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-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

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.

Dispatch Eighteen

Muang Sing

Under a cheerful sun, with all of nature given to joy, a bloody tragedy is unfolding in the air above our heads. As we ride along the banks of the Nam Ma after journeying without mishap down the slopes of Phu Lia from 1,450 to 710 meters along an excellent road, an ugly crow hovers, cawing lugubriously. Suddenly, three birds the size of budgerigars, and as black as the crow itself, pounce on the bird of prey, which tries to flee; but these small but fearless aggressors wage a veritable combat, striking at the head, poking out its eyes perhaps, in any case attacking it ceaselessly and shielding their own strikes.

What can the big crow do against three? It succumbs, its skull pierced by one of the budgerigars, which, while clinging to its neck, proceed to trepan it with as much skill as if it had once taken Professor Trélat’s course. It falls into the grasses, and its victors set about the task of devouring it.

Monsieur Sérizier relates that he had occasion to witness a similar spectacle twice before. These small birds in mourning plumage are the deadly enemies of crows. In teams of three or more, they seek out solitary birds and wage battle until the latter are defeated. What a pity we cannot take some of them to Marseille! If we did, we would be called bloodthirsty and a protection society would perhaps emerge and extent its influence to crows!

A wild gorge now encases the road, when this grandiose setting reveals a gracious cortege. Prince Tiao Mom, the younger brother of Tiao Fa, who currently reigns, is on his way accompanied by a dozen mandarins on horseback to greet the Provincial Commissioner. With his soft face lit up by the gentlest of eyes shaded by long eyelashes, this ephebe is as sweet as one of Boucher’s cupids. His is an operetta costume, to use [Fernand] Ganesco’s apt expression in one of his articles for this Review [“Un Royaume d’Opérette Muong-Sing,” January 1, 1904]. It consists of immensely oversized trousers of mauve crepe, a waistcoat of blue velvet with gold buttons and openings for the sleeves of a jacket of white silk, and an enormous hat of very fine and supple straw held by pink ribbons and bobbing about to the horse’s trot. The personages in his retinue are wearing costumes of the same style. We are among the Lue.

Soon, when the lunch gong sounds in our stomachs, we will have the good fortune to meet Monsieur Ardouin, principal warden of the native militia, in the Lanten village of Pang Bon, who currently fills the functions of representative of the Government Commissioner in Muang Sing District. The son of the former Director of Health Services for the Suez Canal, the Muang Sing Resident knows in his very marrow the Egypt that left us with such vivid memories. He even knows the Libyan desert, which we once crossed with caravans to the rhythmical swaying of a docile camel. Information is soon elicited from this friendly man.

During the meal, the Chinese origins of the Lanten population surrounding us is soon apparent, for a crowd has gathered near the sala that shelters us. It would not take much for the crowd to invade it. This is very different from populations of the Tai race.

We are now in a plain, or near enough, and our impatient mounts, spurred on by the animals of the Tiao Mom and the Resident, which long to return to their stables, lengthen their trot and quickly bring us to the gates of the capital in one hour.

The Tiao Fa himself came some distance from the town to greet the representative of France. Gilded parasols escort him, and each of us is gifted a parasol of his own, which a servant holds aloft on a pole. The king rides a superb black horse he controls with difficulty; he gives the beast free rein, and the entire cortege trots behind: mandarins old and young, bearers of sabers, lances, and flags, and parasol bearers alike. The spectacle is pure comedy; it recalls the Grant Turk’s ministers trotting behind the Commander of Believers on Selamlik Day.

Finally, the post appears. Annamite and Kha Khouene militiamen, or Tigers, do the honors. Introductions are performed.

The Tiao Ong Kham, the current ruler of Muang Sing, is about thirty years old. Of average height, corpulent but very alert, this young monarch displays intelligent eyes and extraordinary mobility. This man is interested in everything taking place around him; he seeks to develop his knowledge and educate himself. We will see later what important qualities of willpower he shows. The Tiao Fa is a chief; he knows how to exact obedience. I am struck by the change he has undergone over the past five years.

Do we truly act toward him in such a manner as to keep close to France this king of Muang Sing, whose father gave himself so generously to France?

Let us not forget that by virtue of its geographic position, the kingdom of Xieng Kheng, whose capital is the muang where we are writing these lines, is separated by numerous obstacles from the rest of our Indochinese possessions, with which his relations are close to non-existent. Natural, easy communications are with Burma via Xieng Toung and especially with Sipsong Pan Na, this vortex of troubles, this model of anarchy. Subject, if not in practice at least nominally, to the Chinese Empire, this territory, now handed over to bandits, deprives our border of all security, which was settled, as we saw, in inconceivable ignorance or culpable contempt for the region’s economic and political situation.

The tiao fa of Muang Sing could—and will be if we learn how to bind him to us—a powerful source of influence. His two sisters, born like him of the queen, Tiao Sali No’s first wife Princesses Patourna and Sounanto, are both married; one to the king of Xieng Toung, one of the most important principalities of the Shan States, the other to the legitimate heir to the throne of Xieng Houng, the capital of Sipsong Pan Na.

But Muang Sing is visibly wretched; it is in a pitiful state. No one would risk going there and spending five piastres without due cause. I do not exaggerate. Such a situation is not worthy of a French protectorate. We know in what splendor the rajahs of India live under British domination. The English consider—with good reason—that allowing native princes to keep up the appearance of their former power is sound policy; this is clearly no wasted investment, for disaffection on these rajahs’ part could cost the Crown a fortune in gold and blood. The Dutch do not act differently in the Vorstenlanden of Java. We had occasion to attend at the court of the Sultan of Jogjakarta festivities surpassing in sumptuousness everything we have seen so far except perhaps at the Court of Siam [see note below]. Yet the Sultan does not leave his palace, the Kraton, without a guard of honor composed of native soldiers from another tribe whose mission is to escort him everywhere. The Sultan is literally kept under surveillance, but this taste for luxury and pomp, which as an Oriental he knew in the depths of his soul even in his youth, is satisfied in him, and he lets himself glide through an easy existence. The Dutch, rapacious though they may be, understand this with marvelous practical sense, and they can only congratulate themselves for this policy.

Albeit of a different order of magnitude, the position is similar in our own possessions. Let us not forget this. Even if a preoccupation for dignity and the good name of France were not considered sufficient justification, let us consider that temporary parsimony could expose us to serious misadventures in the future.

The Muang Sing Market

There cannot be in all of the Far East a more unique market than that of Muang Sing during the dry season.

It is held every five days. The day prior to market day, lines of men and women come down from the neighboring mountains loaded with heavy hods, clad in strange costumes, uncomprehending the peasants descended from other summits whom they will meet in the town. Not daring to spend the night in the plain where fresh air is lacking and frogs are heard croaking, many halt before reaching the foot of the mountain and spend the night under the shelter of foliage.

From dawn, a human throng mills about in the vicinity of the post where the market is located. Two long sheds form the main sides of a rectangle closed on the other two sides by slatted barriers. Access to this vast enclosure is not through mere doors. Nothing is banal in this country. One has to look out for buffaloes, oxen, and horses wandering about in vain search for pasture. This is why the middle of each of the lateral barriers is fitted with a double staircase whose four steps will have to be climbed and as many descending on the other side.

Series of wattles raised a little above ground and parallel to the sheds await female merchants and their products. In the center of the market stands a lodge with a verandah. Its compartments house Burmese, Haw, and Tai who came with substantial provisions they will try to unload little by little during their stay at Muang Sing. Inside the verandah, the idle and the curious will shelter from the sun as they contemplate the crowd’s toing and froing. Let us take our place in their midst.

The first shock to the eye causes sheer astonishment; only color photography will allow those who have not visited this place to have a sense of this orgy of tints spread out shamelessly in the Muang Sing market. Ask a painter to arrange on his palette the dullest and most stunning hues next to the most vulgarly brilliant; you will recognize them all here.

Let us first look at the mistresses of the market, as well as the Lue of the capital and many neighboring villages. They might as well be a clutch of budgerigars bearing down on a field.

Rarely pretty, they shuffle duck-like along alleyways or position themselves facing a stall and sitting on very high rattan stools. Their skirt is a sinh, a sheath of cloth knotted tightly at the waist, adopting the shape of the well-rounded contents and occasionally causing alarm over its sturdiness when the woman squats, such is the pressure it has to bear. It consists of a series of horizontal strips encircling the body with its red, green, yellow, and purple curves joined and covering two thirds of the sinh. At the back is a wide strip of green cloth made of silk, cotton, or velvet. These elegant ladies allow a “sweeper” to show, fully deserving of its name for it drags its embroideries on a white background along the ground. On their feet, they wear either nothing or heavy sandals reminiscent of Japanese geta with their two thick braids joined up at the point of the shoe to fit between spread toes.

Their top consists of a short silk jacket, and it would seem that these women make it a point of coquetry not to wear any garment absolutely identical to those worn by their girlfriends. True, the form and cut are the same, silk is almost always the preferred material, but what a rainbow of nuances in their gradation, blending one into the other with infinite variety. These yellow, green, pink, tobacco-brown, mauve, flat-whites, grays, purples, and salmon hues differ so much from one another that not two absolutely identical colors could be found. If I had to give a prize for beauty, I would award it without hesitation to a small jacket in a deliciously soft orange, worn, it must be said, most elegantly by an exquisitely small person, the only pretty one in the market. Does this choice reveal partiality? Probe as I might my heart and loins, I do not believe myself culpable. But doesn’t one form of beauty highlight another? Let us take this soul-searching no further. I have no prize to award.

