Henri Mouhot Memorial at Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The Henri Mouhot statue at his burial site at the Nam Khan River near Luang Prabang, Laos. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Clock Tower in Bangkok

The clock tower in Bangkok, based on a sketch by Mouhot. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

The Second King of Siam

Few people know that the past kings of Siam always had a second king. The image shows the second king behind king Mongkut. Notably he is dressed in a kind of French style uniform. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Khrom Luang, Brother of King Mongkut

Khrom Luang, one of the brothers of king Mongkut of Siam, who supported Mouhot with references. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Kun Motte, a Siamese Nobleman

Kun Motte, a Siamese nobleman of the time. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Son of King Mongkut

One of the many sons of king Mongkut. Maybe it's Chulalongkorn, who became in 1868 Mongkut's successor. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

A Siamese Rope Dancer

A Siamese rope dancer. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Siamese Women

Siamese Women. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Saya Visat, the Head of the Christians in Bangkok

Saya Visat, the head of the Christians of the time in Bangkok. Mouhot got a lot of support from the Christian missions in Indochina, and much misleading information which he took for true. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Sketch of a Common Siamese

Sketch of a common Siamese man. The hairstyle is still often to see in nowadays Thailand. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Sketch of the Great Swing, Bangkok

A sketch of the great swing in Bangkok. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Napoleon III, French Emperor

Napoleon III, French emperor from 1851-1870. Victor Hugo called him 'Napoleon the small', and Karl Marx saw in his reign the repeat of Napoleon Ist tragedy as a farce. Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1855

Sketch of a Laotian

A Laotian. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Sketch of a Laotian Woman

A Laotian woman, with a small pipe in her mouth. Opium?! Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Laotian House

A Laotian house. In rural areas the village houses still look so, but they are rapidly disappearing for the sake of new, cement houses with tin roofs. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Sketch of a Cambodian Stilt House

A Cambodian stilt house, still nowadays often to see. Nowadays Cambodia is developing slower than it's northern neighbour Laos. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

The Second King of Cambodia

The second king of Cambodia. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

A Page of the King of Cambodia

A page of the king of Cambodia. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Prasat Banome, outside Battambang

Phrasat Banome, another example of Khmer architecture, outside of Battambang. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.


A Stien man, one of the hill tribes in Cambodia. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Stien Woman

A Stien woman. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Stamp with Henri Mouhot on it

A French stamp with Henri Mouhot on it. In the background one of the Bayon towers of Angkor Thom.

Henri Mouhot, and his
'Travels in the
Central Parts of Indochina'



Biographical Sketch

Henri Mouhot was one of the widely admired explorers of the 19th century who came to Southeast Asia. Mouhot arrived in 1858 via Singapore in Bangkok and used it as a base for his four journeys into the inner parts of Siam, Cambodia and Laos.

Henri Mouhot

A sketch of Henri Mouhot. Image source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Mouhot's name is strongly connected to the medieval nekropolis of Angkor, and sometimes he is wrongly seen as the 'discoverer' of Angkor and Angkor Wat. That is factually wrong; other Westerners visited Angkor since the 16th century several times. Though, Mouhots posthumously published travel narration made the Angkor site for the first time popular in Europe.

Henri Mouhot was born in 1826 in Montbéliard/France, near to the Swiss border. According to his brother Charles he left the family in the age of eighteen and travelled to Russia, where he spent some ten years and gained a professorship in philology. Mouhot travelled also through Europe and was fascinated by early photography, developed by Louis Daguerre.

He married an English women who was supposedly the granddaughter of the famous Scottish early 19th century Africa explorer Mungo Park. They lived for a while on the isle Jersey. Fascinated by travelling and foreign countries, and equipped with a strong constitution and good health, the lecture of John Bowrings 1857 publication 'The Kingdom and People of Siam' triggered his decision to make a journey to Southeast Asia. Interestingly, French institutions declined financial support, which was granted finally by the British Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London. His tasks were collecting animals and sending them back to England (as Alfred Russel Wallace did at the same time further southwards), describing the countries and people and mapping the areas he would travel to.


