husband about it.

If your wife learned of our plans,

If my husband knew of them,

We would be caned, and it hurts!

Happiness runs away from us

Since we cannot have each other.

Go back to your wife and your hearth.

As for me, I will squat next to my husband.

Together we must start a family.

Let us consider ourselves brother and sister

Since we cannot have each other.

But when there is a feast in the village,

When a wedding is being celebrated gaily,

The two of us shall meet again

And exchange tokens of our profound love.

What you give me shall make up for your absence;

I shall believe you to be near me.

I shall caress your memento,

And happiness will come to me.

If you accept this gift my hands offer you,

Do not say it comes from me.

Oh beloved!

I remain yours,

All of me!

The old Lhassa casts a lively, sly eye at the young woman as he exhales in the direction of the joists a mouthful of thick smoke he drew from a long Chinese pipe. He is deep in thought. The pretty child replies gaily to her female companions, who tease her. They all burst out laughing.

But it is the turn of a young girl with a voice as gentle and supple as that of a nightingale. More vocalizations and short stanzas ending abruptly on very short syllables. From time to time, the singer’s female companions support her sotto voce with a sustained matching accompaniment.

Looking straight into my eyes, the young Miao begins her birdsong.

Lord, you come from a faraway land.

Now among us, you ask us to sing.

We will sing with pleasure.

Be so good as to listen to us, therefore.

Lord, we are young Miao women.

When you return to your country,

Do not say that we sang before you.

Do not say it to young women,

For we would be filled with shame.

We are not pretty;

We are ignorant young women.

Lord, if in the future there is in our village

A feast, and especially a wedding,

We will be happy to see you among us.

And since you love music,

We will sing again.

This is a Miao song,

Lord,

Made for your pleasure!

Adorable child! Go on, give the fat man a kiss. And amidst madcap laughter, lord and singer in a tutu exchange great smacking kisses. The old Lhassa contorts with laughter, nearly swallowing his pipe.

Your song was too short, my beauty! You sing so well! Please accept this three-sided mirror, which will facilitate the complex scaffolding of your turban. Whereupon, and with good grace, the child returns to her vocalizations:

Hear my song, Lord,

And make no mistakes as you write it down,

For when you read it again later,

You will think of me.

If you love me a little,

When I am dead, my heart will love you deeply.

After my rebirth,

It will find your heart, and both will be as one.

You come to our village as a good man, Lord,

And we consider you our father.

When you arrive, you arrange for an ox to be killed,

Pigs, fowls, and you invite us

To drink fermented liquor.

You hand out souvenirs.

Lord, your heart is big and good!

Do all the people of your country take after you?

You give us so many things!

Do you still have enough to complete your journey?

Lord, we beg you to return to us

And not to forget the little Miao singing girl.

Assuredly, charming child, your image shall not fade from our memory.

Whereupon songs continue well into the night as, spread out on his camp bed amidst the chief’s family and his hosts from villages all around, the traveler abandons himself to sweet reverie, won over by the charm of these simple, good people.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Variétés : Chez les Méoes du Tran-ninh” in La Revue Indochinoise 12:09 (September 1909): 924–927.

More than two years after his death and true identity were revealed [see Introduction], the editors of La Revue Indochinoise published this brief dispatch under Raquez’s pseudonym. Remarkably, there is no explanatory note as to why they chose to print this dispatch so long after his death, and they offer no acknowledgment of his prior role at the publication, nor is any context given for when Raquez wrote it or when the editors received it. It is in fact one of the Mission Raquez dispatches originally published in LAvenir du Tonkin (July 9 & 10, 1906) but not initially reprinted in the Revue.

See William L. Gibson, “Alfred Raquez’s Roles as Author and Editor of La Revue Indochinoise,” Bulletin de l’École française dExtrême-Orient 104 (2018): 343-373.

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.

Dispatch Twenty-Eight

(Continued from Dispatch 27)

TOWARD BANGKOK

During the course of the year, in the dry season and the high-water period alike, teams consisting most often of seven men, but sometimes as many as twelve, head for the Siamese capital. They carry shellac, benzoin resin, hides of all kinds, ivory, cardamom, pangolin shells, deer antlers, and rhinoceros horns. All of this will be sold along the way, but with practical commercial sense, the traders agree among themselves to stagger their journeys, leaving gaps between them so as to avoid depressing prices.

Knowing the prices at Bangkok, they have correspondents at Uttaradit who keep them up to date on everything they themselves learn by telegraph. No part of the loads being transported will be sold before Uttaradit. This is a principle among the Laotian merchants. They wait in that town if rates are too low for selling, too high for buying.

Modes of locomotion and transportation vary from sector to sector. Let us review them in succession.

Luang Prabang–Pak Lai: By pirogue. The craft is hired along with its rowers at 5 salung per picul carried. Each picul amounts to 60 kilos. One salung is worth one quarter of a tical, which itself is worth four sevenths of a piaster. One salung is therefore worth a little less than 15 cents.

The downstream journey takes three days during the high-water season and six days at other times. On the return trip from Pak Lai to Luang Prabang, prices are calculated in a similar manner, and the journey takes from nine to fifteen days depending on the time of the year.

Pak Lai-Uttaradit: Here, the convoy takes to the road. It enters Siam with elephants or pack oxen. Coolies or carts are never used.

A — Elephants: Rates are calculated according to weight and for the entire journey. The price is 9 and a half tical per picul from Pak Lai to Uttaradit. The big pachyderms cover the distance in nine days.

B — Pack oxen: Same system. Price: seven and a half tical per picul, but the journey takes 20 days as oxen move only in the morning before the heat of the day, unable to bear the fatigue.