Did I say that each one of these jackets is bordered on all sides, across the front as well as the lower back and the neck, by a series of trimmings of five or six different colors?

Honestly, this is a gathering of dolls after they ransacked a trimmings emporium.

These amusing persons sport enormous topknots, half of which at least consists of false hair and which they surround with a long strip of black crepe streaked with heavy gold thread that wraps around the head into a voluminous turban. But the high topknot manages to rise above the center of this elegant scaffolding, which is fitted in lieu of hairpins with wide plates of chiseled silver or with kham, the object of the fervent envy of every Lue girl. A kham is a plate of chiseled red gold set with sapphires, diamonds, or simply pieces of crystal cut just like real diamonds. Some kham are round and reach eight centimeters in diameter, while others are triangular and others still are star-shaped.

On their ears, with their lobes pierced wide, these ladies wear cylinders made of reed stalks, sometimes of frightening dimensions: three centimeters across or more. Often refreshed, these earrings—if I may use the word “ring”—are sparkling white in color or painted a tender soft pink.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:28 (February 28, 1906): 279-284.

On Raquez’s time in Java, see Gibson and Bruthiaux, “Alfred Raquez Over Java,” Archipel 94 (2017): 171–190.

On Raquez’s image of Lue women at Muang Sing from Pages Laotiennes (main image above), see https://drgblogsupreme.wordpress.com/2019/01/

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 Seventeen

The Kha Khouene of the vicinity of Phu Kha are in favor of progress. The pagodas are decorated with buddhas, and the children of the notables sit in the sacred straw huts that here take the place of the holy portals, to be initiated into Lue writing. The priests are those of Buddha; a few statues of the saint are worshiped by the Lue, but like most Kha and even Lao, the Khouene have retained the memory of Brahmanic deities. In their prayers, they invoke Phaya In and Phaya Phrom, or Indra, the Master of the Lower Heaven, he whose Court is in no way comparable to any other and is composed of the most suavely suggestive bayadères, as well as Brahma, the creator, the non-created: He who is.

Needless to say, phi hold a considerable place in the lives of the Khouene, and small huts are erected in their honor here and there all around the villages. Each house has its hearth phi as well as the standard altar.

The dwelling of former chief Patavi, where we plan to visit his widow, has a massive staircase like that of the communal houses of the Lamet; but here, instead of being sculpted into crescents, they are carved with sharp edges into the very thickness of the timber like those of our European stairs and wide enough to allow the foot to rest on them.

The defunct phaya’s successor, Phaya Chaya Bout, was hearing a case in the full exercise of his judicial functions when we reached the village. Two Khouene from a neighboring group accused each other of a minor misdeed. No proof being tendered, the phaya was getting ready to put them both through the Judgment of God.

Two bowls of rice, two fires, and two cooking pots are made ready. Each litigating party will place its rice on the fire, and the first ration to be cooked to perfection will be declared that of the innocent party. The process is a good deal simpler, if not more reliable, than our procedure for proving forgery of documents, for example.

The Kha chief says that another proof is sometimes used in serious cases. Two operators force wedges of identical dimensions between thumb and forefinger, and the party that screams first and begs for mercy is declared guilty or loses the case.

Quite exceptionally among the Kha and a mark of civilization, the Khouene are familiar with corporal punishment. A rattan cane is applied at the rate of five to thirty lashes per day to a maximum of three days. The cangue is replaced by a piece of wood the condemned man drags around like the former iron balls of our penitentiaries. There is also a jail, but prisoners are only kept there for three days, and the sentence can be redeemed for five rupees per day, or about three piasters. The death penalty is unknown, and the maximum fine does not exceed sixty piasters. If the condemned man cannot pay, he will be forced to work for the rest of his life for whoever settles the debt on his behalf.

As the phaya gives me these details, I observe a woman munching a small ball with some conviction, which I find intriguing. Quite simply, this is edible earth, a kind of reddish clay grilled over a fire. The Kha Khouene and most of the tribes of Upper Mekong are geophagous. We will take a basketful to Marseille, but I doubt that Roubion [famed chef with a restaurant known as “La Réserve” on the Corniche in Marseille] will buy it from us at the close of the Exposition to serve to the gourmets among his clients.

As we finally leave Phu Kha and head for Muang Sing, we will pass another large Kha Khouene village, Eun Phu Pien, the residence of Phaya Pu Ma, the much-consulted chief it will be a pleasure to listen to. Same costumes, same way of life as among the Patavi group, but here, industry is flourishing.

The residents of Phu Pien carve pipes from silver into shapes as unique as they are elegant, and they will surely be a success back home.

Three mountains are to be climbed: Kiou Bang He, where the ruins of a former militia post are still visible, Ta Leng, and Nam Mai, separated from each other by the Nam Ta Leng and the Nam Mai.

We pass only one village of Red Miao at 1,100 meters in elevation.

Tonight, we will reach the banks of a pretty river, the Nam Houng, where we camped five years ago almost to the day at the same time of the year.

There is no travelers’ sala, today any more than on any other day; but shelters made of foliage with the camp beds set up one above the other are quickly assembled by the Commissioner’s coolies. Meanwhile, the boys and sai [servants] are busy on quite another job; the day was stifling, and since midday, horseflies and large green flies have been assaulting the horses and mules without a moment’s respite. On a steep slope, nothing is more unbearable or even dangerous than a horse exasperated by stings because it holds its head down and sometimes tries to aim a vigorous kick at his own flanks. Here, in the tall grass, flies bear down in serried battalions on the poor beasts, which stomp, neigh, and roll on the ground. The answer is to cut down the grass, light large fires, and drive the smoke toward the stinging insects’ victims. Those twenty or so braziers dotted along the banks of the Nam Houng add a picturesque touch to our encampment. But the fires will not be extinguished, for tigers are numerous in the vicinity. Barking deer bellow from early evening in the depth of the nearby wood, and twice tonight we will be awakened by the roar of the tiger, which will ring out very near, a few meters from our leafy huts.

***

From Vieng Phukha to Muang Sing

The road from Vieng Phukha to Muang Sing is truly exquisite in this extremely dry period, which helps us ride with ease. Each hour sees a changing panorama unfolding before the traveler.

Leaving the cool valley of the Nam Houng, the path climbs one of the foothills of Phu Bang He to 1,200 meters, leaving us facing a gigantic range whose height must exceed 2,000 meters and that seems to block our path. These regular slopes offer vast areas of cultivable land that must tempt land-clearers. The Miao therefore grabbed it. There are few green clumps on these vast stretches of land, for the forests have almost all been felled. The russet hue of the rai of last year, which will be provisionally abandoned, alternates with the black and white of the ash and the half-consumed tree trunks. Flames and smoke rise here and there between clusters of miniscule huts forming some twenty villages scattered about the mountain. The sun vividly lights up this tableau, which is livened up almost everywhere by Miao who came out of their dwellings to watch the passing cortege stretching beneath their domain.

We will climb up to 1,500 meters before reaching a pass that will take us through the mountain, and we will find ourselves among the Yao and amidst their cultivations of opium poppy.

On the horizon to our right is a high peak, the Pa Sat, which must have once served as the base for the crude triangulation of the Pavie map in these regions, if we are not mistaken.

Before noon, the caravan leaves Vieng Phukha territory and enters the kingdom of Muang Sing by following the crestline and riding through a series of rai on fire. The cool, limpid spring we come across at over 1,700 meters is savored by man and beast alike.

Our next stop, the dilapidated sala of Pang Hok, is located in the heart of the bush. An old Lanten woman followed by a young girl frightened at the sight of our camp emerges from a hitherto unseen path. She will have paddy brought to us for our horses, for there is a village concealed amidst the woods a short distance from the road. Almost all land-clearers stay far away from the beaten path in attempt to be forgotten as much as possible and thus earn peace and quiet.

Relief coolies were sent from Muang Sing to the Commissioner, Monsieur Sérizier, whom I have the good fortune to accompany on his journey, and I notice with surprise that they belong to the Lue group.

We already saw on numerous occasions the importance of this classification of races and tribes in the Far East as well as its consequences. If some people consider themselves superior to others, it is without doubt the Lue, who with near certainty show themselves to be the most conceited specimens among the Tai race. If the Nyaw belong to the same race, only they surpass the Lue in their lofty sense of their own importance. In practice, it is in the performance of corvée that this social superiority manifests itself. City dwellers and farmers in the plains fully intend to leave to mountain folk, the man of the rai, all secondary or arduous tasks, and when they have power, they enjoy making him feel their yoke.

Populations of Chinese origin or which over centuries and centuries lived Chinese lives among the Yao, the Lanten, or the Miao acquired independent habits that make them resistant to injunctions from the dominant Tai, bowing and obeying only when forced. As a result, the normally indolent Tai, repelled by all forms of vexations or effort, leaves the Yao, Miao, and Lanten in peace on their mountain summits.

But the Kha, the good Kha, who is if not indigenous at least the most ancient current resident of these regions, is accustomed to servitude under diverse masters and is accordingly seen as amenable to taxation and corvée at will. It fell to our French administration to restore balance in these duties and abolish the veritable slavery that weighed on most of these tribes.

Monsieur Vacle, the highly skilled Principal Commissioner of Luang Prabang proclaimed the emancipation of the Kha when he performed the functions of Commander Superior of Upper Laos and ensured that the new situation was accepted by the king as well as the senam of the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao.

It fell to Monsieur Sérizier to regulate the burden bearing down on the diverse populations of Upper Mekong Province. With considerable practical sense and a sure touch, he satisfied everyone, imposing minimal effort on each one given the tasks at hand. Transportation is distributed across sectors and performed by populations of all races but only in the immediate vicinity of their villages. As for tribes such as the Kuy, the Ko, and the Moussoe, who live away from the few communication routes used for transportation, they are tasked with various jobs for a specific number of days each year: felling trees for telegraph lines, supplying and transporting materiel for administrative buildings, and other obligations of the same sort.

