Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot

By Iain Manley Feb 13, 2012

Caption in Mouhot's journal: Bivouac of M. Mouhot in the forests of Lao

When he at last succumbed to malarial fever, Henri Mouhot was just ten kilometres from Luang Prabang. He had tramped his way across mainland Southeast Asia for three years, between 1858 and 1861, living for months in the Cambodian jungle, amongst “the savage Stiens”, where tigers were such a constant menace that he slept with a loaded gun. He had visited the ruins at Angkor, which were being torn apart and swallowed in places by a resurgent jungle; locals told him the temples were built by gods or giants and Mouhot, with no knowledge of India, could not offer a more plausible explanation. When he penetrated the hardwood forests of Laos on the back of an elephant, he was the first white man in 25 years to enter the kingdom – or what was left of it after Thailand and Vietnam had casually picked Laos apart – and it was only at the very end that his health gave out. Around him, people regularly suffered from “the pestilential miasmata”, but he had a regimen – “abstinence, all but total, from wine and spirits, and drinking only tea, never cold water” – that he credited for his sustained good health.

Mouhot died on October 29, 1861, beside the Nam Khan River. He was 35. His servant Phrai sent Mouhot’s journals – “scribbled generally by the light of a torch, and on my knees at the foot of a tree, amidst interruptions of all sorts, of which the mosquitoes are not the least annoying” – to the French ambassador in Siam. Three years later they were published in two volumes, both of which are now in the public domain. In the preface, Mouhot’s brother thanks Phrai, who accompanied the explorer everywhere. “Phrai is delighted to attend me, and to run about the woods all day,” Mouhot wrote, soon after the two men met, “and I am not less pleased with our bargain, for his knowledge of the country, his activity, his intelligence, and attachment to me, are invaluable.” The bond between the two was so strong, by the end, that Mouhot worried Phrai might die for him, but he still referred to his servants as “boys” and wherever he went, Mouhot looked at Southeast Asia with a European’s jaundiced eye.

Caption in Mouhot's journal: Women of Laos

While Mouhot was in Cambodia in 1859, his countrymen were planting France’s tricolore in Saigon. By 1893, the French conquest of Indochina was complete; Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had been incorporated into a French protectorate, and gunboat diplomacy had left Thailand with a territory reduced at every side. Mouhot was posthumously accused of being at the vanguard of European imperialism, but in spite of his stage-whispered assessments of Bangkok’s fortifications, he was mostly an old-fashioned naturalist, more interested in skinning monkeys and digging up worms than military conquest, and his colonial views were an inescapable – if inexcusable – product of his time. He collected and carefully packed specimens of plants and animals across the region, and classified hundreds of species for science. His journals are scattered with observations of geology, meteorology and anthropology, with a breadth of scientific knowledge that modern travel writers can only admire.

Mouhot was an old-fashioned Christian too, constantly worrying about Southeast Asia’s heathen soul. Religion gave him a network; it was also a bulwark against loneliness, because he stayed with missionaries everywhere except for Laos. They introduced him to government officials and tribal chiefs, who provided Mouhot with the oxen, ponies and elephants he needed to haul his baggage. “Their life,” he wrote of Southeast Asia’s missionaries, “is one of the hardest and most painful, and requires self-sacrifice more than any other. Exposed to the influence of pernicious climates, badly lodged, badly fed, far from their families and from their country, often ill and dying without help — such is the lot of these men.”

Mouhot’s condescending view of Buddhism and animism skews his writing more than his colonial mindset. The latter only increased his interest in the workings of Southeast Asia’s governments. Christian disdain had the opposite effect, and Mouhot ignored obvious religious differences when speculating on the origins of Angkor. I read his journals in Luang Prabang, beside the Nam Khan, just downriver from where he died, but it was only when I went to find his grave that I realised how blasé Mouhot could be. He took informal audiences with kings for granted and whined bitterly when officials were unwilling to give him accommodation, transport or any kind of help. Although he rarely mentions it, Mouhot travelled with a long baggage train, a retinue of servants and a seemingly endless supply of gifts, and the comforts of his journey are as difficult for today’s travellers to appreciate as the astonishing discomforts.