Travelling Indochina

King Mongkut of Siam and his Queen

The king of Siam (Mongkut, reign 1851-1868) and the queen. Image drawn after a photograph of the time. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'

Travelling in that time was by no means comparable to nowadays. There was for example almost no roadnet in the Siam/Thailand of the time. Even the capital Bangkok didn't have a single decent road in 1858, only some dirt tracks along the many canals (klongs), who served as the main transport network.

Mouhot's first trip then, after being introduced into the Western society in Bangkok and an invitation from king Mongkut of Siam, was a boattrip the Chao Phraya River upwards to visit the ruins of Siam's former and legendary capital Ayutthaya. The worst thing he describes were the mosquitoes who were around in great amounts at day and night.

Ayutthaya was an easy starter for travelling inner Indochina, because it is close to Bangkok and was already known by Westerners. After coming back to Bangkok he prepared for a second journey along the coasts east of Bangkok, travelling via Chantaburi passing by Koh Kong on boat and entering the port of Kampot. I placed three quotations on the Kampot page where he described the place and met the king of Cambodia in an audience.

After visiting Kampot Mouhot travelled the land road to Phnom Penh and Udong, where he met the second king of Cambodia in another audience. Next he visited some mountain tribes somewhat riverupwards the Mekong River. In one of his letters to the Royal Geographical Society he describes the area as close to Laos and Vietnam. That sounds much for the area what is now Ratanakiri. He spent two month among the Stieng people, apparently one of the hill tribes, before he turned to Angkor. Mouhot spent only three weeks in Angkor and went on then via Battambang back to Bangkok.

View on Bangkon in 1859

The view of Bangkok in the year 1859. In the background Wat Arun, Thonburi. Image after a sketch of Mouhot. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.


First Reflexions on Mouhot

Mouhot started studying natural sciences from 1856 on, only two years before he left Europe. His scientific orientation was accordingly superficial. In many things he describes in his books he was wrong or very wrong. For example did he believe that a complete abstincence from all alcoholic beverages would beware one from getting the feared 'jungle fevers', as he called malaria. He believed also, that these fevers were produced from gasses who come out of the river waters. He believed that the water streamupwards was mixed with certain minerals and other substances who would cause the fever.

That's particularly remarkable because malaria was known since ancient times already, it happened also in wide parts of Europe and quinine-based treatments became more and more developed. However, 'mal aria', medieval Italian, means 'bad air', and Mouhot's stand of information was ancient. The scientific proof that malaria is transfered by mosquitoes was done later, in 1897.

Chapel of the Mission in Chantaboun / Chantaburi

The chapel of the mission in Chantaboun / Chantaburi. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Mouhot was a strong Christian believer of Protestant confession. He again and again wrote about god's influence and effect on man and nature. The religious devotion is evident for him, scientific thinking is minor. When he came to places inhabited by a western community, he always stayed together with the western (almost always French) missionaries. The local Buddhist religion and all the superstitions among the native people he came in contact with were for him merely manifestations of the barbarous and primitive ignorance of the existence of the only one and true Christian god.

That stands in stark contrast to other explorers and scientists of the time as Alfred Russel Wallace or Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, who didn't waste a thought on the likewise superstitious Christian doctrine when exploring nature, except revealing it as such, as Junghuhn did in his very readable work 'Die Einführung des Christenthums auf Java' (1858). Junghuhn triggered a kind of a 'shitstorm' from the organized Christians of his time for criticizing Christianity and particularlty opposing the christianization of the Javanese People. Wallace didn't make friends among Christian authorities either, when replacing the doctrine of creationism with the theory of evolution. God finally died in 1859 with the publication of 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin. I don't know if Mouhot even heared of this throughbreaking publication in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but if, it most probably wouldn't have changed his fixed mind.

It's notable here that Christianity and civilization served as central justification patterns for the establishment of western colonial rule over the people outside of Europe. When once established it came clearly out that the central intention was in fact the profane exploitation of the colonialized countries and people.

Mouhot also utters at many occasions racist ideas in his books. Racism was very popular in the 19th and 20th century. Mouhot saw an Arian influence in some people in the area around Chantaburi, who he saw as more capable than others, while he had generally a low opinion of the Siamese and other 'races' in the world region. Maybe he read the work of Arthur de Gobineau 'On the differences of human races' (1853/55) and took it too serious. I don't want to introduce de Gobineau here, but his writings, favouring an Arian race, were completely unscientific.