Thus is applied across the entire province the principle of equality proclaimed on our official posters and on the walls of buildings in France but whose seed long ago bloomed in the souls of Indochinese populations. The French apply good and wise administration here.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:26 (January 30, 1906): 137-139 and “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:28 (February 28, 1906): 277-279.

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 Fifteen

The sala of Ban Sok Houn is built not far from the Nam Tia Lan, a cascading torrent, playful today but whose rocky, tortured bed retains as victorious trophies a great many tree trunks torn from the banks that constrain its course, witnesses to an unequal and dangerous nature. But tonight, Kha women frolic under little cascades, uttering little shrieks like playful partridges. They form a line and head back to the village, carrying a supply of water in long, wide bamboos placed straight across a hod held by a frontal belt.

On their shoulders, a few of them balance long branches at the extremity of which are bundles of leaves. These are ants’ nests found in the neighboring forests. The Kha cook these inside banana leaves and savor them like as a particularly delicious dish. The village chief suggests we add this item to our menu tonight, but we would not deprive his subjects of such delights.

Meanwhile, a long line of Khamu Rok stretches out along the banks of the torrent. They march in Indian file, each carrying two carefully covered baskets on his shoulders: men, women, and children pass by in succession, hurrying along, trotting in silence like extras in a fairyland show. Over one hundred savages seem to go past in this fashion. When questioned, one of them informs us that there are indeed one hundred and eighty of them coming from the Nam Beng Valley and heading for the salt wells via Muang Hai. Following custom, they carry with them tobacco and rice, which they will exchange for salt. The group settles down for the night not far from the sala. The open-hearted laughter of these people without a care lasts long into the night, alternating with the bellowing of the deer and the roar of the tiger hunting or fleeing under cover of the forest. The Khamu Rok will have already left when we rise in the morning.

From Sop Houn to Sop Ngin is a short stage through a region farmed by Khamu. Loud noises burst out on and off from the depth of the mountain; it sounds like an avalanche destroying everything in its path. Kha woodcutters are preparing their rai; axe in hand, they fell age-old trees without pity.

Suddenly, the great mountain reveals itself, with its succession of massifs and foothills. We halt, mouth agape, silent, struck by the beauty of these lines still caressed by the freshness of the dawn, admiring the broad vista that sings the glory of nature and the undulations of these giants whose massive forms intertwine in gentle harmony. Here, seeming lost in this immensity, are humble thatch roofs, infinitely small light-colored dots on a somber backdrop, sheltering small, weak, puny beings who are yet masters and kings of these forces, of these lives whose power they have tamed and bend to their needs.

Of Sop Ngin itself, a small village on the banks of the Nam Te, some fifty meters wide and currently fordable, there is little to say. We heard about a Chinaman, a major trader in pepper harvested in the vicinity, but this so-called pepper is none other than mak beng, a rather tasty condiment much prized by the Laotians.

Kha from the neighboring villages huddle around us. Members of the Khamu tribe, they are vigorous and fine of mien. Many have a straight, not a squashed nose; some of the children are truly superb. One of the Kha men has a white figure on the right side of his chest. Inside a circle made of saliva and lime are three dots arranged in a triangle as if following masonic rites. Might I be in the presence of a manufacturer of Laotian index cards? Upon inquiry, it turns out that this is nothing of the kind. For several weeks, this innocent child of the forest has been fighting a malevolent genie, a cunning phi, which has been gnawing at his soul. The village sorcerer having promised that the magic circle would defeat all the Evil One’s efforts, our man confidently and resignedly awaits its predicted departure.

Tall trees mark the border between the two provinces of Muang Xai and Vieng Phukha, between the kingdom of Luang Prabang and the territories of Upper Mekong.

By chance, we halt for lunch in a clearing close by some swamps. We are at 1,300 meters in elevation. Nong Oun, the hot pond, has a history of its own. In the past, a native informs us, over fifty years ago, a large Kha Khouene village stood here, spreading its huts up and down the hillsides. Suddenly, the hill collapsed, and jets of water spurted out, burying houses and residents alike. At the time, a group of men from the village had left for Bo Ten to fetch the supply of salt necessary to families. Imagine their consternation when on their return they found themselves facing ruins. For several long days, the neighborhood echoed with the loud outbursts of their grief, before they left to go and found the village that still exists today, Ban Kou Ta Long, or the Village of People Sitting on Ruins, literally among wooden debris. This is the origin of the swamps we crossed a while ago.

Today, nature has recovered her calm and gaiety. The wind blows through the tall trees, bring to our ears the sound of khene being played in the village of Kou Ta Long. The leaves of tree-like ferns, which are abundant here, sway elegantly. It is good to dream!

Vieng Phukha

 Toward the close of a torrid day, from the summit of one of the hundred hills that meet in this devastated region, the buildings of Vieng Phukha are visible. Decidedly modest huts built on stilts and covered with thatch seem to us a restful oasis in the midst of a desert. The flag flutters over there; a Frenchman must reside in this God-forsaken spot.

We said desert, and we are not wrong. Five years ago, when we halted our mounts opposite the Commissariat building, a crowd gathered all around us [See Laotian Pages]. Near the Nam Tok, the houses of a large village clustered at the foot of the post’s hill. This is where Phaya Patavi, one of the two chiefs of the important Kha Khouene tribe, resided, and his presence was the cause of perpetual toing and froing by natives. The Government Commissioner, Monsieur Fernand Ganesco, divided his activities between three official residences: Muang Sing, Vieng Phukha, and Xieng Khong. At the time, his residence recalled only distantly the Headquarters of the Lieutenant-Governor of Cochinchina, but gaiety reigned supreme. Disturbed in their repose, the phi of the environs, showed their irritation and made sure we knew it, for a sudden gust of wind blew away part of the dining room of the Commissariat just as we were getting ready to savor a meal prepared according to the rules of Brillat-Savarin, and two enormous trees collapsed on the unfortunate hut that served as kitchen, thus wiping out all our hopes.

Further on were the dwellings of the Garde Principal and the Head and Supervisor of Posts and Telegraphs. An elegant bridge made of lianas linked the village to the administrative hillsides, adding a picturesque note to the landscape through which circulated Khouene women wearing skirts with multi-colored stripes and smoking pipes made of roots or bamboo almost as long as their small person. Kha militiamen clad in jackets of blue silk and trousers of the same color held tight, one end at the belt, the other inside red gaiters also displayed a brilliant turban. These were the Tigers of Phukha, and they retain that title.

The real tigers, those of the neighboring forest, paid regular visits to village and post alike. On several occasions during our short stay, gunshot woke us with a jerk in the middle of the night. The wide print of a powerful paw and a half-devoured goat inside the Phaya Patavi’s enclosure testified to the passage of a tiger, and the next day, devastation in the chicken coop, traces of blood, tufts of hairs, and tracks in the damp earth showed that the Postmaster’s gun had hit a panther in its flight.

Finally, a vast, well-built market sheltered passing caravans, its compartments providing accommodation for a few Ngouan and Burmese merchants who set up stall there. The life, animation, and energy of Phukha had charmed us in this delightful setting of mountains of such diverse aspects.

Today, all is inactivity, sadness, and brush. The Commissariat has not been raised from its ruins, and it takes effort to assign a location to these vanished buildings. The Tigers only have a small detachment commanded by a native doi. The supervisor of the telegraphic line, whose domain has expanded, is permanently on the move. We ran into him the other day. Only the Postmaster, Monsieur Hurtin, a valiant man, continues to live in the same thatched hut as in the past, a little shakier, with a floor made of bumpy attap that gives the visitor the sensation of being aboard a rolling steamer. [NB: Hurtin is listed as “commis du cadre local” for Vieng Phukha in the Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines, &c, for 1904].

The liana bridge, the market, the pagoda, the natives and their village: everything is gone, vanished as if by magic. All that is left is thick brush, vigorous, astonishing, even. We can scarcely believe our eyes, yet our memory does not deceive us.

The tigers themselves, the real, ferocious ones, have fled this desolate spot. The beasts in our convoy will spend the night in complete safety and the day wallowing in tall grass.

The good Monsieur Hurtin welcomes us with open arms. He has not seen a white face for many a long week, and European visitors to Phukha are rare. You need a truly special temperament to live in such isolation, which is nothing short of splendid, far even from any native village, often separated from the rest of the world by frequent cuts in the telegraph line, deprived of all medical assistance, and forced to order even wine in zinc-lined postal packages of five kilos at 94 cents, or 2.25 francs, each containing two bottles. In a few months, things will be very different, when torrents of water cascading down every mountain will make all communication with neighboring regions truly impossible. Yet he utters no complaints. To your good health, from the bottom of our hearts, O Isolated One!

Memories unfold. My old comrade, Phaya Patavi, had the unfortunate idea of departing this world, and his brother, Phaya Chaya Bout, succeeded him, moving the village to better rai a short distance from the former settlement. We will go and converse with the Kha Khouene again.

 

Lanten, Miao, Kha Tiol, and Lamet groups have also built their huts in the mountains adjoining Phukha; we will pay visits to some of them. Already, the amiable Monsieur Hurtin has sent notice to the Kha Lemet chief of our desire to visit his village, but he met with a refusal from the chief, for phi have set up residence if the ban, and they would not tolerate the presence of a stranger. A native, a skilled diplomat, is dispatched to the tormented, superstitious souls. He will try to persuade them that the best way to drive away the Evil One is to kill an ox, a pig, and chickens and to empty a few jars of alcohol at the expense of the passing guest, who is the possessor of a musical phi more powerful than any other. The next day, the reply arrives. All the Lamet of the vicinity have been summoned; we are expected, and the festivities promise to be splendid. Coming to an agreement with the big children of the bush is quite easy, in most cases.