Mouhot reserved his wonder for nature, not people; in Luang Prabang, which he reached in July 1861 and was trying to return to when he died, he considered the locals “dull and apathetic and full of small vices.” “But for the people,” he wrote, “Louang Prabang would be one of the most charming places in the world.” When I cycled to his grave, which was lost to the jungle until 1990, Laos’ people proved Mouhot wrong. I appreciate small vices and by the time I got back to Luang Prabang I was drunk on Lao moonshine and the kindness of Laotians, whose hospitality had convinced me that Luang Prabang is one of the most charming places in the world.

I have collected passages from Mouhot’s journals and interspersed them with extracts from my own, written on my journey to his tomb. Old travelogues need excavation, but monuments to their authors are rare, and my journey to pay homage to Henri Mouhot was an opportunity to reflect on what has changed – in travel, in Laos, in the ways a foreigner is welcomed by its people – and what has stayed the same.

I am taking a shortcut through a temple, making use of the easy flow between religious compounds and village lanes in Luang Prabang. Hunkering down in the dust, to write in my journal, I am watched by a monk puffing solemnly on a cigarette.

All the children of the neighbourhood, most of whom are still kept at the breast, come frequently to bring me insects, in exchange for a button or cigarette, for it is a common thing for them to leave their mother’s breast to smoke. Were they not so dirty, they would be nice-looking; but I am afraid of touching them, lest I should again catch the itch.

Buddha, bougainvillea and Nang Thorani

At first glance, it is a quintessentially Southeast Asian scene. A seated Buddha – life sized, painted gold – is covered by a canopy of thickly knotted bougainvillea. Its thorny branches are dotted  with both mauve and crimson flowers; two plants have grown together, and in the way they have been pruned, the bougainvilleas resemble a cobra, or the mythical naga, with its hood spread protectively over the Buddha, keeping watch while he pries his way into nirvana.

The Buddha is raised up on a platform. At the platform’s base is a statue of a woman wringing out her black hair. She is the earth goddess Nang Thorani, and her hair is soaked with more than just water: it is a solution of the Buddha’s karma, collected over the course of his past lives, every time he marked a good deed in the Indian tradition, by pouring water over the ground. Thorani is here to bear witness at a pivotal moment in the Buddha’s pursuit of enlightenment, when the demon Mara, at the head of a vast army, has confronted him with a final obstacle: self-doubt. When she wrings the water from her hair, it falls down in a torrent. Mara and his army are washed away, and with them go the last of Buddha’s doubts.

Thorani is dressed in green and gold; in a Lao skirt called a sinh and a sash that leaves her breasts bare. She looks every bit a Southeast Asian woman, but the goddess is an import from India, like the Buddha, and even the bougainvillea that shades the two is an import, brought to Laos from South America with the name of the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, Louis Antoine de Bougainville.

It is pleasant to the man devoted to our good and beautiful mother, Nature, to think that his work, his fatigues, his troubles and his dangers, are useful to others, if not to himself. Nature has her lovers, and those alone who have tasted them know the joys she gives. I candidly confess that I have never been more happy than when amidst this grand and beautiful tropical scenery, in the profound solitude of these dense forests, the stillness only broken by the song of birds and the cries of wild animals; and even if destined here to meet my death, I would not change my lot for all the joys and pleasures of the civilised world.

Monks walk down the road out of Luang PrabangI have rented a red bicycle with a thickly padded passenger seat. The basket is gone, removed at the instruction of Luang Prabang’s police, to prevent theft. I rented it on the busy road out of town, on trust, without paying a deposit or handing over ID, and cycled past the town’s thickest concentration of shops – past the Rural Solar Cell Development Company and convenience stores with a side line in holographic posters of the Buddha; past the percussion of pestle on mortar at papaya salad stalls, the pharmacie and carwashes with signs in Lao and Chinese.

At a fork in the road, I got stuck in my first Laotian traffic jam. A generator truck was parked in one of the two lanes; while I waited for an opportunity to pass, with bicycles, scooters and cars lining up behind me, an elephant lumbered past. It was also responsible for the build-up, I realised, and when I scrambled for my camera to take a photograph, I was too.

A female elephant in the traffic on the outskirts of Luang Prabang

Caption in Mouhot's journal: Caravan of Elephants crossing the Mountains of Laos

In all this mountainous region elephants are the only means of transport. Every village possesses some, several as many as fifty or a hundred. Without this intelligent animal no communication would be possible during seven months of the year, while, with his assistance, there is scarcely a place to which you cannot penetrate.