Although Mouhot is in many publications not seen as an advocate for western colonialization, he favours the idea in several parts of his books. He expresses his regret for that the natural richnesses of the countries he visited are not developed in an industrial and commercial manner.

Usually this short passage is taken as a proof for Mouhot's distance to colonial aspirations:

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 scom'ge, to add to their present miseries?"

But the thought continues in the same paragraph as followed:

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!"

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 173

Later he makes his strong favour for a French colonialization absolutely clear in this statement:

European conquest, abolition of slavery, wise and protecting laws, and experience, fidelity, and scrupulous rectitude in those who administer them, would alone effect the regeneration of this state. It lies near to Cochin China, the subjection of which France is now aiming at, and in which she will doubtless succeed: under her sway it will become a land of plenty. I wish her to possess this land, which would add a magnificent jewel to her crown; but it is also my earnest desire that she may make a judicious choice of governors, and that the name of France, my dear and beautiful country, may be loved, respected, and honoured in the extreme East, as it should be everywhere."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 275

It's worth and revealing to have a closer look on what for a government Mouhot meaned.

It's the authoritarian government of Napoleon III, French emperor from 1852 to 1870. Populist Napoleon III hold dictatorial power, based on the army and the church. Members of the opposition like Victor Hugo and Alexis de Tocqueville had to leave the country or got imprisoned (as the latter). Political prisoners faced deportation to the notorious devils island (Ile du Diable). Napoleon III was a guarantor for the bourgeoisie to clean France up of revolutionaries of all kind, persecuting the followers of the ideas of 1789 and 1848. The foreign politics were aggressive and expansive. In his reign France was involved in a number of wars. The last one was the by Napoleon III declared Franco-Prussian war, which led to a total French defeat and the capture of Napoleon III on September 2nd 1870 by Prussian troops. Two days later the third republic was declared in Paris and Napoleon III was history.

That's the government of the "wise and protecting laws" and "scrupulous rectitude" Mouhot is fantasizing of. The example of the road construction up to Bokor Hill Station in Cambodia gives a lively insight of what kind of government the colonial rule later was factually.

On page 276 he then elaborates all the economic aspects and benefits for a colonial power who takes Cambodia over and lists up all the riches of the country including the potentials for the implementation of agricultural monocultures as cotton and resine production and the various kinds of precious timber who can be made to money by logging the forests.

Arriving in Phnom Penh Mouhot got oral message of the ongoing war in Cochin China (south Vietnam). His comment is revealing his nationalistic attitudes:

The war in Cochin-China was the subject of all conversations, and in every one's thoughts. The reports of the Chinese and Annamites who had seen the taking of the town of Saigou were not flattering to the pride of a Frenchman. I had not seen the glorious bulletins of our Admiral, but had the pain of hearing our enemies stigmatise us as barbarians, and, describing the burning of the market, and the conduct of the soldiery towards defenceless women, speak of it as "the behaviour of savages." Thus the evil deeds of a less civilized ally were visited upon us, and our whole nation judged of by isolated acts, all but inevitable in time of war, especially in a country where the soldier suffers from the climate and privations of all kinds."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 227

Now the gallic cock is crowing. Imperial France's colonial war in Indochina is justified. Attrocities are excused by the suffering of the poor soldiers (murderers, robbers and rapists) under the climate. Mouhot does not care for the reports of the victims, but longs for the "glorious bulletins of our Admiral" - who was the butcher-in-chief and is the last to be expected to give a fair statement, but put war crime in a civilized order.

It's here also notably that Mouhot does not get tired to call the Indochinese again and again and again 'savages', 'barbarians' and 'pagans'. These ever repeated phrases are a witness for Mouhots arrogant ethnocentric view, denying the fact that the really nasty war crimes in colonial history were always committed by western conquerers. Christians like him.