 

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:26 (January 30, 1906): 129-132.

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 Thirteen

Some twenty years ago, the tiao fa of Muang Xai, vassal of the tiao vit of Luang Prabang, affected signs of independence and tried to raise the standard of revolt, to use the classic expression that is almost a pure metaphor since these populations possess no standards. Good Oriental monarch that he is and being familiar with the nature of men and not caring to raise an army of his own, the King of Luang Prabang bribed the brother of the tiao fa, who dispatched his sibling by the most expeditious means to the heavenly portal where his ancestors meditate.

A mere tiao muang succeeded him, with a nai kuen, or governor by his side as representative of the King of Laos. It is this functionary, a most amiable young man, who invites us to a forest hunt with beaters. The village folk along with some Kha descended from the mountain, about one hundred and fifty individuals in total, form a picturesque cortege. They take with them some twenty nets with sturdy yellow mesh, which they stretch into a continuous line in the undergrowth. The nets are lightly held up by two bamboo poles curving in opposite directions and that will fall down at the slightest touch. A man armed with a spear stands inside each net. The hunters, us, that is, then take up their places outside of the long wall formed by these contraptions. Garde Principal Bernard informs us that a tiger, a panther, or a boar is almost always caught during these hunts. Deer and roebuck often leap over the obstacle.

But hush! Shrieks and howls ring out far away in the plain. Armed with bamboo sticks, the beaters move forward. They enter the wood, beating the trees, probing the bush. A pack of native dogs barks loudly. Back here, all along the line of nets and hunters, a deathly silence reigns.

Hearts beat faster and more violently. We are prey to an unnerving emotion when, finger on the trigger, ears cocked, the eye seeking to pierce the forest brush, we wonder whether one of the dreaded guests of the forest, which we have the audacity to disturb, is not about to suddenly leap out. A falling leaf, a bird flying off, a squirrel causing a branch to crackle, puts us on our guard. Suddenly, there is a loud sound of branches being stirred, and two men leap out, spears raised; shrieks, two shots, and in the last net on the left wing, we see a boar of average size breathing its last. The beaters are close to us, folding up the nets before gathering again under a tall tree of the plain, where the country’s expert hunters will hold council.

Where next? Two more beats will be conducted, but without appreciable success: only a few birds imprudent enough to allow themselves to get caught in the net.

The beaters had fun, like big children, and would like nothing better than to go back into the woods if it were not the hour of rest and we were not far from the sala. Turn around! Direction: Muang Xai!

An Alpine concert of small bells awakes us early the next morning. It is a caravan of pack oxen led by Miao passing by the post.

Muang Xai is an important crossroads. People come from Muang Sing via Muang Luang Namtha, from Sipsong Pan Na and the salt-producing region via Muang Hai, from the upper Nam Ou Valley via Muang La, from Muang Ngoi via the rich rice fields watered by the Nam Bak. Lao, Lue, Tai, Khamu, Yao, and Miao all meet here among the inhabitants of this muang, who are Lue but aspire to a superior social position, calling themselves Lao Tai Sai, or Free Laotian Tai, of the Free World. The further we travel, the more this sense of tribal pride—we can hardly call it national pride—manifests itself among the different groups we meet. But we should not complain because the Lao core, the most administratively controlled of these groupings, draws others to itself. Language, clothing, and customs merge little by little, to the detriment of the picturesque to be sure, but for the greater good of the populations, which rise toward a superior type. In any case, this makes the administration of the country that much easier.

This is how the natural flow of ideas took us from caravan oxen to administrators. I can already hear one of them protest with an energy charged with emotion: We are not….

The little bells ring on. They kicked off a day devoted to music, for thanks to the Kha and the village folk for participating in yesterday’s hunt, a boun is organized. Every true boun consists of two parts: a feast, and songs and sometimes dances. A fat pig and some twenty chickens form the basis of a feast of Pantagruelian proportions washed down with long drafts of rice wine. For the observer, these festivities are a perfect opportunity to learn. Men, women, and children rush in wearing their most festive costumes and their most precious jewelry. If they are given sufficient notice, residents of neighboring villages do not pass up a chance to have fun, for seeking after pleasure is the principal preoccupation of every member of the Tai race. Finally, passing Kha, and there are always some, approach timidly, at the back of the queue, watching and then drinking like brutes if invited.

Everyone knows that the phonograph, the phi lam, the French phi that sings, will be heard today, so a large crowd gathers on the terrace of the ruined pagoda at the top of the hillock dominating the Nam Ko. The enjoyable meal has come to an end; eyes sparkle. Squatting on mats, the audience takes its place before a small table on which stands the mysterious box. In the front row are women of a certain age and their children, then the younger women and young girls, among whom are several really pretty ones. A dozen nursing babies are having a meal of their own “as they hang to their mother’s breast,” as the great Victor put it to music by Massenet [see note below]. In the center stands a small group of female singers and male flute players; the women wear sinh, jacket, and Lue turbans we described at Muang Sing; on their wrists are heavy bracelets of braided silver representing plaited cords; on their ears are enormous cylinders of reed stalks, white as snow in the visible section but colored bright red all around their exterior.

Men wearing sparkling red turbans, or tan, as militiamen are called in Laos, and monks wrapped in their robes surround these ladies, revealing as a backdrop a group of Kha, entirely naked and suntanned. By good fortune, for which we are grateful, they belong to the Khamu Rok tribe, one of the most primitive but also the most curious from an ethnographic standpoint in all of Upper Laos. With their à la chien hairdo, these Kha are truly herculean with their purely classical forms and a physiognomy that is either bestial or remarkably handsome. Some wear their hair down to their shoulders and sometimes curly like that of our European babies, but most tie it nonchalantly into a knot on the back of their head. Complicated tattoos cover almost their entire body; some even have some on their face. Very gentle and as simple as children, they provide us with precious ethnographic and anthropological information.

Gentle sounds arise from a group of women. One of the singers turns a compliment into melodious poetry. The fan she holds open before her mouth softens her voice. The murmurs of the accompanying flutes made of bamboos with eight holes are just as gentle. The Lue do not play the Laotian khene.

Following the girl’s singing is Madame Rollini in The Child of the Black Forest. Generalized astonishment dissolves into giggling fits when Tyrolian yodeling rises from the phonograph [see note below].

The orchestral pieces are heard with religious attention. More than those of previous days, this group seems to take an interest in our European harmony. The flute players expound and discuss it. The Overture to The Dumb Girl of Portici, in which the wind section plays a major part, has them opening their eyes wide and their mouth wider still.

Lue and French songs alternate. Rice wine circulates, sipped through thin bamboo tubes, and gaiety reigns. A young woman in a pink jacket and with eyes as sharp as those of a bird of prey has her work cut out to respond to the gallantry of five tan squatting around her. The lass does not seem in the least intimidated, and she holds her own with spirit. We avert our eyes for an instant, and when we are ready to cast them again on this friendly gathering, we see that they all left the festivities as a group. The prestige of the uniform at work: nursemaids and soldiers!

Upright, immobile, and silent, the naked Khamu Rok form a backdrop behind this chattering crowd that is having fun. These true savages seem unimpressed by our European melodies; arms crossed over their chest, they watch impassively. Their bronzed skin and robust forms allied to their delicate musculature and the purity of the lines outlined by the clarity of the atmosphere, even the languorous nonchalance of some of their poses: everything suggests the elegant statues of the Italian Renaissance.

— Don’t you think, says Monsieur Sérizier, that this Khamu Rok recalls a Florentine singer?

— I was about to say the same thing.

Noticing us gazing at the group of dumb men, the Lue consider using them as part of the festivities. Their dances are unique, we are told, but the Kha start moving only when excited by alcohol, so one of the notables goes over to them and pours out several drafts, which are promptly consumed while the gentle love songs of the Lue singer alternate with The Blessing of the Daggers and Good Night, Lady Moon on the ebonite rolls [see note below].

A circle is formed. Two Kha come forward, their pose as nonchalant as ever, feline, even. They lower themselves and squat in a single move without touching the ground, and releasing the springs at the back of their knees, they leap like wild beasts and swap places inside the circle. These men are transformed. Their eyes sparkle, their clapping hands accentuating the rhythm marked out by a tom-tom beating the charge. They taunt each other and have fun between themselves even more than for the benefit of the gallery.

A bizarre fight begins. The champions strike each other with the inside of their thighs while hands, arms, chest, feet, and knees stay out of the combat and retire into the background. Only thighs strike vigorously, twisting the wrestlers into the most extraordinary postures, which would be grotesque in anyone but these supple children of the forest. Thighs strike thighs as the two men leap about and collide in mid-flight. Strike succeeds strike until the one of the two champions loses his balance and falls down, to shrieks from the crowd. This would be a sensational number for the Marseille Exposition.

The sun tires and considers that the festivities have lasted long enough. It softens its ardor and gets ready to disappear behind the curtain of high mountains that lines the horizon. Night will fall very quickly.

Groups withdraw slowly. A few curious individuals, and especially the khene players, come close for a better look at the phonograph and to ask for an explanation about the mechanism. They take great interest in the machine, and without doubt, they will long remember the strange box brought in one day by a fat man with a beard.