The elephant ought to be seen on these roads, which I can only call devil’s pathways, and are nothing but ravines, ruts two or three feet deep, full of mud; sometimes sliding with his feet close together on the wet clay of the steep slopes, sometimes half buried in mire, an instant afterwards mounted on sharp rocks, where one would think a Blondin alone could stand; striding across enormous trunks of fallen trees, crushing down the smaller trees and bamboos which oppose his progress, or lying down flat on his stomach that the cornacs (drivers) may the easier place the saddle on his back; a hundred times a day making his way, without injuring them, between trees where there is barely room to pass; sounding with his trunk the depth of the water in the streams or marshes; constantly kneeling down and rising again, and never making a false step. It is necessary, I repeat, to see him at work like this in his own country, to form any idea of his intelligence, docility, and strength, or how all those wonderful joints of his are adapted to their work — fully to understand that this colossus is no rough specimen of nature’s handiwork, but a creature of especial amiability and sagacity, designed for the service of man.

We must not, however, exaggerate his merits. Probably the saddles used by the Laotians are capable of great improvement; but I must admit that the load of three small oxen, that is to say, about 250 or 300 pounds, is all that I ever saw the largest elephants carry easily, and 18 miles is the longest distance they can accomplish with an ordinary load. Ten or twelve miles are the usual day’s work. With four, five, or sometimes seven elephants, I travelled over all the mountain country from the borders of Laos to Louang-Prabang, a distance of nearly 500 miles.

Elephants on the Nam Khan, carrying tourists across the river

Scenes of a corporeal hell at the Peace Stupa, or Santi Chedi, outside Luang Prabang

From the Peace Stupa, perched above the Nam Khan, I can see its mirror image: Phousi Hill, at the centre of Luang Prabang, with its own gilded stupa molten in the midday sun. Between them the river is a perfect S-shape, and the two spits of land tucked into the letter’s curves look like islands.

There are monk kits laid out on deck chairs beside the stupa. Every kit is identical, with an alms bowl shaped like a tabla drum, a thermos, two buckets, a jug, a rice cooker, a container for food, an electric fan, a ceremonial fan imprinted with the Buddha’s image, a “Lucky World: Best Quality” blanket, robes, sandals, an umbrella and a broom. New monks are being initiated later today, and these kits will be the sum of their possessions.

The stupa has a festival atmosphere: there is instrumental music playing from its megaphone and inside, women are making ceremonial cones called paw kwan, with banana leaves and marigolds. Above them are hideous murals of people with turtle bodies or elephant heads roasting over open fires or being cut apart with a blood-stained axe.

Women making 'paw kwan' at the Peace Stupa

Caption in journal: Laotian House

Scarcely, however, had I appeared in the pagoda, followed by Phrai and Niou, when on all sides I heard the exclamation, “Farang! come and see the farang!” and immediately both Siamese and Chinamen left their bowls of rice and pressed about me. I hoped that, once their curiosity was gratified, they would leave me in peace, but instead of that the crowd grew thicker and thicker, and followed me wherever I went, so that at last it became almost unbearable, and all the more so as most of them were already drunk either with opium or arrack, many, indeed, with both.

I quitted the pagoda and was glad to get into the fresh air again, but the respite was of short duration. Passing the entrance of a large hut temporarily built of planks, I saw some chiefs of provinces sitting at breakfast. The senior of the party advanced straight towards me, shook me by the hand, and begged me in a cordial and polite manner to enter; and I was glad to avail myself of his kind offer, and take refuge from the troublesome people. My hosts overwhelmed me with attentions, and forced upon me pastry, fruit, and bonbons; but the crowd who had followed me forced their way into the building, and hemmed us in on all sides; even the roof was covered with gazers. All of a sudden we heard the walls crack, and the whole of the back of the hut, yielding under the pressure, fell in, and people, priests, and chiefs tumbling one upon another, the scene of confusion was irresistibly comic. I profited by the opportunity to escape, swearing — though rather late in the day — that they should not catch me again.

A child runs through Ban Pha Nom's dirt roads

I have detoured into Ban Pha Nom – Three Cleanliness Village. A white rooster, with mottled patches of maroon and royal blue plumage, is pecking at my feet. I am in a family compound, with two houses and a shop, drinking a Miranda at the garden table.