Another remarkable notion takes place in a conversation with the second king of Cambodia in Udong. The second king bemoans that Cambodia, his kingdom, lost so much territory to the invading Vietnamese. Mouhot doesn't hesitate to propose him a military attack on the Vietnamese, for they were weakened already by the French aggressions in other parts of their country. The episode is remarkable for it shows how easily the pious Christian is combining his ever repeated devotion to his only god with colonial power politics and war favouring France's interests.

In the time were already many French missionaries spread in communities over Cambodia. Whenever he met them, Mouhot stayed with them. When Mouhot came to the surroundings of Phnom Penh he met a French priest who made a lot of speculations about the origins of the Cham people (called the Thiames by Mouhot), who populate south Vietnam and parts of Cambodia. This priest was convinced of the Israelite decent of the Chams. Mouhot completely believed this absurd theory and wrote several pages about it. It sounds like that:

(...) it is easy to recognise the traces of an Israelitish origin. Comparing this with other missionary accounts, and the traces of these people found elsewhere, who will doubt that the torch of truth, which shone formerly between the great sea and Jordan, also shed its light over the extreme East? Whether, to explain these facts, we consider the commercial relations of the Jews with these countries, particularly when, in the height of their power, the combined fleets of Solomon and Hiram went to seek the treasures of Ophir (a generic name used perhaps to designate the two Indies), or whether we come lower down, to the dispersion of the Ten Tribes, who, instead of returning from captivity, set out from the banks of the Euphrates and reached the shores of the ocean—whatever ground of explanation we resolve upon, the shining of the light of revelation in the far East is not the less incontestable."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 225

That's totally wrong. One seldom reads such a bare nonsense.

Jungle Bivouac

The romantic view on the the 19th century explorer and jungle hero. The servants care for the food, Mouhot is writing down his newest experiences, the rifle always close to him, in the background the elephants. Many Westerners see Mouhot still in this way. It's a created myth.

In fact he was an agent for western colonial interests. His task was to map the countries he visited, explore their richnesses in natural resources and to hunt and collect animals and sent them to Europe. In his travel narratives he does not express a really deeper interest in the countries or their people. The Indochinese people are described by him exclusively negative. He nonstop calls them savages and barbarians, but for the only two reasons because they weren't civilized in a European, or better: French manner, and because they weren't Christians. He is looking down on the Indochinese with mere contempt. The only exceptions of this view are the kings and high noblemen, where he couldn't afford this deprecative attitude, but had to be diplomatic.

Image source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.


Visiting Angkor

Henri Mouhot was the first Westerner who made the civilization of Angkor widely known in the west. Falsely he is sometimes called the discoverer of Angkor. He himself didn't claim that. There are some other records by Westerners who were over the centuries in Angkor. But since Mouhot's publication came together with the French conquest of Indochina, it gained a wide attention in the west. Mouhot's popularity has been caused by his description of Angkor. That, and because Angkor is nowadays the best known and most visited site in Southeast Asia, let's have a closer look to this part of Mouhot's narrative.

In the province still bearing the name of Ongcor (...) there are (...) ruins of such grandeur, remains of structures which must have been raised at such an immense cost of labour, that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race. So civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works ?

One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 278/79

Seems he had also a tendency for gigantomany. However, falsely he also claims that all the Angkorean temples were dedicated to Buddhism (Volume I, p. 280), although it's easy to see that Angkor Wat's architecture is clearly reflecting the Hinduist Mount Meru concept. He describes then Angkor Wat in some details, particularly the bas reliefs:

The punishments of the infernal regions, on the contrary, are varied and numerous; and while the elected, who are enjoying themselves in Paradise, are all fat and plump, the poor condemned beings are so lean that their bones show through their skin, and the expression of their faces is pitiful and full of a most comic seriousness. Some are being pounded in mortars, while others hold them by the feet and hands; some are being sawn asunder; others are led along, like buffaloes, with ropes through their noses. In other places the comphubal (executioners) are cutting men to pieces with sabres; while a crowd of poorwretches are being transfixed by the tusks of elephants, or on the horns of rhinoceros. Fabulous animals are busy devouring some; others are in irons, and have had their eyes put out. In the centre sits the judge with his ministers, all sabre in hand, and the guilty are dragged before them by the hair or feet. In the distance is visible a furnace and another crowd of people under punishment, being tortured in divers ways—impaled, roasted on spits, tied to trees and pierced with arrows, suspended with heavy weights attached to their hands and feet, devoured by dogs or vultures, or crucified with nails through their bodies.