We visit the neighboring pagoda, a simple enclosure consisting of a low, thick wall supporting an enormous roof made of thatch. It drops into an awning so low that visitors are forced to bend down to pass into the interior of the temple. This is an Hôtel-Dieu in its true sense. In these Far-Eastern countries, the pagoda is a communal house. When no sala has been built specifically to meet the needs of passing travelers or the sala has its full complement of customers, which is by no means rare during caravanning season, guests of the village head for the pagoda. They feel at home because the pagoda is everyone’s house. They select a spot at the feet of the meditating or preaching buddhas, spread out their mat covered with an andrinople-colored blanket garnished with a cotton quilt, deposit their hard, rectangular pillow with small embroidered figures and covered in sequin, and set up their boxes of tea, betel, lime, areca nuts, and tobacco, a teapot, and finally the opium smoker’s paraphernalia.

Smoking does indeed go on inside the pagoda, numbing it with a cloud that rises toward the restful buddhas, seeming as natural here as the perfumed incense rising up the elegant ribs of the vaults of our gothic cathedrals.

About a dozen smokers are stretched out limply inside the Muang Xai pagoda. They keep a distant eye on their possessions. If truth be told, the temple is also a bazaar. Sheltered from sun and showers, the merchants offer the public machetes and sabers from the Shan States or Burma, their shiny steel or soft iron confined to the inside of a sheath of varnished wood held in plaited bamboo rings. There are even about one hundred buddhas bearing a German mark brought here from Keng Tung, the great market on the right bank. Oriental religious art is truly decadent, in the Shan States at least.

It is the hour of prayer. The prelude is a concert of tom-toms. Standing on a podium close to the pagoda, his face turned toward the fading sun, a handsome man with shaved head and eyebrows plays veritable melodies on his tom-tom, a long wooden tube most odd-looking in the middle and fitted with a snake skin. One of his hands strikes the resonant skin while the other creates a variety of sounds depending on whether it rests on one part of the instrument or another.

Wrapped in his yellow robe, whose tints seem to brighten up in the golden dust of the setting sun, this tom-tom-playing monk is superb! But his staring eyes seem singularly fixated. The priest leans forward the better to see the bottom of the gorge through which the Nam Ko rolls at the foot of the hill with the temple on top. What can perturb the officiating monk thus? We step forward to take a look. Their veils left lying on the bank, three voluptuous girls are frolicking and making their evening ablutions. Naughty monk! He is uttering a singular prayer, he who according to ritual must hold the priestly screen, the talapat, before his eyes to shield them from contact with woman, that impure being.

And his tom-tom beats on furiously!

 

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:25 (January 15, 1906): 35-40.

The lyrics to Les Enfants were written by Georges Boyer, Secretary General of the Paris Opéra, and set to music by composer Jules Massenet in 1882. Pathé issued several versions of the song at the turn of the century; a representative example can be heard here: http://www.phonobase.org/audio/AD-2014/2014_7754.mp3. Massenet also set several of Victor Hugo’s odes to music and Raquez is confused about the source material for the lyrics.

The name “Rollini” appears on numerous yodeling recordings from this period but her true identity remains a mystery. See Bart Plantenga, Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica (2013), 217. An Edison cylinder of Rollini’s performance of L’Enfant De La Forêt-noire can be heard here: http://www.library.ucsb.edu/OBJID/Cylinder9522

An Edison recording of the Ouverture la muette de Portici performed by the Garde Républicaine, released in 1910 but perhaps recorded earlier, can be heard here: http://www.library.ucsb.edu/OBJID/Cylinder1319

A Pathé phonograph cylinder of Bénédiction des Poignards, c.1905 or earlier, can be heard here: http://www.library.ucsb.edu/OBJID/Cylinder9392

A Pathé phonograph cylinder of Bonsoir, Madame La Lune, c.1902 or 1903 can be heard here: http://www.library.ucsb.edu/OBJID/Cylinder9399

For more information on Raquez’s equipment and field recordings, 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.

Dispatch Twelve

We make a major halt for lunch by a clear stream under shady foliage. The sun, furious at not having discomforted us so far, makes its anger felt as we approach Ban Na Kok, the Village of the Hillside Rice Fields.

The houses of the village are dotted along the banks of the Nam Nga. The river is wide and full of fish. The nai kuen, or Laotian governor of the province, accompanies us. In his luggage, he carries sticks of dynamite and in a moment, he detonates one, to the utmost joy of the natives, who leap into the water and fight over the unfortunate fish. Thirty or forty kilos are dumped on the riverbank and divided with scrupulous care by the chiefs, a scene of equity and calm that never ceases to strike us. A type of shad will make a triumphant appearance tonight, garnished with chopped bamboo seasoned with a vinaigrette, to the greatest delight of our stomachs.

Intellectual life and the development of an artistic sense among the Laotian population are the dual reasons for the reaction we may expect from a talkative instrument: the Pathé phonograph [see note below]. The machine meets with resounding success at every stage halt, when at the gentle hour of nightfall, the wide horn broadcasts brilliant fanfares far and wide. While the inevitable fowl on a spit is being prepared, the latest expression of French art is advertised in this distant land.

Today, the Commissioner’s coolies are Lue, specimens of a tribe we will have occasion to observe at leisure further on but who already show their profound distaste for all forms of work. Half-an-hour passes before the village chief manages to rouse all the sleeping forms from their huts, and it has long been daylight. For another half-hour, the coolies will examine their load, weighing each one in succession. A light box entrusted to a young man is torn from him by a strapping fellow who wishes to force a much heavier burden on his unfortunate victim. A firm hand is necessary before we can get this convoy of thirty porters underway. By the time we reach our destination, by I know not what miracle, there will be fifty of them, most of the loads having been divided up.

A morning foot bath is mandatory in the Nam Ngon, a major tributary of the Nam Nga, which we forded more than once, with the horses often being in water up to their chest.

After two hours of this exercise, on the banks of the river, we come across a large Khamu village, Ban Tao Keo, where we could easily—indeed should—have slept last night. But the difficulty involved in obtaining clear information caused us to miss this obvious stage shelter.

We also learn that another road makes it possible to reach Muang Nga in a single day instead of two starting from Ban Lat Han. This is the route normally taken by merchants, we are told.

The landscape changes its aspect. Leaving the bamboo forest, the road stretches along a valley hemmed by hills covered in greenery. Although a stream, the Houei Lue, irrigates the valley itself, little more than tall reeds grow here. Yet here and there, trees in full bloom like our French almond trees cast a bright note with their fresh open corollas. These are kok ban, our guide informs us, but we cannot elicit any further information on the subject.

The valley seems barred by an imposing mountain range, Phu Pang Ko, which will take us up to 1,000 meters through a splendid forest of tall trees. Orchids hang on almost every one of them. They come in many species and numbers, to the point where avid collectors would be filled with joy. But the traveler passes through and does not stop. Interesting though they may be, there is no question of transporting these delicate plants from such far-flung region to France.

Night falls as the convoy enters a vast clearing, a pang, as the Laotians say. We will spend the night here, for the stream will allow us to water man and beast alike, and we are not certain of finding any others further down the road.

In a few minutes, the Commissioner’s coolies cut down bamboos, construct a shelter with two camp beds, and cover it with wide banana leaves. This is Paul et Virginie: life in the open air!

“Monsieur! Monsieur! Blanco, he make tiêt!” This is a white horse ridden by my cook, which has indeed just dropped dead, its belly swollen beyond measure. We try abdominal massage, then one of the mafou forces the animal’s mouth open and scratches its palate while the other inserts his arm up to the elbow into the opposite extremity of Blanco’s conduit. Nothing doing: the poor beast is mere carrion. This is the second such occurrence since we left Tonkin.

We discuss the cause of death. Noting the ballooning belly, the old mafou believes that the animal must have eaten some noxious weeds and poisoned itself. Let us hope the beast did not plan to quit our service, for in addition to a poisoned horse, this would be a heavy burden on our conscience.

Nearby in the forest, a caravan of Laotians and Chinamen on their way to Luang Prabang come to spend the night. Eleven oxen carry beautiful rubber of a light brown color in their baskets.

Since the crisis in this product ended on the European markets, its exploitation in the Laotian forests has undergone considerable expansion. Tons of rubber are flooding into Luang Prabang, where three or four French trading houses have been bringing it in for almost five years.

We fall asleep dreamily, for it is the author of these lines who showed the natives the rubber of the very forests we are now crossing. They all insisted that the precious liana did not exist in these parts, and yet we showed it to them. Despite their protestations to the contrary, this has been a major source of riches for them. But no matter since the growth in that trade is leading to a major uptick in the region’s wealth.

Some Chinamen are loitering about our encampment, but they are politely requested to stay close to their oxen and the leafy shelters they themselves erected. Too many useful objects might tempt them.

Phew! Not this time! We had a lucky escape, Madam, as we rode.

As we descend the gently sloping path from Phu Kiou Tiak in Indian file, frightened shrieks are heard at our rear accompanied by a dreadful noise coming closer, as if a tornado were heading in our direction. Commissioner Sérizier leaps off his horse. Through supreme effort and despite resistance on the beast’s part, I manage to drive my mount into a clump of bamboos off the path itself. A convoy of mules then pass by us in a mad race, several still carrying their load, others trundling debris from their packs, all of them dragging behind them the horses we managed to keep in hand but knocking over one of our boys, who was unable to get out of the way in time. The unfortunate lad complains of internal pains, but he does not seem to have suffered major injuries.

The noise dies down, and we are able to survey the extent of the disaster: four hods and eight baskets broken. Fortunately, the baskets contained only clothing, provisions, and bottles of wine. We would have had to resort to the clear water of streams if the Commissioner’s luggage, which was entrusted to the coolies, had not contained a few flagons of the comforting fluid. Monsieur Sérizier comes from the Bordelais: we are reassured about this aspect of our fate.