Uttaradit-Bangkok: Using pirogues, which can be hired at Uttaradit but without oarsmen. The merchants and their men wield the short oars themselves. Superb and very wide, these pirogues typically measure seven wa luang, or seven royal fathoms of 1.80 meters, or 12.60 meters, and reaching five sok, or cubits, in width.

These pirogues can contain 150 to 200 picul, or 900 to 1,200 kilos, and they can be hired for 50 tical for a month and a half, the presumed duration of a roundtrip plus the stay at Bangkok. If this period is exceeded, additional days are charged at two salung per pirogue.

During the dry season, the downstream journey is covered in about 15 days and the upstream journey in one month. At other times, the upstream journey takes 20 or 25 days, while about eight days are enough for the downstream journey.

Steamships can haul pirogues during high-water season as far as Pak Nam Po and sometimes even Uttaradit. In the dry season, they only travel as far as Ayutthaya, the city of ruins.

Everything is brought back from Bangkok and much else besides. Few traders or mandarins return to their loving wives without bitter regrets and stinging remorse, for probably no other city in the world is as dangerous as Bangkok for lovers of pleasure.

TOWARD CHIANG MAI

Traders seek mostly cloth and silk from the capital of the former principality, which once flourished and is famous for the beauty of its women. A high-ranking Siamese functionary, a most amiable and courteous man, wrote me a few months ago that he was in Bangkok, impatiently awaiting the extension of the Korat line to Chiang Mai to enable him to verify for himself if the reputation of the fair sex sheltered behind the walls of that city was truly deserved.

The merchants of Luang Prabang journey there with woven silk from Muang Xon, the major center for Tais of the Hua Phan, but also wax.

Rates for these two products vary very widely. Silk from Muang Xon, said to be among the best, can reach 70 rupees per mun of 12 kilos.

We would need a special scale to study the Indochinese peninsula from an economic standpoint. We juggle francs, piasters, tical, rupees, to speak only of the principal currencies. The rupee, worth one tical and eight att at Chiang Mai, is worth about 60 cents of a piaster.

One mun of woven silk reaches therefore 42 piasters, which amounts to 3.50 piasters or 8.40 francs per kilo. But during this mission, silk exports from Muang Son were not significant as production was limited as a result of excessively cold weather, which upset the silkworm farms during the winter.

Wax is worth 25 to 30, even 40 rupees, or 24 piasters per mun, or two piasters per kilo.

However remunerative these prices may be, they do not alone persuade merchants unattracted by feminine seduction to travel to Chiang Mai as the journey is costly.

A pirogue must be hired for seven tical per month and coolies recruited at the flat rate of 20 tical plus food from leaving Luang Prabang until returning to that city.

These pirogues travel upstream along the Mekong as far as Xieng Sen, then along a tributary of the great river, the Mae Kok, which allows them to reach Chiang Rai. They never make this journey during high-water season as it already takes one month in the dry season.

The merchants disembark at Chiang Rai and take the land route to reach Chiang Mai, with either pack oxen or horses.

These animals cover the distance in eight or nine days and cost seven rupees per picul of merchandise transported, or seven cents of a piaster per kilo. Oxen need 15 days and cost six rupees, or six cents per kilo.

In brief, the journey ends up being very costly, and it can only be undertaken to transport expensive merchandise.

TOWARD XIENG TONG

Xieng Tong, is the main city of the Shan States, which the English have turned into an administrative and military center.

Here flow the products of Burmese industry as well as English, German, and Japanese trinkets thrown in profusion into the market at Rangoon. There you will find small lime boxes for betel, oval in shape, made of nickel and decorated with gilded figures, very handy and well-adapted to local taste. The German industrialist in question sought the most suitable article; he found it, and immediately manufactured it without wishing to impose a classic model from Europe. This is one of the principal elements of the success of German industry and commerce in the Far East.

Apart from these boxes, of which there is a great traffic, merchants bring back from Chiang Mai ordinary Burmese shellac articles, sabers, paper, opium, and those famous black earthenware pitchers of a very special type and which every house in the Upper Mekong Valley possesses. They are manufactured almost everywhere, but only the Xieng Tong clay makes it possible to reach perfection both in terms of elegance and porosity.

The Mekong will also have to be traveled upstream by pirogue, but these vast crafts, which can contain up to 30 to 40 picul, or almost two and a half tons, will not call at Xieng Sen. They will continue along the banks of the Mekong as far as Tang Ho, where after firmly tethering his boat, the merchant will head for Muang Len with his nautical coolies. He will reach his destination in one day, where he will find porters who will convey his goods to the city in three or four stages.

Normally, Luang Prabang folk carry mainly salt; their entire cargo is purchased at Muang Len.

Here too, the cost of a pirogue is seven tical per month, and the coolies expect 15 to 20 tical in wages in addition to food for the entire duration of the journey. They will need 20 days to reach Tang Ho in the dry season and one month in periods of flooding.

The coolies of Muang Sen are paid two salung per day.

TOWARD MUANG LO

Cotton and silk goods are sought in the Mae Ing Valley, and salt is taken there by pirogue.

The upstream journey takes 20 to 30 days depending on the season, and the downstream journey five or six days. The same conditions apply to Xieng Tong.

Of all the needs of human nature, that for salt is the most acute. Hence, it gives rise to numerous commercial combinations.

Traveling downstream to Vientiane and Nong Khai, the major hub on the right bank of the Mekong, the Luang Prabang trader carries benzoin resin, shellac, hides, earthenware cooking pots and pitchers, bamboo mats, paper for holding rice, and rattan containers in which to cook it. He brings back sugar, tobacco, betel, and especially salt.