Most of the shop’s stock is hung from the rafters on strips of plastic, or piled on the floor. There is buffalo skin, pork rind, dried beef, banana chips, rice cakes, eggs with dirty shells, chilli powder in hand-tied pouches, firewood, coal, soap, washing detergent, toiletries, straw brooms held together by tin cans. With the exception of beer and cigarettes, everything manufactured comes from Thailand, including Coca Cola and the lobster flavoured crisps, and a Thai music video – a rock ballad – is blaring from the family’s TV.

The owner of the shop wants to know if I speak French. He says his son, standing by, can speak it, but his son just looks at me, and says nothing.

The markets of Siam and Laos abound in natural products, such as tobacco, cotton, sugar, spice, and dyes. The forests abound with magnificent trees, particularly teak. By the terms of the treaty with France, the duties, whether import or export, are but three per cent, on the value of the merchandise. There is therefore room for hope that commerce, favoured by the moderation of this tariff, will rapidly increase, and that the French navy will profit by it.

All the houses in Ban Pha Nom are in walled compounds. Some, made of bricks or concrete, are brightly painted and would fit into suburbs anywhere. Others are examples of old village architecture, with woven-bamboo or timber walls. Many compounds have all three – timber, bamboo, brick or concrete – built beside each other, with different generations or branches of the same family living in them, each marked by the poverty or prosperity of its time.

I’m looking out through fresh eyes today, after weeks in Laos. Writing in my journal again, while I move, has given me new enthusiasm, and made me study carefully what I had started to take for granted. My senses are so excited by all this concentration that when I try to take photographs, my hands shake.

A timber village home

I know what awaits me, having been warned both by the missionaries and the natives. During the last twenty-five years, only one man, as far as I know, a French priest, has penetrated to the heart of Laos, and he only returned to die in the arms of the good and venerable prelate, Mgr. Pallegoix. I know the discomfort, fatigue, and tribulations of all sorts to which I am again about to expose myself; the want of roads, the difficulty of finding means of conveyance, and the risk of paying for the slightest imprudence by a dangerous or even fatal illness. And how can one be prudent when compelled to submit to the hardest life of the forest, to suffer many privations, and to brave all inclemencies of the weather? Nevertheless, my destiny urges me on, and I trust in the kind Providence which has watched over me until now.

A girl of eleven or twelve just stopped me. “Where are you from?” she asked in careful English.
“South Africa,” I replied.
“Yes,” she said, as if that was exactly what she had expected, and cycled off.

Most of the villages are situated about a day’s journey from one another, but frequently you have to travel for three or four days without seeing a single habitation, and then you have no alternative but to sleep in the jungle. This might be pleasant in the dry season, but, during the rains, nothing can give an idea of the sufferings of travellers at night, under a miserable shelter of leaves hastily spread over a rough framework of branches, assaulted by myriads of mosquitoes attracted by the light of the fires and torches, by legions of ox-flies, which, after sunset, attack human beings as well as elephants, and by fleas so minute as to be almost invisible, which assemble about you in swarms, and whose bites are excessively painful, and raise enormous blisters. To these enemies add the leeches, which, after the least rain, come out of the ground, scent a man twenty feet off, and hasten to suck his blood with wonderful avidity. To coat your legs with a layer of lime when travelling is the only way to prevent them covering your whole body.

The uprooted stump of a huge tree, with power pylons in the background, on the way to Henri Mouhot's grave

The roadside scenery has changed in stages: at first there was the buzz of commerce, which thinned out at the edge of Luang Prabang, then the family compounds and rice paddies and water buffaloes and goats in the road. Now, nothing; just trees beside a dirt track and roadworks, with earth movers tearing up the hillsides, turning them into barren mounds of ochre dust.

The rainy season is drawing near, storms become more and more frequent, and the growling of the thunder is frightful. Insects are in greater numbers, and the ants, which are now looking out for a shelter, invade the dwellings, and are a perfect pest to my collections, not to speak of myself and my clothes. Several of my books and maps have been almost devoured in one night. Fortunately there are no mosquitoes, but to make up for this there is a small species of leech, which when it rains quits the streams and infests the woods…You have constantly to be pulling them off you by dozens, but, as some always escape observation, you are sure to return home covered with blood; often my white trousers are dyed as red as those of a French soldier.