Yet the topic of travel in these parts leaves us increasingly perplexed. If we rely on human porters, we must fear being unable to procure coolies; but if at considerable expense we organize a convoy of animals to avoid inconveniencing the populations or their administrators, we run the risk of losing our baggage or collecting nothing but debris. Gentle country!

Lao Teu the mafou informs us that the stampeding mules were frightened by a tiger crawling through the brush close to the path, and they bolted madly.

If the panic had taken place on one of the narrow paths we so often follow on mountainsides, with a precipice on one side and the sheer mountain on the other, we would have been irretrievably lost. Such are the reflections exchanged by two travelers once they recover from their fright.

The practical lesson to draw from the incident is never to ride ahead of the convoy except at a safe distance.

At last, a village: Ban Tio, home to a population so obliging that we feel compelled to halt among them without having anything to request. We are intrigued by wood stacked under their enormous houses. These are used for firing the earthenware cooking pots manufactured here at certain periods of the year.

The valley widens, hemmed in by verdant hillsides. Rice field follows rice field. We pass two Lue villages: Ban Na Vien and Ban Na Sao, then reach the vast rice-growing plain abutting Muang Xai.

In the background to the left on a low hill stands the high pagoda of Ban Kin; on another straight ahead of us, far in the distance, a small rag flutters in the wind; it is the flag! We have reached Muang Xai, where we will meet a compatriot, Garde Principal Bernard.

Ash-gray cranes observe our passing convoy inquisitively, but we lack the courage to shoot such pretty, placid denizens of the Laotian plain so needlessly.

It is still morning as we reach Muang Xai after four and a half days on the road. The journey can therefore be accomplished in four days if we cover lengthy stages, as we did. But to do this, we need to know the location of shelters in advance.

This timetable might even be cut to three days’ walk if the route indicated to us from Ban Lat Han to Muang Nga truly made it possible to reach this village in 24 hours, as we were assured.

Muang Xai

The setting up of posts on the summit of hills has both supporters and opponents, depending on administrative practice. Opponents stress the difficulties involved in supplying the post with water and especially the importance of the water corvée. In posts occupied by a large garrison, like the one at Ba Xat, for example, little horses carrying small barrels journey from the nearby river to the post’s buildings all day long. Defenders of the height option, if I may call it that, find that the disadvantages are largely compensated for by the ability to survey the surroundings as well as by the caresses of the breeze, let alone the beauty of the sights that can often be admired from such heights. True, the caresses of the breeze are sometimes like the caresses of a woman: they cause a fever. Thus, at certain periods, soldiers encamped on the hills of Dong Dang near Lang Son are stricken by serious ailments whereas the residents of the plain are unaffected. The winds that blow through the mountains must carry pernicious germs.

Be that as it may, the Muang Xai post sits on a hillock dominating the landscape, and one never tires of admiring nature’s unfolding spectacle from this balcony. The immense plain of rice fields dotted with villages through which we rode could feed a population ten times as large. Meanwhile, the green forests undulate all the way to the high massifs of mauve mountains, lost in distant mist.

Garde Principal Bernard is the only European around, but he does not live alone in his wattle and daub house.

Guests have forced themselves on him in bizarre circumstances. One sunny morning, his house was suddenly invaded by a swarm of bees following their queen and took up residence in a vast armoire made of ill-fitting planks. Neither a fire of straw or even sulfur succeeded in driving them away from a spot so unsuited to a beehive. But since the buzzing insects took care not to importune the inhabitants of the house, they were finally accepted, and this is how we were able to admire wax cakes from a beehive in construction in an armoire in Muang Xai.

Other guests can be less agreeable. The day before our arrival, the Garde Principal, going out at night in the post’s courtyard, noticed two panthers frolicking by moonlight behind the bamboo fence. Three very young specimens were brought to him last month, and did not take long to depart this world. For the last week or so, another of these young felines has been reared here. The size of a small kitten, admirably spotted, it utters brief, proud cries and eyes us fixedly as if to challenge us. This little orphan looks utterly adorable!

At the foot of the post, the village stretches out to the banks of the Nam Ko. The vast sala built five years ago for the passage of the Resident Superior and where we stayed at the time now serves as a residence for the Laotian governor of the province [NB: Laotian Pages]. A neighboring hut is our own home.

Muang Xai was once the seat of a tiao fa, or chief of a principality. In Laos, important settlements have a tiao muang, or Master of the Muang, at their head. The principalities are the purview of a tiao fa, or Master of the Heavens, under the suzerainty of a tiao si vit, or Master of Life, like the King of Siam or that of Lan Xang Hom Khao.

***

Raquez’s phonograph was a Pathé No. 3, or a “Le Français” model, circa 1902 or 1903, which he used not only to play but also to record, as in postcard B.25.

 

 

For more information on Raquez’s equipment and field recordings, 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

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:25 (January 15, 1906): 30-35.

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 Ten

A tremendous noise reverberates and echoes, causing us to cock our ears. It sounds like a shot from a high-caliber cannon. The Lao men say a rockfall must have occurred in the mountain. Sent out to explore, one of them returns soon after to confirm the hypothesis: several enormous stone blocks came loose at the summit and hurtled to the bottom of a depression in the mountainside, where luckily they met no habitations or crops.

The noise so scared our animals that five of them snapped their tethers and fled through the muang. We also recovered five of the six mules we had left behind at Lai Cao as they were unavailable. They were sent to us by Quandao Deo Van Tri along with two Chinese—or Chinese-ish—mafou, Lao Kan and Ah Teu, the first of whom once led Mr. Pavie’s convoys. From now on, they will guide our own convoys along the paths of Laos, and as early as tomorrow, they will follow the right bank of the Nam Ou and wait for us at Ban Lat Han on the Mekong, not far from Luang Prabang, the starting point of a road leading to Muang Sai, which we will take to reach Upper Western Laos.

Tomorrow, we too shall journey down the Nam Ou by pirogue to reach the capital of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol.

Four days is the norm in this period of low waters to travel downstream from Muang Ngoi to Luang Prabang, but we do not need to leave until after breakfast, says the nai kuen, for our teams of pirogues are among the best and they will take us there swiftly.

A deck of braided bamboo has been installed across our twenty-meter pirogues, on which six vigorous young men take up their positions. At the very front stands the forward helmsman, who with his long oar will assist the aft helmsman through difficult sections. A high roof makes it possible for us to sit up, and the dry banana leaves that cover it provide protection of sorts from the sun. This is perfect; let us proceed, but gently!

We already explained elsewhere [NB: Laotian Pages] that the obstacles met on the watercourses of this country are of three types: keng, or rocky rapids, hat, or pebble rapids, and fisheries, with their dykes and dams.

All three types of obstacles come in almost uninterrupted succession on the Nam Ou, making navigation somewhat difficult. But the boatmen know every pebble in the river, and they will need that knowledge, for each rapid varies according to the rise and fall of the waters.

On the first day, we come to Keng Khang: not difficult during the rainy season, it is dangerous right now. Waves froth as if exiting a lock, carrying the pirogue and filling it to almost a third. All hands to the pump! We wield buckets with a drive that needs no encouragement.

First night on the bank at Ban Sop Van.

We cannot leave early in the morning for a thick mist covers the river and agrees to become less opaque only around six thirty.

An eddy and a sound of fishtail whipping the water rises not far from us. It is a pa beuk, an enormous fish the size of a shark and just as voracious, which just surfaced to swallow a duck. The fowl did not even have time to utter a “quack!” How unfortunate are ducks on the Nam Ou!

We are on our way via various hat and keng. In one of the latter, the fore helmsman, who probably miscalculated his strike, loses his balance and falls into the water. We believe him lost, but the agile fellow grabs the rear of the pirogue and finds his footing again.

Now comes Keng Tai, tough at the start with its two thresholds in close proximity and its zigzagging channel.

Next are tricky fisheries. The Nam Ou’s system does not lack originality. Sturdy stakes have been planted across the width of the river, about 150 meters here, leaving only a narrow space between them, and at one point a channel just wide enough to allow pirogues to pass through. Leaning against the dam itself but overhanging it over the water, a fairly large hut has been built on stilts and roofed with thatch. In the floor is a large square hole through which the fisherman will lower his net, a kind of creel with floats. The man wants to keep an eye on his contraption and raise it at the propitious moment, so a short distance from the hut, he has set up a tripod made of very high stakes that cross just below their highest point and in whose junction the watchman squats. His seat is very high, for the water is absolutely clear, and he cannot intimidate the fish with human majesty. Perched in this elevated but hardly enviable social position for someone measuring 116 around the waist, imperturbable, the Lao man watches the fish for hours. Then, should the coveted prey become tangled up in his creel, the man tumbles down to the hut with the agility of a monkey.

Six of them are perched thus above the current as we negotiate the threshold formed by the fisheries of Muang Seun: a highly original group, I must say.

In the evening, the pirogues halt on the bank at Ban Hat Tang, a village of half Lao and half Ngouan from the vicinity of Xieng Khouang (Ban Houei Sai), who came here long-ago following events of which the ancients in the group have no recollection. These folk live from fishing and farming rai. For them as for many others, Tai or Lao, the Kha of the vicinity are a providential presence, for they supply cotton, vegetables, roots for chewing, and a multitude of ingredients dear to the natives of the Tai race but which they lack the will to cultivate or search for themselves.