These bas-reliefs are perfect; the rest are inferior in workmanship and expression."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 295

Typically for Mouhot's superficial view on everything he describes in his travel narrative, he is fixed on the mere grandeur of the monuments and the sophisticated arts they show. He doesn't loose a thought on the quality of the society of Angkor. He admires greatness; the immense human suffering behind, the price for the gigantomanic buildings, are of no concern for him. He is instead mourning the loss of records of all the Angkorean heroes, warriors and artisans, who are lost for history, dying without leaving traces for the afterworld:

(...) 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!"

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 301

"Thousands of generations"? A generation is counted by historians between 25 to 30 years. Let's count a generation 25 years, one thousand generations were then 25,000 years. In fact the most remaining and the biggest and best known Angkorean monuments were built after 1100 CE, so they were at Mouhot's time less than 760 years old. That's less than 31 generations.

In contradiction to the bombastic overestimation of the "thousands of generations", what he certainly himself didn't belief, Mouhot gives two other estimations of the age of Angkor. In the first he can not come to a conclusion, in the second he dated the Angkorean ruins 2,000 or more years back.

To what epoch does it owe its origin? As before remarked, neither tradition nor written inscriptions furnish any certain information upon this point; or rather, I should say, these latter are as a sealed book for want of an interpreter (...)"

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume I, p. 301

At all events, it is my belief that, without exaggeration, the date of some of the oldest parts of Ongcor the Great may be fixed at more than 2000 years ago, and the more recent portions not much later. The state of decay of many of these structures would indicate even a greater age; but they probably date from the dispersion of the Indian Buddhists, which took place several centuries before the Christian era, and which led to the expatriation of thousands of individuals."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 23

Mouhot estimated Angkor Wat more than 1,200 years older than it was. Besides he again falsely derives it from Buddhist offsprings from India.

Millions of other ignorant Westerners followed Mouhot to Angkor until today. Not few of them are impressed by the sheer size of the monuments and the 19th century explorer, but without neither understanding Angkor nor Mouhot.

He also couldn't make sense out of the ancient inscriptions. Remarkable here is the formulation that the inscriptions are a "sealed book for want of an interpreter".

Angkor Wat, Sketch, Front View

Angkor Wat, front view, after a sketch of Mouhot. He called it 'Ongcor the Great'. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

From Angkor Mouhot travelled via Battambang back to Bangkok. There he spent some time, but soon later prefared to spend the next four months in Petchabury. Mouhot had to wait until the end of the rainy season until starting his next journey. Swampy Bangkok wasn't a nice place to stay. There was not a single road at that time there, only the filthy pathways along the canals (klongs). Many western residents of the time complained about that, what led to the beginning of road construction in Siam's capital.


Mouhot's last Journey

Well equipped with references from high authorities in Bangkok ordering the provincal governors and village chiefs to grant him all support, mainly means of transport as elephants, boats or oxen, Mouhot arrived in Khorat. Despite the references the governor of Khorat refused to help him. For further transport Mouhot needed elephants; when not being given by the governor he had the only alternative to rent some in the surrounding villages, but there he would have to pay a much higher price for them, what extended his budged. He therefore decided to go back to Bangkok first, for demanding stricter orders from there for the governor.

France had an agreement with Siam at the time to be as supportive as possible to all French missionaries and naturalists, as he writes. Siam generally had to grant great concessions to France and Britain to avoid giving them a reason to attack and occupy the country. Baker/Pongpaichit write that all British and French in the Siam of the time enjoyed immunity against the local law, like usually only diplomats do.

Elephant in an Elephant Camp near Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

An elephant in an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang, close to Mouhot's burial site. Nowadays the praised elephants are merely a tourist attraction. They can not compete with trucks, cars and caterpillars. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

However, Mouhot then made it a second time to Khorat and found the governor now willing to support his needs. From Khorat Mouhot made short trips to Phanom Rung and maybe to Phimai, before continuing his way to Laos.