The pirogue is hired not for a sum of money but for a quantity of salt equivalent in weight to one tenth of the weight of the goods being transported. Crafts vary between 40 to 80 picul in capacity. Each one requires five or six coolies, who are paid 20 ticul each for the roundtrip.

TOWARD MUANG XON — TOWARD MUANG KHA SI

When traveling toward Hua Phan, Tran Ninh, or Muang Kha Si, convoys and carriers take the land route. Their carrier is the sturdy Kha, who scales the steepest slopes carrying the heavy burden contained in his hod of plaited bamboo.

He carries cloth silk or cotton scarves, cloths of all natures, aniline dyes, and bowls and cups from Bangkok to all three of these destinations.

Satisfied with very little, the Kha expects only three ticul per month, or 1.75 piasters in addition to his food.

From Muang Xon, he brings back woven silk, benzoin resin, shellac, and from Muang Kha Si, in addition to this latter product, rubber, which is especially prized.

TOWARD TRAN NINH

Iron is sought in Tran Ninh, where it is extracted in abundance from the province’s rich ore.

Muang Ngoi folk pass through Muang Hiem and those from Luang Prabang through Sop Vi via Ban Bua or Muang Yu.

All of them have Muang Soui and Ban Ban as their destinations, only rarely journeying to Xieng Khouang and only visiting the Miao if they expect to find rhinoceros, tiger, or elephant bones there.

In brief, the lives of these peoples are most interesting, keen on pleasure as they are but also full of energy when it comes to commercial pursuits. The wealth thus obtained will not accumulate in coffers. It will end up on the women’s wrists as solid gold bracelets sometimes worth thousands of piasters, around their topknot where fine, delicate olives of chiseled gold will form chains as rich as they are elegant, and on their ears, which gold rings set with diamonds will adorn with their original designs. The Lao woman spares no effort when it comes to adorning herself on festive days. Feminine coquetry is a key aspect of colonization.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:33 (May 15, 1906): 707-711.

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.

Dispatch Twenty-Seven

Commerce of Laos

Being of an avaricious nature, the Laotian of Luang Prabang is a trader to his fingertips. Or rather, I should say the Laotian lady, for it is the woman who arranges commercial deals motivated by the moment-to-moment needs of customers, sending her husband into the interior of the country and sometimes beyond its borders; it is she who haggles over prices and sells either in the market, where several hundred female traders gather each day, or among those European or native buyers she solicits in their own homes.

Women are excessive in all things, but the Laotian women of Luang Prabang is woman to her reddened fingertips. In commercial matters, she shows passionate doggedness. During our stay, having learned that a resident of Pak Tha, a major hub on the Mekong where products from the Nam Tha Valley are brought, was proposing to come and sell his rubber directly to Europeans, several women set off in a pirogue in search of this audacious individual, located him on the river, and so pampered, cajoled, and circumscribed the poor man that he sold them his cargo. Radiant, they departed.

That said, this citizen of Pak Tha is the Norman of Laos. The crafty old fox allowed the seductresses to leave and then journeyed to the big city himself with a substantial sample he had hidden. By then, he knew the selling price of his merchandise, and he will never be caught out again.

Import and export flourish here. We already had some sense of exports when we saw fifty tons of postal packages leaving Luang Prabang over the first six months of this year.

But here are more precise figures we managed to obtain. We will only give global numbers and keep the details for an economic study we plan to complete as soon as we have a moment of leisure.

Shellac is by far the principal article exported from the kingdom. The record of export duties, a form of taxation quite simple and economical for the Treasury since it is levied by the Government Commissioner without collection costs, shows a total of 153,000 kilos for the year 1904, while the first semester of 1905 shows 50,314 kilos, a figure slightly higher than that for the corresponding period of the preceding year.

Next is cardamom: 23,591 kilos for the twelve months of last year, and this product already shows 15,405 kilos for the first semester of 1905.

Benzoin, that precious resin, shows ten tons in 1904 and 15,495 kilos as of June 30.

But it is rubber that, despite the lower quotations in Europe and falling sales, their direct consequence, is picking up impressively this year. While 8,417 kilos were all that was produced last year, over twenty tons, or 21,628 kilos, are shown to have been exported from January to June 1905, reaching prices higher than any to date.

Next is deer hides, which piled up until they amounted to three tons in 1904 and 1,879 kilos as of June 30, 1905; the animal’s antlers, 712 and 400 kilos respectively, pangolin shells, highly prized by Chinese pharmacopeia, buffalo horns, wax, etc., etc.

These figures are certain to have been exceeded and should be raised if we wish to learn the country’s true production because they are taken only from the records of export duties when we know that, as always and everywhere, taxable goods escape the tax collector no matter his luck or his mode of collection.

If we wish to search for a further cause of appreciation, we will find it in the price lists and statistics most carefully kept by the kingdom’s Hosenam [a division of royal administration]. This work, which we were able to consult, shows, if we supplement it with the detailed results, the sum of $135,716.96, or about 315,000 francs in products having left the Luang Prabang market on their way to other countries of the Union or abroad.

We spoke of export duties. Their amount is quite moderate since they come to 5 piasters per picul for rubber, 4 piasters for benzoin resin, $1.50 for cardamom, deer antlers and hides, pangolin shells, etc.

Undoubtedly, these duties are highly appreciated because they are not punitive and they are levied only when goods leave Laos. There are no searches, no perquisitions, no intrusions into women’s quarters, no violations of phi heun, the genie of the house, all of them measures that in their current state of civilization, the Laotians would not tolerate and would evade by leaving the country to go and live on the Siamese side at Xieng Sen or elsewhere if an attempt was made to act in this manner. In any case, this would be an intolerable injustice toward these populations, which never created the slightest difficulty for us when it would have been very easy for them to do so. The export duties levied by the Commissioners and their agents give everyone satisfaction. Lower them if necessary, but do not touch their base or their mode of collection.