It is the dry season and for the past few weeks the Nam Khan has had the colour and clarity of green jade. The road follows its course, but in most places is cut into the hillside ten or so metres above the river’s steep banks. Here, a side road leads down to the river and there are the beginnings of what will be a concrete bridge. It’s Friday, but nobody is around, and I’m sitting with my back to an abandoned earth mover, facing the current, drinking in the Nam Khan at its most picturesque. There are two tiny sandbars in the middle of the river, just big enough for a few shrubs. On the far bank, there is a dead tree with a white trunk. Their reflections compete in the rippling water with the shadows of hills and mountains on both sides of the river valley, staggered one behind the other, in a gradient that starts at green and ends in deep purple, changing colour slightly at each step.

Five men in a longtail boat enter the scene; they are throwing hand nets, laughing, smoking. I flirt briefly with the idea of trading lives as they float past.

Fishermen float by on an green jade Nam Khan

The people here might be extremely happy, were they not kept in such abject slavery; bountiful nature, that second mother, treats them as her spoilt children, and does all for them. The forests abound with vegetables and exquisite fruits; the rivers, the lakes, and the ponds teem with fish; a few bamboos suffice to construct a house; while the periodical inundations render the lands wonderfully fertile. Man has but to sow and to plant; the sun saves him all further trouble; and he neither knows nor feels the want of all those articles of luxury which form part of the very existence of a European.

Henri Mouhot was here during the monsoon, when the Nam Khan is mud-brown and rises high enough to wash away Luang Prabang’s bamboo bridge.  He died beside a murky torrent.

15th August, 1861. — Nam Kane. A splendid night; the moon shines with extraordinary brilliancy, silvering the surface of this lovely river, bordered by high mountains, looking like a grand and gloomy rampart. The chirp of the crickets alone breaks the stillness. In my little cottage all is calm and tranquil; the view from my window is charming, but I cannot appreciate or enjoy it. I am sad and anxious; I long for my native land, for a little life; to be always alone weighs on my spirits.

The proprietor of a shop in Ban Noun Savath, a monk, and me

I’m sitting at a roadside shop in Ban Noun Savath, with the proprietor and a dwarf monk. Both are watching me in rapt attention; when I stand, their eyes widen; when my bike falls over, they guffaw –hee-hee ha, hee-hee ha – and discuss the event at length; when my instant noodles with a fried egg arrive, I am offered condiments by the monk, twice. He proffers soy sauce, fish sauce, chilli sauce, sugar, salt, MSG and dry chilli, making sounds for each one, to explain the taste. Chilli is a suck between puckered lips; sugar the smacking sound of sweetness; fish sauce an astringent eee.

How much of this would Mouhot recognise? The clay stoves, the bamboo baskets for cooking sticky rice, the piles of firewood: all of these are presumably the same, but there are adverts for mobile phone companies too, and products imported from across the region, and piles of litter in the road.

Will the present movement of the nations of Europe towards the East result in good by introducing into these lands the blessings of our civilization? or shall we, as blind instruments of boundless ambition, come hither as a scourge, to add to their present miseries? Here are millions of unhappy creatures in great poverty in the midst of the richest and most fertile region imaginable; bowing shamefully under a servile yoke made viler by despotism and the most barbarous customs; living and dying in utter ignorance of the only true God!

The focal point of Ban Noun Savath is the village school and the temple opposite it, on the other side of the potholed dirt road. Children are playing soccer on the school’s dusty pitch, with their sandals over their arms, pushed above the elbow. There are 21 boys on the pitch and one tall girl; every time the ball comes her way she kicks at it hopelessly and giggles.

The school building has timber walls and a tin roof, with a space between the two covered by mosquito net. There are six classrooms. I can hear a Green Day song playing at the temple, which comes as a surprise:

I walk a lonely road,
The only one that I have ever known.
Don’t know where it goes,
But it’s home to me and I walk alone.

Caption in journal: Cemetery at Bangkok

Reader, have you journeyed in foreign lands? Have you ever for a time, more or less long, been separated from your friends and relatives — shut out from civilized society? Have you been tossed about by tempests or buffeted by your fellow-men? Have you narrowly escaped some great danger? Have you been unhappy? Have you lost some one very dear to you? In one word, have you suffered? If you have, you will appreciate the feelings with which the solitary wanderer welcomes the divine cross, the heart-stirring emblem of his religion. It is to him a friend, a consoler, a father, a brother; at sight of it the soul expands, and the more you have suffered the better you will love it. You kneel down, you pray, you forget your griefs, and you feel that God is with you. This is what I did.