It's not always easy to identify the places he came to, for their names are mostly different from the names who are in use today. When he came to the area of Sanyabury he describes the travelling in north Laos:

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."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 126

"Designed for the service of man" is not exactly a scientific statement; rather an antrophocentric one, the view through the bible. However, he continues as follows:

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.


I soon found that, but for the letter from the governor of Korat, I should have met everywhere with the same reception as at Chaiapume; however, this missive was very positively worded. Wherever I went, the authorities were ordered to furnish me with elephants, and supply me with all necessary provisions, as if I were a king's envoy. I was much amused to see these petty provincial chiefs executing the orders of my servants, and evidently in dread lest, following the Siamese custom, I should use the stick."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 125-129

Caravan of Elephants in Laos

Travelling on elephants. The image is based on a sketch by Mouhot, out of 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

To give an image of the trouble of travelling at the time, he describes the situation when his expedition was compelled to stay overnight in the jungle.

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."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 129/130

The difference between the Siamese and the Laotians of the time Mouhot described as:

The Laotians much resemble the Siamese: a different pronunciation and slow manner of speech being all that distinguishes their language. The women wear petticoats, and keep their hair long, which, when combed, gives the younger ones a more interesting appearance than those have who live on the banks of the Menam; but, at an advanced age, with their unkempt locks thrown negligently over one temple, and their immense goitres, which they admire, they are repulsively ugly."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 134

Thai and Laotians are indeed of the same ethnicity; many of the formerly Tai tribes who lived in their own kingdoms have been included into Siam over history. The incorporation of Lanna in the late 19th century is but one example. The reason that Laos isn't lies simply in the colonial appetite of France in Mouhot's time and later.

Further on he writes:

The Laotians have not the curiosity of the Siamese, and ask me fewer questions. I find them more intelligent than either the latter race or the Cambodians, and among the villagers especially there is a curious mixture of cunning and simplicity. They do not as yet seem to me to merit their reputation for hospitality,—a virtue which appeared to be much more practised in Siam. I should never have obtained any means of conveyance without the letter from the Viceroy of Korat, and my experience has been that they are less respectful, but at the same time less importunate, than the Siamese."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 139

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 Laotian priests are continually praying in their pagodas; they make a frightful noise, chanting from morning to night. Assuredly they ought to go direct to Paradise."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 154

The description of Luang Prabang is disappointingly short. That has probably to do with the fact that his late journals were still in a state of fragments.

On the 25th of July I reached Louang Prabang, a delightful little town, covering a square mile of ground, and containing a population, not, as Mgr. Pallegoix says in his work on Siam, of 80,000, but of 7000 or 8000 only.
The situation is very pleasant. The mountains which, above and below this town, enclose the Mekon, form here a kind of circular valley or amphitheatre, nine miles in diameter, and which, there can be no doubt, was anciently a lake. It was a charming picture, reminding one of the beautiful lakes of Como and Geneva. Were it not for the constant blaze of a tropical sun, or if the mid-day heat were tempered by a gentle breeze, the place would be a little paradise.
The town is built on both banks of the stream, though the greater number of the houses are built on the left bank. The most considerable part of the town surrounds an isolated mount, more than a hundred metres in height, at the top of which is a pagoda."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 137

Painting of Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A painting of Luang Prabang, showing the confluence of the Nam Khan River and the Mekong River. Seen anywhere in Luang Prabang. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

All these 19th century travel narratives contain also some descriptions of hunts. Mouhot depicts several, tiger hunts, a leopard who he shot - and in one of the north Laotian villages Mouhot got an invitation for a rhinoceros hunt. I quote that for it is a rare document and describes not only the BAM-BAM of a western rifle hunt but the way the locals hunted with their traditional weapons. The Indochinese rhinoceros is meanwhile extinct. In 2011 news went around that the last one of the species was killed in Vietnam.

