(Continued from Dispatch 27)
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.