We do not wish to give our pen complete liberty, but it is true the entire commercial life of Upper Laos would come into question if the measures that are being discussed in only vague terms were to be put into execution. These populations are highly sensitive. We must get to know them. Those administrators who do not speak Laotian, who do not seek to be loved by these races, which are highly loyal and very kindly deep down but extremely subtle and flexible, will achieve nothing. The others, the Laos old hands and part of the younger generation, who take an interest in the country and will make converts if not demotivated, obtain—and will continue to obtain—everything the Laotian is capable of giving. But do not hustle them!

Laos should be repopulated, reformed, organized, opened, and then prepared to yield greater value. We will usefully work to this end by acting gently at all times, though this does not does not preclude authority: the iron hand in a velvet glove. Any other administrative procedure would be a grave error, very grave, in fact, as it would have irreparable consequences.

Such are, as we know, Monsieur [Georges Marie Joseph] Mahé’s ideas, who currently fulfills the sensitive functions of Resident Superior in Laos. In the course of his incessant peregrinations throughout the country, Monsieur Mahé came to know the populations; their character, their needs, and their legitimate aspirations did not escape him.

We saw the difficulties faced by Europeans in Luang Prabang and the Upper Mekong Valley to obtain what is essential to their existence. We should not therefore be surprised that in the present state of communications, the Laotians of this region procure provisions elsewhere than in Cochinchina or Tonkin.

They travel to other provinces in search of what their industry or commerce requires. They transport iron from Tran Ninh. In a village in Nam Khan close by the great city, you can hear hundreds of hammers resounding on anvils. There, Phuan migrants manufacture machetes, spades, plowshares, and numerous other implements.

From Muang Xon comes part of their benzoin resin and wax; from Muang Kha Si in Vientiane Province comes part of the rubber sold in the market at Luang Prabang; from Vientiane itself and from Nong Khai comes renowned fine salt. Delicate folk that they are, the Laotians of the town disdain the products from Sipsong Pan Na, Bo He, Boten, and Bo Luang; the salt is bitter, they say, and only good enough for the Kha. Salt deposits are exploited in the part of the kingdom situated on the right bank of the Mekong at Bong Sao, but these are barely sufficient to meet the needs of these populations and especially those of the area around Sainyabuli.

The people of Luang Prabang travel even further, to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kengtung, and Muang Lo. The road is a long one, but a regular commercial flow has taken roots between these hubs and Lan Xang. No one should suddenly think of bypassing it; this would be in vain, and the only outcome of premature measures would to shift the trade from the currently flourishing market in the Laotian capital to Xieng Sen, in Siamese territory. The Siamese are on the lookout, and, believing certain rumors circulating among the Laotian population, they very much hope to place obstacles in the path of current trade. But they are in error, for they fail to take into account the wisdom of our governing classes.

Almost all consumer goods are extremely cheap, but it seems to us that the cotton industry, which has made major progress in France over the past few years, could compete to its advantage. Once communication routes make it possible to send a consignment of wine from Hanoi in another form than in small, zinc-lined boxes containing two bottles and not two liters, when it becomes possible to send canvas or cloth without fear of seeing it suffer the fate of our sixteen colonial costumes and our hapless black garment, now will be the time to divert the flow little by little, using customs measures in extreme cases. But it will not be necessary to resort to such steps as the Laotians prize our products for their true value and they will buy them when they can obtain them, which they cannot currently do. The number of white calico pieces sold annually at Luang Prabang runs to ten thousand, not counting Turkey-red cloth, satins, and ready-made garments.

Convoys come from far and wide, very far, in fact, yet prices are low. Although we were in no way tasked with a commercial mission, we wished to conduct an in-depth study of the manner in which the market provisions itself. We do not believe that such work has been undertaken before; yet it could be useful. While the crates containing the magnificent collections destined for the Marseille Exposition are being nailed shut, we shall make good use of our time.

Thanks to His Majesty Sisavang Vong, the most obliging of sovereigns, we were able to make contact with a series of traders who regularly follow the traditional routes along the major commercial highways of the neighboring lands. Let us accompany them on their journeys.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:33 (May 15, 1906): 703-707.

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 pirogue on 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).

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).

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.

Dispatch Twenty-Four

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.

Dispatch Twenty-Three

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.

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.

Dispatch Twenty-Two

During the thirty-six hours we will pass among the Kui, these kindly folk will provide us with all the ethnographic information we will ask of them. They will hand over without any difficulty cloaks, sinh, necklaces, and musical instruments, especially khene of a very special type.

They have fun like children as they listen to the phonograph and end their blow-out with dances that are to us a revelation. Here is the bourrée we had occasion to witness five years ago already at Xieng Kok in the hospitable home of Commandant [George Louis Joseph] Jacquemart, the distinguished head of the hydrographic mission to the Upper Mekong. This is the Dance of the Mousseux [Lahu], which looks nothing like the other dances we watched in the Far-East. Questioned later, the Kui tell us that they are the brothers of the Mousseux and that along with four other groups, they form the various branches of one and the same tree.

The khene have resumed their imitation of a Breton biniou. The musicians are part of the circle and puff as they dance. The women have joined the group, not letting go of their pipe, some of them with a baby wrapped in a scarf on their back. These little Kui-Kui learn to dance young. Ouch! The mothers stomp their feet on the ground with vigorous, virile energy. Everyone whirls and whirls. The weather is superb, the photographs excellent.