There is a clearing in the woods around Mouhot’s grave, and a statue of him wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a pioneer’s beard, trousers rolled up to his knees and no shoes. He is carrying a walking stick and a notebook, presumably his journal. The statue is of dull grey concrete, but mud has collected on the bare parts of his legs and on his jacket; on the brim of his hat, rain has traced lines through an accumulation of mould.

Henri and Me

Sad fragility of human things! How many centuries and thousands of generations have passed away, of which history, probably, will never tell us anything: what riches and treasures of art will remain for ever buried beneath these ruins; how many distinguished men — artists, sovereigns, and warriors — whose names were worthy of immortality, are now forgotten, laid to rest under the thick dust which covers these tombs!

It is spooky, the statue, or was when I approached. I saw it immediately, but still caught the shape of a man in the corner of my vision as I walked up from the river, not realising that it was the statue. The undergrowth has been cleared and a picnic table has been set up beside Mouhot’s tomb, but there are tall trees overhead and at the slightest gust of wind, enormous leaves – a big as a man’s head – crash and crackle down to the ground.

Henri Mouhot's tomb, top right, deep in the jungle

Their notions of geography are very limited; they imagine that white men inhabit only a few obscure corners of the globe, and, judging of them by the Catholic missionaries, doubt much if they have any women among them.

Two couples – German and French – have come and gone. They make their way up to the tomb expectantly, then seem to wonder why they’ve come. They walk around the clearing for two minutes, studying its signs, as if they might find a reason for their visit in words on a plaque, take a photo and drive off, back to Luang Prabang along the bumpy road, leaving me alone again, with Henri.

My journal and my iTouch, which I was using to read Henri Mouhot's journal, at the picnic table beside his grave

Before I started, the Chinese with whom I lodged gave me the following advice: — “Buy a tam-tam, and, wherever you halt, sound it. They will say, ‘Here is an officer of the king;’ robbers will keep aloof, and the authorities will respect you. If this does not answer, the only plan to get rid of all the difficulties which the Laotian officials will be sure to throw in your way is to have a good stick, the longer the better. Try it on the back of any mandarin who makes the least resistance and will not do what you wish. Put all delicacy aside. Laos is not like a country of the whites. Follow my advice, and you will find it good.”

There are fish scales and a burnt-out fire on the riverbank below Mouhot’s tomb. The sun is setting, and hundreds of water striders are skating against the current, at the river’s edge. I have just been for a swim and will have to cycle home with wet shorts. The river is icy, but I forced myself underneath anyway and when I emerged – into silence, and the play of fiery reds and yellows on the rapids – I experienced a moment of gentle, ineffable tranquillity, which was broken by the phuttering of motorbikes going past.

My foot in the Nam Khan

The profound stillness of this forest, and its luxuriant tropical vegetation, are indescribable, and at this midnight hour impress me deeply. The sky is serene, the air fresh, and the moon’s rays only penetrate here and there, through the foliage, in patches, which appear on the ground like pieces of white paper dispersed by the wind. Nothing breaks the silence but a few dead leaves rustling to the earth, the murmur of a brook which flows over its pebbly bed at my feet, and the frogs answering each other on either side, and whose croaking resembles the hoarse barking of a dog. Now and then I can distinguish the flapping of the bats, attracted by the flame of the torch which is fastened to a branch of the tree under which my tiger-skin is spread; or, at longer intervals, the cry of some panther calling to its mate, and responded to from the tree-tops by the growling of the chimpanzees, whose rest the sound has disturbed.

With a sabre in one hand and a torch in the other, Phrai pursues the fishes in the stream, and he and his shadow reflected on the rocks and water, as he stands there making sudden darts, and crying out “hit” or “missed,” might easily be mistaken by the natives for demons.

I am on my way home, but I’ve stopped at the pétanque pitches between Ban Pha Nom and the Peace Stupa, where I am drinking a Beer Lao poured over ice, watching a group of about ten men expertly throw silver boules. The pitches are gravel; occasionally a boule – thrown high into the air, so that it won’t roll when it hits the ground – catches the side of a stone and bounces sharply to the right or left.