Here, the river is hemmed in by high walls. On the narrow banks left uncovered by the receding waters, riparian folk grow a few vegetables, indigo, and especially tobacco. The Lao is a keen smoker. Almost everywhere, and especially in the vicinity of Vientiane, he has access to excellent tobacco he rolls into cigarettes in a dried banana leaf or smokes in pipes of all shapes and sizes.

The gardens have almost disappeared in the shadows. Night fell quickly, as always in these mountainous regions. The azure’s deep limpidity is spangled with scintillating stars, and the somber walls that guide the gaze heavenward bring out its splendor all the more. The crenelated summits stand out sharply, strange, fantastical against the background of a clear sky. Once again this brings to mind those evenings of yesteryear in “gentilhomme” Salis’ cabaret, when skilled poets and gentle musicians religiously kept the sacred fire of the art they managed to infuse with powerful radiance during a period that, to many people’s taste, ended all too soon.

As early as four thirty, the tom-toms and cymbals of the village pagoda beat reveille, and the monks begin to recite the rite. Good Lord! What a ruckus! Why don’t we apply those famous laws to these congregants who so disturb the public’s rest? At least, when the Carthusians sang matins in the desert, they only awoke the echoes of cloisters, whereas Lao religious men cause a stir in an entire village as well among those whom the needs of navigation force to halt there.

“Them folk need to be kicked out,” as the sociopath Mac-Nab would say [NB: a postal worker and chanson singer, Maurice Mac-Nab (1856-1889) specialized in macabre songs with titles such as “Suicide en partie double” and “Le Foetus”].

All the more so as this morning’s forces include a young monk, a boy soprano whose vocal chords would be the envy of a Notre-Dame preacher. He launches into his Adinnadana vermani with religious fury! If Buddha cannot hear him, it must surely be because deafness came with old age.

But we cannot be on our way because the mist is thicker than ever. We do not begin to see the end of the pirogue until about seven o’clock, and it would have been utter folly to set off in this fog in the midst of the obstacles that dot the river.

Toward nine o’clock, the sun chases away the last cotton-like shreds that darken the horizon.

A band of small russet-colored monkeys wander about on one of the banks with the grave deportment of senators. There are at least fifty of them, small, cute, adorable enough to eat: totally lovable bouzous, as one of our handsome Hanoi ladies would exclaim. But they remain insensitive to all our calls, and it always struck us as barbaric to shoot at monkeys. Anyone who has ever held a wounded bouzou in his hands, who has heard it moan like a child, who saw real tears flow from its supplicating eyes, shall never use these petite gambollers as targets.

For example, here is a peacock with superb tail hurrying back to its wooded home: Quick, shoot! Missed! The pirogue was moving too fast and the bird was too far away. But aren’t these feeble excuses to mitigate the hunter’s lack of skill? In contrast, the boatmen shot a toucan perched on a treetop. They will lap up its flesh, and its head with its curious head will take pride of place in our new collections. But let us sheath our gun for we have reached Keng Luang.

The rapid we just exited and where we write these lines in the pirogue, which is being unloaded, is most impressive. More than any other, it demands strength, a sure eye, and decisiveness. In one leap over the waves that burble furiously and jostle each other like stampeding sheep, the pirogue crosses a threshold 70 to 80 centimetres high, then maneuvers in mid-current to perform an about-turn, if I may use this expression, which describes the move perfectly. Navigating the same channel directly would be impossible in the current state of the water as rocky points would gut any audacious pirogue. An islet splits the river here, and we are forced to reverse course for a few moments in order to round the upstream point of the island and continue past the obstacle.

But our difficulties are far from over. Further on, while the pirogue glides like a seagull over the crest of the waves, which try in vain to scare it with thunderous growls, we once again have to tack sharp right to enter a narrow channel strewn with rocks to the right, to the left, everywhere. The boatmen have dropped their oars and grabbed gaffs. They push the pirogue to one side, then the other, taking it through dangerous torrents, but finally manage to steer it without mishap to a free section of the river and calm waters. This was not the case of the pirogue of a merchant, stuck half demolished on a rock, and which the unfortunate boatmen are unloading as we pass. They do not call for help as we glide past them. Our boatmen explain that wrecked crews are in no serious danger, for if their vessel is too badly damaged to continue on its way, the bamboos fitted to her sides will always allow the merchants to continue downstream on rafts to the next village.

The descent of Keng Luang took over a quarter of an hour.

From here to Luang Prabang, we only come across hat, which lulls us in the lapping of its small waves.

Boxed in tightly, the Nam Ou flows between rocks uncovered by the receding waters. Its gorge seems closed off ahead of us by a pointed peak, Pa Tung, the Very Sharp Peak, whose base seems embedded in the river banks. We spend the night at the village of the same name: Ban Pa Tung.

We awake to even thicker mist that on previous days, it that were possible. It is certainly more tenacious, for at nine o’clock, it has not yet lifted, and we are forced to beat the oars in the air along with the boatmen to defeat the damp, penetrating cold.

More fisheries and hat, but the water is so low that at one point, our pirogue’s helmsmen have to climb onto the bank to ascertain the position of the channel through the bushy forest formed by vegetation growing among the rocks. We fear becoming stuck.

Yet everything goes without a hitch, and before noon, we reach first the Rock of Seagulls, a colossal limestone formation standing erect as if to dam the Nam Ou and forcing us to change course at right angle. The river takes its revenge by gnawing at the base of the rock. Its enormous mass is pierced through like a sponge. Clouds of birds burst forth with strident cries.

Finally, here is the Mekong: immense, majestic, whose mass glides along, calm, of a single piece. In the rock at Pak Ou, a grotto houses hundreds of buddhas. The boatmen bow and mutter an invocation as they pass the sanctuary, which has been visited for centuries by those who navigate the High Mekong.

Then comes the confluence with Nam Suang, and in the distance, Tiom Si, Luang Prabang’s sacred mountain, whose pyramid sparkles in the fiery midday sun.

Here are the banks, with their wide staircases at the bottom of which women come to collect water. This is the royal city, with its pagodas and its tat; Luang Prabang, the city of Buddha, palladium of Lan Xang Hom Khao. All passengers alight!

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:21 (November 15, 1905): 1533-1538.

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 Nine

 

From Hua Phan Province to Luang Prabang

Yesterday during the Ban Ngon boun, the antipathy between tribes emerged once more. The Phutai phaya of Muang Son Tai, who had insisted on accompanying us up to that point, took his leave before nightfall, not wishing to attend the festivities. Only Tai Neua young men from various surrounding villages took part, and this morning, a few hundred meters from Ban Ngon, we came across a large village whose young women did not take part either, regrettably, I must say. Ban Noun is the name of this Village of Opulent Bosoms, and these young Phutai women, who wear skirts normally tied tightly at the waist, glory in not tormenting the charms their female neighbors oppress.

The horses take the travelers past the Opulent Bosoms to the Nam Sai Valley, the most fertile, perhaps, of the entire province.

Then comes a torrent, the Houei Sa Kon, up whose stony bed we will need to travel for over one hour before scaling several mountains, the daily aperitif.

Starting from 800 meters, we will cross Phu Pha Sang (after pha sang, a species of bamboo)—1,300 meters—and Phu Pha Uan (after the uan tree)—1,470 meters. The road, which snakes up a mountainside almost to the summit lets us forget our fatigue and would rekindle the travelers’ enthusiasm if the sun were not already roasting them.

More mountains nearby, further on, further still, deep into the background, with an infinite variety of green, blue, burgundy, lilac in bloom, mauve, purple, and gray blending with the horizon, the Carmelite browns of dead leaves, and a thousand hues we unfortunately cannot define but that we linger over, contemplating with gaping jaw.

Over in the distance, a kind of dark trapeze dominates the range and provides the last panel in the scenery; it is Phu Loi, says our guide.

This monticule is said to be 3,000 meters high, one of the high mountains of IndoChina, perhaps along with the Tall Needles of Lao Cai, and which no European has ever climbed. If we are to believe the natives, a vast pond at the top of the peak is home to enormous snakes. Note that in this Tai country, every self-respecting mountain considered difficult to climb possesses a pond and snakes of its own. For the past two months under various latitudes, this is the third time we have heard this representation without being able to verify the assertions of narrators with highly Oriental imaginations.

Adieu, and regrets, too, carried away on the breeze as we leave the most interesting province of Hua Phan Tank Hok, which would reward being studied at greater leisure. The pass marking the border, Kao Den Din—1,580 meters—with its markers consisting of knobs carved in the shape of lotus blooms, takes us into the kingdom of Luang Prabang.

The lands of His Majesty Sisavang welcome us with a bonfire. The Miao are already readying their rai, their mountain rice fields, setting fire to the brush to fatten the hillsides. The wind gusts violently, driving flames and smoke toward the path we follow. Onward! Our excellent small horses sail through the obstacle, and we emerge with only a few singed hairs in our beard.

We come across a caravan of Lao people on their way to Muang Xon to sell blankets and hoping to bring benzoin resin back from Hua Phan.

Here is an opium field at 1,500 meters in elevation. Further on is a Black Miao grave, consisting of a heap of branches and stones without ornaments.

Then more rai on fire. This gives the impression of an attack by pirates, such is the gun-like crackling all around. This is the sound of bamboo bursting, greeting us as we pass by.

Luang Prabang seems to want to accumulate obstacles at its border. Phu Pha Bong, the Mountain of Straight Stones, presents an odd spectacle of colossal rocks, with their flanks carved vertically, rising in close proximity and covered in somber moss. What an eerie spot, the ideal backdrop for Les Dragons de Villars or Les Pirates de la Savane. Then silence, the fading daylight succeeding the noise of the blaze, and the blinding light of the sun and of the flames send a shiver through the passing traveler. Not a bird, not a murmur from a stream. All is calm, solitude: the grave, it would seem.