In the hamlet of Na-Le, where I had the pleasure of killing a female tiger, which with its partner was committing great ravages in the neighbourhood, the chief hunter of the village got up a rhinoceros-hunt in my honour. I had not met with this animal in all my wanderings through the forests. The manner in which he is hunted by the Laotians is curious on account of its simplicity and the skill they display. Our party consisted of eight, including myself. I and my servants were armed with guns, and at the end of mine was a sharp bayonet. The Laotians had bamboos with iron blades something between a bayonet and a poignard. The weapon of the chief was the horn of a sword-fish, long, sharp, strong, and supple, and not likely to break.
Thus armed, we set off into the thickest part of the forest, with all the windings of which our leader was well acquainted, and could tell with tolerable certainty where we should find our expected prey. After penetrating nearly two miles into the forest, we suddenly heard the crackling of branches and rustling of the dry leaves.
The chief went on in advance, signing to us to keep a little way behind, but to have our arms in readiness.
Soon our leader uttered a shrill cry as a token that the animal was near; he then commenced striking against each other two bamboo canes, and the men set up wild yells to provoke the animal to quit his retreat.
A few minutes only elapsed before he rushed towards us, furious at having been disturbed. He was a rhinoceros of the largest size, and opened a most enormous mouth.
Without any signs of fear, but, on the contrary, of great exultation, as though sure of his prey, the intrepid hunter advanced, lance in hand, and then stood still, waiting for the creature's assault. I must say I trembled for him, and I loaded my gun with two balls; but when the rhinoceros came within reach and opened his immense jaws to seize his enemy, the hunter thrust the lance into him to a depth of some feet, and calmly retired to where we were posted.
The animal uttered fearful cries and rolled over on his back in dreadful convulsions, while all the men shouted with delight. In a few minutes more we drew nearer to him; he was vomiting pools of blood. I shook the chief's hand in testimony of my satisfaction at his courage and skill. He told me that to myself was reserved the honour of finishing the animal, which I did by piercing his throat with my bayonet, and he almost immediately yielded up his last sigh. The hunter then drew out his lance and presented it to me as a souvenir; and in return I gave him a magnificent European poignard."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 148/149

Rhinoceros Hunt in Laos

A rare hunting scene: a villager is killing a rhinoceros. Image based on a sketch of Mouhot. Source: 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'.

Mouhot caught eventually malaria and suffered for some days of heavy fever, had a strong headache and then lost more and more senses. He tried to continue his journal, but became too weak for it. The last entries were:

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."

Mouhot, Henri:
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
London 1864
Volume II, p. 160

The last sentence is not written by Mouhot himself but probably by his brother Charles, who cared for the heritage.

Tomb / Grave of Henri Mouhot by Asienreisender

The tomb of Henri Mouhot at the riverbanks of the Nam Khan. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Henri Mouhot died at November 10th, 1861 at the banks of the Nam Khan River in north Laos, some ten kilometers outside of Luang Prabang. He was burried there in the European way. The Laotion way of the time was to hang corpses into the trees. The wild animals would feed then from them.

Mouhot's reliable Siamese servant Phrai brought the traveller's belongings after the burial to Bangkok.

Nowadays there is a white tomb placed at the banks of the Nam Khan River. It's in a quite good shape. I am not sure if that is exactly the place Mouhot has died. Additionally there is a statue of him placed, where he looks like an old man. Before there was an older monument, built in 1867, which was destroyed in a flood.

Meanwhile Laos is changing in a rapid development like it happened a few years ago in China. The old road parallel to the river is under construction and close to the grave a new bridge is under construction as well. Soon it will be more and more noisy around the grave.

Bridge Construction over the Nam Khan River in Laos by Asienreisender

A new bridge over the Nam Khan River under construction, accompanied by two roads on both sides of the river. Laos' industrialization is going on rapidly.

March is the peak of the dry season; the river has it's lowest water level, and the air is poisened with dense smog - a result of countless forest fires.

Image by Asienreisender, 3/2013



After all one has to say after the lecture of Henri Mouhot's two volumes on Indochina, that it reads amusing, but does not give one much inspiration to think over. Mouhot provides a travel depiction which remains widely at the surface of what he saw. When he considered phenomenons in a deeper way he was practically always wrong with his theories, up to ridiculousness. His writings are in it's superficiallity far behind those of Thomas Stamford Raffles, Alfred Russel Wallace or Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn. The brilliance of the latter three is reflected in their scientific way of thinking and their originality. They are thrilling to read and they provide breaking ideas, at least for their time. Many of them are still valid. Mouhot's writings therefore are rather boring and unispired. He seems to have been somewhat naive, rather a phantast and dazzled by grandiosity, but by no means a scientifically thinking man. That is also underlined by his frequently repeated recursions on the only and true god and his bleak religious sermons.