Men returning from a Red Cross conference playing pétanque

I am literally pillaged by these petty mandarins and chiefs of villages, and have to give away guns, sabres, lead, powder, colours, pencils, and even my paper; and then, after having received their presents, they will not put themselves out of their way to do me the smallest service. I would not wish my most deadly foe, if I had one, to undergo all the trouble and persecution of this kind which I have encountered.

The men have all come from a conference on Luang Prabang’s blood donation targets for 2012, hosted by the Lao Red Cross. They are school teachers, university professors and army officers, or so I am told by Ken, who has come over to chat. He teaches English at the university, and speaks it well, with casual ease. He is also the best in the group at pétanque. Ken normally takes his turn last, and can strike an opponent’s boule with absolute precision, knocking it away from the tiny ball used as a target. “Practice makes perfect,” he tells me, when I ask how he learnt to play so well, and we talk for a while about why the French game is still so popular in Laos. Eventually I ask him what he thinks of France. “Big Brother!” he shouts, then goes to toss his next boule.

Caption in journal: Reception of M. Mouhot by the Kings of Laos

Yesterday, and the day previous, I was presented to the princes who govern this little state, and who bear the title of kings. I know not why, but they displayed for my benefit all they could devise of pomp and splendour.

Ken has led me to another pétanque pitch, beside a wooden home in Ban Pha Nom. I was invited to play this time, on a team with Ken and an army captain. He can’t speak English, but gives me enthusiastic high fives every time I throw a boule well. Although I’ve never played before, it’s an easy game and our team has just won our first match.

The same group from the conference has slowly assembled here, and the manager of Luang Prabang’s Red Cross is cooking tilapia over a fire. The youngest member of the group is walking around with a bottle of beer and the group’s only glass. It is only when he gets to me that I drink. It’s a good way to distribute beer: very sociable, but without much chance of getting drunk.

This attendant of mine has one little defect, but who has not in this world? He now and then takes a drop too much, and I have often found him sucking, through a bamboo cane, the spirit of wine from one of the bottles in which I preserve my reptiles, or laying under contribution the cognac presented to me by my friend Malherbes. A few days ago he was seized with this devouring thirst, and, profiting by my absence for only a few minutes, he opened my chest, and hastily laid hands on the first bottle which presented itself, great part of the contents of which he swallowed at one gulp. I came back just as he was wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve, and it would be impossible to describe his contortions and grimaces as he screamed out that he was poisoned.

He had had the bad luck to get hold of my bottle of ink; his face was smeared with it, and his shirt pretty well sprinkled. It was a famous lesson for him, and I think it will be some time before he tries my stores again.

Playing pétanque under a Southeast Asian sky

I am drunk. Soumpheng and I have been drinking his Lao Lao, infused with medicinal herbs. He is a wiry man covered in sak yants – sacred tattoos – and a font of wisdom: Laos has only had contraceptives for the past three or four years; ASEAN will have a common currency by 2018; the lengthening of Luang Prabang’s airstrip will be finished in 2014. “The government don’t like me because I read the newspaper,” he says, before asking me to guess his age.
“Forty five,” I try, starting low.
“Sixty one,” he tells me proudly, flexing a bicep.
He has eight children, one of whom is married to an American and lives in California. Siphanh, who is sitting with us, has just had twins.
“How many children do you want?” I ask.
“Two is enough,” he says, and I agree, but Soumpheng isn’t having it.
“My generation was strong,” he cries, thrusting his pelvis forward. “Eight bay-bies!”

The Chinese have equally amused me. They imagine that some treasure ought to be found beneath the footprints, and that the block which I have carried away must possess great medicinal virtues; so Apait and his friends have been rubbing the under part of the stone every morning against another piece of granite, and, collecting carefully the dust that fell from it, have mixed it with water and drunk it fasting, fully persuaded that it is a remedy against all ills. Here they say that it is faith which cures; and it is certain that pills are often enough administered in the civilized West which have no more virtue than the granite powder swallowed by old Apait.

Soumpheng wants to know if I think the world will end this year. He saw four Thai fortune tellers on TV; all of them agreed that the end was nigh. I say no, and he thinks it’s mumbo jumbo too, but his wife isn’t sure. “She doesn’t mind too much,” he goes on. “She says that if the world ends, then we all go together, and that’s okay.”

Dinner is coming out in stages. The first dispatch was tilapia fillets boiled with coriander. It was served with a wasabi vinaigrette. “You know wasabi?” Sipanh asks.
“I love wasabi!” I tell him, and try to go slowly with the communal food.