The horses progress hesitantly as the stones are slippery and a dangerous canyon forces even the hardiest rider to dismount. But he soon perceives the cheerful sun again, and his soul abandons itself to nature, so rich in its effects, so artistic in its contrasts.

Descending once again to 800 meters before climbing back up to 1,240 soon after seems tough for the mules in the convoy, unimpressed as they are with Phu Houei Tan Ngan, the Mountain of the Bellowing Torrent, or Phu Hing, the Mountain of the Juniper Trees. They will not enjoy a 400-meter descent, but they will appreciate all the more the enclosure of the Ban Hat Tao sala, where they will be served fresh grass and paddy in profusion until daybreak.

In contrast, their master will enjoy the chill of the night much less: a little over five degrees, when the thermometer showed 43 during this afternoon’s exhausting ride. The difference is far too stark in these bamboo huts that serve as targets for the icy northern wind. I can barely hold my pen between my fingertips. Good night, friendly readers!

* * *

A cry rings out as we proceed along a wooded path. It is uttered by two young Kha women, surprised, one searching for roots, the other hunting birds, large and small, with a crossbow. How naughty of you, gentle daughters of the mountain and the forest, to chase after their hosts, which give it gaiety! For now, it is you who quake, fearful as you are, for the traveler’s horse suddenly found itself close to your hod, and you form a deliciously exquisite group in this modest posture.

The only article of clothing of one of the Kha women is her skirt. She huddles against her companion. But fear not, my beauties. The bearded man is not evil, and his friendly smile should ease your fears. A small white coin convinces the root hunters, who agree to be snapped by the camera with the utmost grace in the world.

All day yesterday we did not come across a single village, and the nightly stop itself was a long way from Ban Hat Tao, a hamlet of three or four houses we are told shelters beneath the forest’s tall trees.

Today sees the same absence of habitations until midday, when we reach the Nam Seng, a pretty torrent of a river on its way to Pak Seng, where it empties into the Nam Suang, one of the major tributaries of the Mekong.

We near Sop Sang, a fairly important hub. We pass a few settlements, among them Ban Sop La, the first Lao village we come across. All around their dwellings, the Lao have a fruit and vegetable garden; among the Tai Neua, in contrast, houses are not separated from each other by verdant barriers;

Then comes Ban Hat Ngo, a village of many houses where the women work energetically at silk-making. On all sides, skeins colored with vegetable dyes dry in the sun. The men no longer wear the wide trousers of the Tai but the sampot of the Siamese and the Laotians. Almost all of them sport large tattoos on their legs, sometimes beginning above the knee and ending at the waist. The women wear the national sinh, the skirt they wove themselves and tie tightly at the waist. In the afternoon heat, it is their only garment. Our cortege brings them running to the terraces of their houses; the result is a general outcry.

In another hour we will reach our goal for the day. But the hour seems long, for the path follows the Nam Seng, which it dominates. Carved out of compacted rock that crumbles, damaged by rockfalls, with its slopes on which the horses have no firm support, it is truly dangerous.

Four in the afternoon: Sop Sang, a picturesque village whose houses cling on to the mountainside. Everything is perched high up, including the pagoda and the terrace on which monks in sparkling yellow robes rest voluptuously from doing nothing. Lower down, just above the high-water mark, are well-maintained vegetable gardens: lettuce, onions, peas, beans grow vigorously. Housewives douse their plots with water they carry from the river in a gourd fitted to the end of a long bamboo pole. Each garden is surrounded by a sturdy fence, as one would expect, as numerous pigs wander freely and shamelessly among these gardens to scoop up what the voracious goats spared.

The Nam Seng, some hundred meters wide here, is navigable. Rafts await, ready to sail downstream via Pak Seng and the Nam Suang all the way to Luang Prabang. They will reach the capital in ten days or so. They will carry benzoin resin, woven silks, cotton harvested by the Khamu of the neighborhood; in exchange, the boatmen will bring back salt, cloth, hats, and many other articles purchased on the great city’s market. The people of Ban Sop Sang are still Lao, if we are to believe them. But scratch beneath the surface a little, press them with a few questions, and you will discover Red Tai, or Tai Deng, who arrived here some twenty years ago after fleeing Sam Neua as it was being invaded by the Haw. They found the site to their taste, a Lao muang pleasing to all, and they did not abandon the homes they had built on stilts.

Almost ashamed of their origins, they deny them. The men have adopted the sampot, and the women have shortened their skirts from the top. Fie, Tai Deng! The fugitives from Sam Neua are Lao! Much good may it do them, and may His Majesty Sisavang have no more loyal subjects!

The Sop Sang sala is a model of its kind, with four wings built on stilts. First, the kitchen, with a shed for the luggage; then a double dwelling for coolies and servants, a vast bedroom with two camp beds, and finally another bedroom with a terrace overlooking the river.

As we await the evening meal, we see girls followed by Sop Sang women walking down to the Nam Seng to fill six to eight bamboo poles they will carry back by balancing them on their shoulder. Filling a bamboo tank is a serious business. The prudent housewife prefers to take her water from mid-current because it is more limpid, less soiled, and the operation is possible in this low water season. First, she will have to raise her sinh, which she would not drench, but without hitching it too high, for the dictates of modesty must be observed in public. Filling each of the six or eight bamboo poles in succession while taking care not to spill any of the water in already filled buckets requires a special skill these water-gatherers possess to a supreme degree. But today, they are somewhat distracted as they cast sideways glances in the direction of the sala. Noticing the bearded man, they hasten their step, tossing their buckets around like the truly wild Tai Deng women that they are.

The annual Ilo caravan reached Sop Sang today. It consists of seven Chinamen driving eighteen mules and horses. These handsome beasts are in good shape; the men, cunning and sly, sidle with a smile on their lips in the direction of our animals, our luggage, and our harnesses, which they find very much to their taste.

Caution is the rule with such characters, who have few scruples, and their every move is watched during their stay at the Sop Sang sala.

In fact, the caravan is poorly provisioned. It offers only nuts and cooking pots because they sold all their furs and felt rugs along the way. The traders, who ask for an excessive 60 cents per hundred for nuts, loaded some of their animals with bales of tightly compressed cotton.

This side of Sop Sang, the road to Muang Ngoi is excellent. Wide and shady, it snakes for over one hour over a series of small streams that sing in hurried cascades all the way to the Nam Seng.

Wooded mountains hug the valley; on one of them, lilac in bloom project their bright, light hue amidst the somber leafage.

The path climbs over 500 meters before reaching Phu Pha Kho, named after a tree, the kok kho, which covers the mountainsides. Its reddish timber is hard and tough; Lao people use it to build frames for their houses. For its part, Phu Kio Nong offers kok nong, whose resin is a poison used by the Kha for their war arrows or when hunting wild game.

After a halt at the Ban Na Mi sala, the ascent begins.

Sop Sang is separated from Muang Ngoi by an imposing range, Phu Fa, which consists of four distinct mountains. This is a tough leg to cover in a single day. Here we are at 1,340 meters in the full midday sun, when this morning the altimeter recorded 590 meters. The view stretches out over a veritable jumble of mountains as the road follows the crestline.

Our dogs, which give tongue in the bush, root out a boar, which most fortunately crosses the path without the regrettable idea of throwing itself at our mounts’ legs entering its mind.

Here is Phu Kok Muang at last, the Mountain of the Mango Trees, from the summit of which we discern the rice fields of the Nam Ou Valley down below in the distance. A long, steep descent takes us to 450 meters, where we are once again filled with admiration at the endurance and robustness of our little horses.

Several villages are scattered amidst the rice fields, then, in the most picturesque of sites on the banks of a wide river, is Muang Ngoi.

Muang Ngoi is a town and a provincial administrative center. The king has a representative here, a governor, the nai kuen Phaya Maha Sena, who is all too happy to remind us that we took part in energetic horse rides in 1901 across Muang Sao Province, where he was in post at the time.

The town center is more substantial today, the veritable crossroads of the entire area, a role it owes to its geographical position and especially to our administrative initiatives. The Nam Ou, which has its source all the way up there above Muang Hou Neua at the extreme point of our Laotian possession, brings all the valley’s products through the town. Both roads from Muang Xai and Lai Cao via Dien Bien Phu end at Muang Ngoi. Postal convoys dispatched from Tonkin travel up the Black River as far as Lai Chau, where they follow the dirt road to Dien Bien Phu we ourselves took before catching small pirogues that will carry convoys to Muang Ngoi. From there, they head for Muang Xai, Muang Ou, Luang Prabang, or Chiang Khong, today’s Ban Huay Xai. In fact, convoys leaving these various towns for Tonkin still pass through Muang Ngoi.

The head of the postal service resided in Muang Ngoi for a while and even considered establishing its headquarters here. Today, only one of our compatriots remains in this pleasant spot, Mr. Aléas, the postmaster, a cheerful comrade, with a fine baritone voice. In his hospitable dwelling, we taste local petit pois that give extra-fine Rodel peas a run for their money. In the past, pea seeds from France were distributed among the Lao of Muang Ngoi; thanks to the care the local housewives devoted to their vegetable gardens, the peas flourished to perfection. Today, all the surrounding villages grow them, and peas have become one of the favorite offerings of Muang Ngoi cuisine. To civilization via petit pois: Bravo, Vilmorin!

Like Sop Sang, Muang Ngoi features a well-appointed sala, better in fact as regards its wings, luxurious even, for a pavilion set up near the river bank invite the passer-by to enjoy the charm of the sunset in the wild gorges of the Nam Ou.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:21 (November 15, 1905): 1528-1533.

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.