The invited Yao have not been any less gleeful but without mixing with the Kui, who are now engaged in a confab. They push forward a tall fellow, a real colossus with a friendly, cheerful face, and the entire group heads in our direction.

Why shouldn’t we go and visit them, too, in their rai? Their villages are many, and we would organize an enjoyable boun. This is the nature of our request. The old Yao chief, Phaya Kham Lu, who can no longer travel, would be so happy! From the fork in the forest, a four-hour horse ride is sufficient to reach the chief’s village.

Good grief! Explaining our excellent reasons to this man is like preaching to the converted. We will need five days to prepare the festivities, we argue. We will reach the fork in five days, when the sun reaches such and such height in the sky.

Transports of joy! These good Yao seize my hands, call me their father and mother, ask what family relations I will leave behind in this country and for an hour go out of their way to provide me with a cortege. No wonder I love these savages!

Among the Yao

The Yao of Upper Mekong are said to be great lovers of horses, and today they provide us with proof that this reputation is deserved.

At the fork in the main path, where the left fork leads to the Kui and the right to those who invited us, stands a group of Yao, who are awaiting us at the promised time and day. Their horses, all of them superb beasts, neigh as our own mounts come near. Following the customary greetings, a cortege assembles and proceeds in Indian file along rather steep paths. This is why we kept Quan Dao, the goat horse, in reserve for this portion of the journey, and the Yao laugh heartily when they see the courageous little animal climbing and hurtling down slopes with its heavy load with no more difficulty than if it carried a jockey. Later, they confessed that they have never seen such a mountaineer, and one of the notables even insists on massaging the beast himself and on giving it double rations.

On four more occasions, a new group of horsemen awaits the visitor at the fork. Greetings are exchanged in the Chinese manner. Following cries and with the stallions pawing the ground and kicking, the cortege begins to stretch out. This harnessing of every type, from caparisons in the old style to bedside rugs tied to wooden saddles hacked with an axe, is an amusing sight.

There are now about thirty small horses trotting along and carrying their rider to the foliage of ancient rai now claimed back by nature or in the deep shade of gigantic, mossy trees, spared so far from iron and fire.

Finally, the village of Phaya Kham Lu appears, with its vast houses with low roofs and stables and cattle sheds raised on stilts. As among the Yao, the houses have beaten earth in lieu of floor. A complicated system of gutters made of bamboo brings limpid water from a spring to the dwelling. Running water on every floor… but no gas.

Men and women are assembled: the men as gloomy as undertakers, in costume at least, with their ample jacket and wide trousers in the Chinese manner and their voluminous turban, all of it as black as the product of the Hongay mines, the women, clad in beautiful, rich tunics with rectangular clasps of pure silver as wide as the palm of the hand and covered in fine chiseling. A double line of large red tufts line their lapel and collar, from which hang ornaments of multi-colored pearls and enamel held by plaited silk threads. Their trousers, very wide but rather short, are covered at the hem with embroideries in yellow, blue, red, or green silk. Most of them consist of stars or swastikas, each one carefully executed. In their enormous black turban, the women string small silver chains or rows of small bells.

Not in the least wild, by some fair reciprocity, they are interested in the various components of the foreign visitor’s costume, and comments flow freely. Practical women that they are, these Yao work, embroider and sew even as they walk about and jabber like budgerigars. One of them cannot disentangle her silk skein; we offer to assist her, which she accepts with good grace to loud guffaws from her companions. Here we are unwinding silk in a God-forsaken village in the Laotian mountains.

The Yao do these things well. A charming little villa with a bedroom, shower room, dining room, reception, kitchens, and stables was built of solid bamboo and decorated with flowers. As practical ornaments, they added forty bottles of alcohol—the Yao do not make rice wine—forming a frieze in the dining room.

These savages are highly organized, and they know how to prepare a feast: beef, pork, and chicken simmer in basins. There are one hundred and eighty men here and a large contingent of women, all of whom have to be fed. Eighteen low rattan tables have been set up on the vast esplanade opposite the sala. Ten men take up their places around each one in an orderly manner, everything having been decided in advance, and the head of each table comes up to me to present the chopsticks he will use for eating, bows before me, and requests for his comrades and himself permission to commence the meal. Isn’t this quite charming?

Go ahead, comrades! To wish you good appetite would be an insult.

Phaya Kham Lu, an old man well stricken in years and much consulted and respected, takes me by the hand and leads me to the table of the village chiefs, who with raised cups, wish to toast to my good health.

Thank you, good people, and to yours!

Good grief! What did I do when I omitted to plead an out-of-condition stomach! I now have to go from table to table and to empty a small cup of at each one, for failing to do so would be a serious affront and a mark of contempt. Eighteen cups of rice wine! You need solid insides to make merry with the Yao.

Only men feast on the esplanade. But the women are in no way forgotten, having distributed themselves among the various houses of the village.

Phaya Kham Lu insists on taking me to each one to allow me to witness the joy reigning everywhere. Pearly laughter bursts out from under each bamboo roof.

Inside their homes, the Yao keep an altar to the ancestors, with red cards with large black characters bearing the patronym of each resident of the house, in addition, among the wealthy, to five objects, or vou kong, incense burners, candelabras, and flower holders. The phaya offers me another cup of alcohol, but raising both hands to my forehead, I deposit it in homage on the altar of the ancestors. The good man thanks me effusively for this gesture, which he finds touching. We are now firm friends.

If I had not slaked their thirst for music, I believe the Yao would still be all ears before the phonograph when these lines appear in print.

Meanwhile, the men sing and dance. The women start a kind of round, with the participants walking rather than dancing to the sound of a shrill bagpipe, stepping in one direction, then in another.