His sometimes throughshining nationalistic, chauvinistic and pro-colonialistic attitudes are not uncommon for the time, but not at all anyhow progressive, constructive or sympathetic. Later generations had to learn the bitter lesson that these attitudes led straight to the grand disaster of the 'big war' of 1914-18 and what followed. The mask of the pious Christian and apologet of western civilization turns too frequently into the dark side, the other side of the coin: Doctor Jekyll on the surface, Mister Hyde on the backside.

In the time around 1860 it was already clearly to see for everybody with the horizon (which he had) that colonialism meant the mere exploitation of the conquered, colonial countries and their people for the sake of a political and business elite in the colonial empire. To combine that with Christian attitudes is just one of many points which make religion such a dubious doctrin, to say the least. Particularly war, what comes inevitably always together with war crime, is practically always sanctioned by religion.

There is no doubt that Mouhot clearly was a very ambitious advocate for colonialism; many of his statements make that clear. At one point he uses the argument: when France does not colonialize Indochina, then the British competition will do.

The reason why he became so popular was certainly also based in this advocacy for French colonialism. At the time of an ongoing war in Cochin China (south Vietnam) and French troops who had already occupied north Vietnam, somebody like Mouhot offered support for the politics of conquest. Alone that he does not get tired to emphasize the barbarity of the Indochinese people makes a good point. The spread of the advantages of western civilization was a central legitimation pattern, together with christianity (an older one) and racism (a pseudo-scientifical), for the colonial powers of the time. The often uttered racist statements point into that direction as well. Superiour white man, as widely seen at the time, had all the right to civilize the world, even when the barbarians resist. The local people in overseas countries were not fully seen as humans. In the years when Mouhot travelled, slavery was still in act in America, and 'negroes' were by many not seen as humans at all; rather as a kind of apes. It's sad that science, or better spoken pseudo-science, served it's part to justify the racist ideology. George Orwell gives a lively exemplification of the mentality of western colonialists in his first novel 'Burmese Days'.

Nowadays there is no scientific evidence anymore seen for the concept of human races. By the way: not everybody at the time around 1860 saw the things in this mainstream view. There were progressive minds in the western world who objected to it. Time proved them right. But Mouhot was none of them; Henri Mouhot was an arch-reactionary.

After 90 years of French colonialism in Indochina it eventually failed completely, leaving a disastrous balance. Civilizing local people, whishful or not, was clearly not the intention of the French rule. Education was completely neglected for the masses, only a very few selected and of noble background anyway privileged local people were granted to receive a better education for the only purpose to serve later for the sake of the French regime in the administration. Tyrannic rule wasn't abolished, the colonial administration merely allied with and used the old rulers for their purposes. Share and rule.

Henri Mouhot wasn't the lonely, superior and romantic traveller as he is often seen. He spent much of his time in company with mostly French missionaries who supplied them with the country-information Mouhot was looking for. One can compare these Christian missions of the time with the NGO's nowadays: agencies of foreign powers.

Mouhot travelled with a number of servants who carried his extensive belongings. He often travelled on elephants, besides of ships, who were the most advanced and comfortable way of travelling at the time. He was received by the kings of Siam, Cambodia and Laos for the kings knew very well that he was an agent for western powers (at least Britain, for his expedition was financed by two renowned British societies). Therefore the local kings didn't want to disgruntle France or England. They equipped Mouhot with reference letters, elephants and more.

When he died at the end of 1861 in north Laos, he was still a relatively young man of 35 years. It would be interesting to see what he would have been in later years. I wouldn't wonder if he had made a career in the colonial administration in one of the occupied Indochinese territories. French conquest was therefore also in his personal interest. As a pioneer he might have gained one of the better, if not a top-post in the colonial administration. And he was in need of a new job for the time after his travels.

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on January 1st, 2014