Our guides are all Laotians from the neighbourhood of Korat, and their leader is unremitting in his care and attention towards me. Every evening he prepares my place for the night, levelling the ground and cutting down branches which he covers with leaves, and I am thus raised from the earth and protected from the dew. These guides lead a hard life, tramping in all seasons along these wretched roads, having scarcely time, morning and evening, to swallow a little rice, and having but little sleep at nights, tormented by ants, and exposed to the attacks of robbers, against whom they have constantly to be on their guard.

Tinny Lao music, which Claire and I call baci music, is being played on a laptop connected to a tall speaker next to my table, and the group, which now includes wives and girlfriends, is wiggling and wobbling to its beat. The videos for every song are identical – traditionally dressed women on a stage, dancing with significantly more elegance that the people around me – but when a new song started a while ago everybody shouted “Hit Song!” in English, and Ken rushed over from his game of pétanque to turn up the volume.

It was at then that I decided to play a South African song for my hosts. I asked after the laptop’s owner and received his permission; when the song was over I nervously plugged in my iPod and put on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Abantwana Basethempeleni. It was not a good choice, because the song doesn’t have a beat, but I was full of drunken happiness listening to the sounds of Zulu choral singing under a Southeast Asian sky.

Sipanh and I are leaving together, once he has said his goodbyes. He has agreed to follow me on his motorbike along the dark road back to Luang Prabang, and has made me promise to call him when my bicycle and I make it all the way home.

5th September, 1861.— From this date M. Mouhot’s observations cease; but until the 25th of October he continued to keep his meteorological register.

The last dates inscribed in his journal are the following: —

20th September. — Left B p.
28th. — An order was sent to B . . . ., from the council of Louang Prabang, commanding the authorities to prevent my proceeding farther.
15th October. 58 degrees Fahr. — Set off for Louang Prabang.
18th.— Halted at H . . . .
19th. — Attacked by fever.
29th. — Have pity on me, oh my God . . . . !

These words, written with a trembling and uncertain hand, were the last found in M. Mouhot’s journal.

If you enjoyed Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.

6 Responses to “Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot”

  1. Heather says:

    I really enjoyed "Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot". It is a perfect illustration of how much more rewarding it is to travel slowly than to dash about with checklists. What a contrast there is between your experience of Mouhot's tomb and that of the German and French couples, although they may not have been as keen to drink beer from a single communal glass!

    I loved the excerpts from Mouhot's journals. Where do the drawings come from?

    • Iain Manley says:

      The drawings are from Mouhot's journals. They were done by a professional artist using rough sketches he made along the way. The drawing at the top of the post is of one of his camps in Laos; that is him writing in a journal, wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

      I don't think Henri would have fancied drinking beer from a communal glass either, but I quite liked the idea. I think I might have a communal glass party when I get home, at which I will be master of the communal glass. It's one way to guarantee you are the life of the party.

  2. Frank says:

    Enjoyed reading this.Life over there so different to what we are used to.After so many different experiences on your travels, staying in one (ordinary) place is going to be difficult.

    • Iain Manley says:

      TS Eliot wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." I think that is how I feel when I'm in South Africa: I can look at it from the perspective of an outsider, so it isn't ordinary. Staying in one place is more tricky…

  3. Lewis Griffiths says:

    Enjoyed reading this. I visited Mouhot's grave in 2008 and found your site while doing some final research for a book I am writing on my travels in SE Asia. I arrived at LP having travelled up the Mekong from Phnom Penh, just ahead of the Monsoon! The river was high then, its easy to see how he early monuments got washed out.

    Enjoy your travels – I spent nearly two years traveling 2007- 2008 Its not easy settling bvack down again!

  4. CAM says:

    Really appreciate your writing as I know more about Henri. The local guide doesn't know as you about Henri.
    Thanks so much as this is the only document relating Henri's travel.

Leave a Reply

Comment Policy

We welcome encouragement, questions and advice. Perhaps welcome isn't strong enough. Comments are the best and more or less only reward we receive for putting Old World Wandering together. We're addicted to the words at the end of an article because they, A, tell us you got that far and, hopefully, B, enjoyed getting there. But please stick to the topic and use your real name or a nickname. Generic comments submitted for SEO purposes will be deleted.