The men dance alone what I would be tempted to describe as a Great Chahut [a form of can-can dance]. To the sound of a tom-tom, about thirty of them shake their arms and legs, leaping like clowns, bending down until they touch the ground with their lower back before straightening up as if launched from an elastic trampoline. This looks very much like a sideshow from one of the creations of Valentin le Désossé.

Putting an end to my admiration, the old chief comes forward carrying a grimoire bearing ancient Chinese characters. This is the Book of phi, and my new friend wishes to give me a particular mark of his affection by exorcising me. He will utter the solemn incantatory formula that is supposed to put to flight all those malevolent phi that found a home deep in my interior. But this exorcism is quite a ceremony; first, the Dance of the phi.

The phaya’s brother holds in his hand a bamboo about one meter in length and closed at each end with a sheet of paper stretched like a drumskin. He starts dancing, or rather hopping on one foot while striking each of his tambourines alternately with his hands and from time to time executing another bizarre move with the stick as he waves it above my head.

I would willingly offer the Great Buddha in Hanoi fifty sapèque for my colleagues from the Sel Hybat [see note below] to see me being exorcised by these leaping Yao.

The phaya’s son enters the scene and begins wrestling back-to-back with his uncle the conjurer. For ten minutes, the two men strike each other vigorously in the fleshiest part of their physical being, and I assure you they are putting their hearts into it! Ouch! This is their way of squeezing out all of my phi, it seems. If any are left and still resisting, it is because I am home to an excess of particularly tough phi. Bam! Bam! It’s your uncle, not your father! Considering his age, this excellent conjurer can surely hit with his back. I fear something might break under such jolts to the entire organism. If both are not totally stupefied by the time the dance ends, it is because their head is as tough as their back. Bam! Bam! Bam!

Phaya Kham Lu raises a hand. He considers the phi sufficiently squeezed; the two men stop.

Chanting like a priest declaiming the Epistle, the old man utters the solemn formula over me, which the entire audience hears, bowing; I do not even think of laughing, for the good man is convinced he is rendering me a major service. Only [Joseph] Fadovic, our interpreter, has all the trouble in the world keeping a straight face.

It is over. Go in peace!, says the phaya. The phi are no longer with you.

Is it to this new state of innocence that I owe the strange request from the sweet child who steps forward toward me? I Deng, the Red Virgin, for this is her name, came to complain about her parents. Her father and even her mother smoke opium night and day, forcing her to work so they can satisfy the lethal passion. She is eighteen years old, and asks to go away with me.

Lightning striking my big toe would not have left me more astonished than this request from the little Yao girl. The whole village supports her, it is true, the gossips assure me. I Deng is very unhappy; her parents are wretches, and we must come to her aid.

The child is ravishing, definitely the prettiest of all those surrounding me. Her costume would be a great success in the Laotian section at Marseille, but the severe voice of Conscience calls out: non licet! [The Latin phrase Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi literally means “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for a bull”].

I take my leave of these good mountain people with sadness in my soul as two large pearly tears come through the long eyelashes of pretty I Deng, the daughter of opium smokers.

***

Note: Raquez hosted salons in the clubroom at the Hotel Métropole in Hanoi, swinging soirees for the city’s bachelors he styled “Sel Hybat” (pronounced by a French speaker exactly like célibat), with lavish meals, copious alcohol, live music, and laddish behaviour. See William L. Gibson, Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906 (forthcoming from Routledge, May 2021) for more details.

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 363-367.

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.

Dispatch Twenty-One

The table with the phonograph is set up; an inquisitive crowd surrounds it at a respectful distance, then suddenly the trumpets of the Triumphal March from Aida sound out. The effect is astonishing, literally. The good Ko first open their eyes wide, unable to understand how such an orchestral din could come out from this miniscule machine. Then mad laughter bursts out of every chest when a human voice, that of Maréchal, sings “Le Tonneau de Maître Pierre” and the exquisite opera singer Mademoiselle Boyé sings the “Air des larmes” from Werther. This time, reassured by the big man’s placid demeanor, the female contingent comes forward without compulsion, and as we sit calmly by the chattering instrument, we are able to cast an eye over the circle that just formed.

It would seem that two completely different races are represented in men as well as women. On the one hand, the pure Mongol type, with nose squashed at the top but wider on the sides and at the base, prominent cheekbones, and slanting eyes; on the other, the Indo-European type, no less pure, with straight or aquiline nose, oval face, and wide eyes. Some of the young women stare at us, facing us frontally with a provocative air or rather an air of bravado that makes them look most charming. True gypsies, I say again. Place a dozen of these women in a group of Roma, and you will not be able to tell one from the other. Here is an ethnographic conundrum we will try to elucidate later provided God and the Public Authorities lend us life and assistance.

The vocabulary we collect tonight and the customs we will study over four days among the Ko will prove what we sensed, namely that these mountain dwellers are not Kha and should not be confused with the Yao, Miao, or Lanten.

An idea occurs to us, put forward here without pretension or evidence. We know that in the thirteenth century, the Mongols led by Batu Khan, invaded the West. After devastating Hungary, Poland, Silesia, Bohemia, and southern Austria, they went home via Bulgaria toward the year 1240, taking with them, or so contemporary chronicles assert, 350,000 prisoners. The archives of those countries were taken away by the Barbarians, and from century to century, kept by them, then by the Chinese. A great Hungarian lord who is also a valiant pioneer of that science, Count Eugène de Zichy, located them in the Sea Palace in Peking. Are the Ko not the descendants of a group of victorious soldiers married to daughters of defeated enemies taken as booty? This would explain the dual atavism so clearly marked here that it strikes even the most superficial observer.

Some of these girls have pure white skin. Among the young men are superb fellows, bursting with vigor and strength, very handsome of face, too. By day, they do not flirt with the young women of the tribe. Instead, almost all of them stand in pairs before us, in languorous postures, arms around each other’s waist, the head of one resting on the shoulder of the other.

No European had ever visited this village, says the phaya luang; this is why he wishes the festivities to be comprehensive. While the meal is being prepared, the girls treat us to a concert. Some ten of the prettiest ones fetch bamboos as tall as themselves and of a substantial diameter, closed at one extremity and beveled at the other. The strike these sticks on a log lying on the ground, thus producing different sounds. It is not difficult to believe that this concert is more picturesque than those of all the performing ladies of Vienna or Budapest, with these girls’ headgear covered in small silver coins, seeds, tufts, and baubles of all kinds, the short jacket leaving the navel al fresco and the short skirt down to mid-thigh and revealing the two folds of the groin on one side and the start of the valley separating a woman’s two principal hemispheres. What a great success these Ko and their musical bamboos would be at Marseille!

Every effort deserves a reward. The famous trunk is open again and each musician received a souvenir. But now every virgin in the tribe claims the honor of playing the bamboo if this is necessary to obtain a mirror, a necklace, or a vial of perfume.

No, sweet children, you will all receive a bauble from the bearded man.

On hearing this, they assault the trunk. The ice has been broken, I assure you; no one is afraid any more, and Phaya Ton Pha Na Sai is in stitches when he sees us, a young beauty on each arm, as we inspect the revelers sitting around small rattan stools bearing bowl of beef ragout, sautéed pork, and chicken cooked in stock. The food is devoured; alcohol and rice wine are drunk; they are having a blow-out.

The old phaya prostrates himself to express his subjects’ joy. He proclaims me Pho Mae, his own father and mother, and wishes me a long life. At intervals, young men play khene, girls execute the Wedding Dance, which we will ask them to repeat tomorrow so we can record the steps. The old women throw rice in my direction again; children leap forward to clasp my hand, and the women insist on running theirs through my long beard, which twitches with enjoyment.

Conquest is complete!

This whole crowd of simple people is happy; they are having fun, and they let their joy burst forth. No one will convince these Ko of Muang Sing that the French are evil!

* * *

It is morning. Young Ko women come to the sala to bring fresh water for our morning ablutions, and, taking the stranger by the hand, take him on an inspection of the houses, under which the female portion of the population is busy pounding rice with a pestle worked with the foot. Many of these workers have taken off jacket and brassiere, leaving on only their skirt. They are more immodest than naked women, Monsieur Béranger would say, drawing a veil over his face.

I am led into one of these vast houses, which are home to a family and all its allies. Such an invitation is the greatest proof of trust that could be offered a European.

These houses divided into two rooms are curious: one side for the men, another for the women. Yesterday’s old dancer, really proud of the golden pearls that still adorn her, leads me into the gynaeceum, the women’s section, and the interpreter explains the living arrangements.

Men and women spend the night each in their own apartment and sleep side by side without partitions forming rooms. But from time to time, the husband must have the legitimate desire to exercise his rights and fulfill his duties to his mate’s greatest joy and utmost benefit for the race. Furtively, at the dead of night, he slinks up to the small passage to the gynaeceum in search of his other half while doing his best not to make a mistake. This is not easy on dark nights, for he must not awaken his legitimate spouse’s female neighbors, who might burst out laughing at the gravest of moments.

Imagine this husband waiting for everything to be at rest around him and then crawling to the door of the male dormitory. But he is not out of the woods. Should he run into a man, whoever he may be, leaving the ladies salon or, like him, attempting to enter it, custom requires that the two males should pounce on each other and fight it out frenetically. Try getting married in such conditions! It is enough to put you off this millennia-old institution!

This seems to be the appropriate moment for restart the Wedding Dance, outlined yesterday, with the fading day as well as the burning, crackling nearby rai lighting up the azure by dimming the stars.

Nothing is easier, for Ko of both sexes and the bearded man are now best friends.

Three young women form a line by sweetly resting an arm on each other’s shoulders. Three more, similarly entwined, face them some ten paces away. Softly, very softly, almost from mouth to mouth, these gamines sing sweet nothings; then a trio bursts out. The dancers take one step forward with the left foot, which is then joined by the right foot on the same line. A deep curtsey is performed jointly with the bust angled sharply. The three girls hop with both feet, and when they fall back to earth, bend their knees and point them forward. Immediately straightening up, they throw the bust backward and repeat the same series of steps. Meanwhile, their tutus twirl in every direction, and, suddenly halted in their tracks, no longer know which way to turn.

A second trio of dancers repeats the same procedure as the first, which has now joined them, and returns to its original position. Then the six young women gather into a circle while holding on to each other around the waist or the shoulders and break into gentle, naughty songs about two young lovers tying the knot. Very merry this morning, they must be taking my paunch as the theme of a song that amuses the entire audience. Feel free, girls! You will never charge the fat man too much for the spectacle you have been offering him since yesterday.

A young woman’s calf is wrapped in dirty rags, and she seems to be in pain. We ask her to come close so we can have a look at the wound, which is hardly pleasant to contemplate at the aperitif hour. Never mind!

Boy, the traveling pharmacy!”

A through cleansing, a sturdy dressing, a few extra meters of gauze, and the woman goes off happy.

Good grief, what did I do! For three hours, the sick, the wounded, the feverish file past. Fortunately, the trunk is abundantly provided with quinine, boric water, eyewash, bichloride, compresses, and strips of absorbent cotton. We see numerous wounds to legs caused by thorns in the brush and a great many eye conditions caused by smoke from rai or hearths in insufficiently ventilated houses.

This is not a very enjoyable job, I must say, but think of the rewards! In a while, I will be able to satisfy men, women, and girls. These people will overwhelm me with their kindnesses; following a curious custom, they will hold a thumb straight above a clenched fist in my direction to say: “You are number one!,” “Number one piece,” as the Chinese pidgin puts it. They will promise to come and see me at Muang Sing, and they will keep their promise. In fact, on three occasions, Ko women came without the slightest fear to the post where I was staying to be treated and bandaged. There were almost one hundred of them at the boun I held in their honor, and they danced the Wedding Dance in full daylight before the Commissioner and his deputy. Even in the market, they came up to hold my hands and allowed themselves to be arranged in groups to enable me to snap attractive photographs.

“They must find you fascinating,” said the excellent Monsieur Ardouin, Government Commissioner in Muang Sing. “I’m amazed!”

Among the Ko as everywhere else, seduction is easy.

A little finesse, a great deal of patience, some trinkets, a few small coins, and the courage to overcome a degree of repugnance: this is the recipe. Anyone can put it into practice.

Among the Kui

The Kui are an interesting tribe because according to everyone, they share common characteristics neither with the Ko nor with the Kha of these regions. The women have regular, attractive features and very white skin, say the Lue.

The nearest Kui village is a day’s march from Muang Sing; we will journey there to make observations. First a fast horse ride across the plain dotted with small woods and Lue or Tai Neua villages, then an exquisite clearing that detains us for one hour as we ride along a handsome park-like alley with just enough obstacles to break up the monotony of an over-regular track. Sounds are heard in the undergrowth ten paces from the road: three silvery pheasants are unhurriedly but majestically climbing up an incline. For the first time, our guns are not included in the excursion, and the plump wild hens we come across a little further on know it. Game will goad us thus until we return, and the nearby torrent, the Nam Dai, bouncing from rock to rock, seems to emit little mocking laughs.

After a three-hour march, we halt in a narrow gorge. Our guide informs us that difficult climbs are about to begin and we will not find any water for some distance. But the spot is exquisitely picturesque with its giant trees between which thick lianas play like the waist of a coquette, and its waters, which we hear bellowing past but barely discern through thick thorns.

This mountain is ferocious for anyone assaulting it in the noon hour, and the name given to it suits it to perfection: Doi Ngia Thao Hai, or the Mountain of the Old Weeping Grandmother, as the natives call it. The guides tell us that a family of poor farmers in search of fresh land for their rai once climbed these slopes. Men and women in their prime sweated and panted for breath but managed to make progress when a poor old woman, the oldest in the household on the move, sat down exhausted on the edge of the path and began to weep.

Having left a little before eleven o’clock and recording 900 meters elevation at the foot of the mountain, we record 1,650 meters at eight minutes past midday followed by a series of undulations. Up to that point, the path followed the line of the steepest slope before reaching the crestline. It will now snake along the hillsides before taking us toward two o’clock to a fork, which leaves the guide indecisive. The man finally confesses that he cannot quite remember the road we should follow as “we rarely visit the Kui.” He has only been there once on tour with Monsieur Chambert, the Administrator, and he now has only vague recollections. The path to the right must lead to the Yao, he believes; we should therefore follow the one to the left.

Such indecision does nothing to reassure us of a forthcoming stage halt, even though it will be greatly appreciated, for the day is hot and the walking arduous.

All traces of a path are lost in an immense rai in its first year of production and filled with large, half-burned tree trunks our horses are forced to get around. Yet this devastating work is a sign of an upcoming settlement; but here are some Kui coming forward to meet us, complete with crossbow, spears, and machetes. The kingdom’s senam forewarned them of our visit. A boun is prepared; a fatted calf will be killed, and tonight other groups of Kui and even some Yao, their nearest neighbors, will arrive from various folds in the mountain.

And indeed, we find some fifty families in Ban Hua Heng, the Village of the Hard Head, and groups of Kui and Miao from various neighboring emerge from every path in the vicinity on their way to the festivities.

True, Kui girls are sweet and almost white, but they could use a conference on tobacco abuse were a member of the League against such immoderate use to pass by, for they all smoke long pipes they barely relinquish at night, we are told.

Most welcoming, not remotely timid, Kui of both sexes congregate around the traveler. Since there is no sala in the village, which is off the beaten path, young men and women are now busy constructing a shelter complete with appropriate camp bed as per regulations. Looking at the excursionist’s paunch with a mocking eye, several young women urge the young men to test the solidity of the bamboo frame, four at a time. Pleasantries flow freely.

Without going into the details of their costumes, let us say that one of the male Kui’s coquettish practices is to wear around their neck a necklace made of triple, or even quintuple, strings of pearls alternating between white and red. Their jacket is short, their trousers wide, and on their arms are tricolor trimmings. Almost all of them wear a turban of red muslin. Behind the young men as they walk floats a kind of cloak like that of a Roman prelate or a court usher, which drops to their ankles.

Almost all of the women have adopted the costume of the Lue. But their sinh are slightly different.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 357-363.

The second image of the Ko people presented here was taken by Alfred Raquez and is held in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It is reproduced from Old Postcard Series Vol 1: Laos, Lao Postcards by Alfred Raquez, edited by D. Ande (White Lotus Press, 2015). For more information on the Vienna archive of materials Raquez collected in Laos during his mission, see William L. Gibson, “Mission Raquez: A forgotten ethnographic expedition through Laos in 1905,” History and Anthropology (2018) https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2018.1474351.

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. https://www.niaspress.dk

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.