Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Of the lost and the rediscovered [-Henri Mouhot]

Dying Young: Malaria killed Mouhot in the Lao wilderness.
Henri Mouhot's forgotten crypt outside of Luang Prabang was rediscovered in 1990 (Photo: Don Entz)
Henri Mouhot's crypt in Laos (Photo: Don Entz)

Wed, March 5, 2008
Nithinand Yorsaengrat
The Nation (Thailand)

Henri Mouhot became famous for discovering Cambodia's 'lost' Angkor, but he travelled widely. That's why his bones are in Laos

Henri Mouhot, the Frenchman whose 19th-century rediscovery of Cambodia's Angkor temple complex sparked a romantic "See Angkor and die" fad in the West, saw Angkor and died - in Laos.

His grave just outside Luang Prabang was all but forgotten until 1990 when tourists stumbled on it. Today any local tour guide can arrange a visit.

Alexandre Henri Mouhot's collection of delightful sketches, "Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China, Cambodia and Laos During the Years 1858, 1859 and 1860", was published in London following his death in 1861, and his description of Angkor's "exotic abandoned ruins" caused considerable excitement.

Missionaries and traders had been writing about the mediaeval Khmer temples since the 16th century, but Mouhot's evocation truly caught the public imagination.

The catchphrase "See Angkor and die" - presumably happily - that swept the West became the title of a romantic film that Norodom Sihanouk directed in 1993 while he was still Cambodia's king.

Born in 1826 in Montbeliard, France, Mouhot was gifted in languages and the natural sciences. His interests were almost certainly piqued by the 1850s books "The Kingdom and People of Siam" by Britain's Sir James Bowring and "Description of the Siam Kingdom" by French Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix.

Mouhot mounted an expedition to Southeast Asia with the support of London's Royal Geographical and Zoological societies, and arrived in Bangkok on April 27, 1858.

Over the next three years he made four excursions, two of them within Siam. The second took him into Cambodia to Angkor, the fourth to Luang Prabang in Laos.

He mapped the territory en route, although, as mentioned in his journals, his equipment broke before he finished his map of Siam. In part because of this, France and Britain concluded that Siam extended only as far as the Chao Phya River basin, which appeared to give it the perfect dimensions for "buffer state" between their own neighbouring colonies.

In 1861 Mouhot spent three months crossing dense jungle from Loei to Luang Prabang and planned to follow the Mekong River's current into Cambodia, but on October 19, outside Luang Prabang, he was suddenly struck by malarial fever. His last diary entry was dated October 29, and he died on November 10, age 35.

Mouhot's servants buried the explorer on a bank of Khan River at the spot where he died. All of his journals and specimens were sent to his family in England. It was his brother who published the diaries.

Commander Doudart de Lagree, leader of the French government's Mekong Exploration Commission of 1866-1868, ordered a modest monument erected on a slope with a sandstone panel that read "H Mouhot, May 1867" to commemorate the first Frenchman to visit this part of Laos.

The monument was destroyed when the Khan River flooded and was replaced in 1887 by a more durable structure.

Restoration work was done on the tomb in 1951 by the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, but after that the site was abandoned to the encroaching jungle.

Only in 1990 did tourists accidentally rediscover it, and the town of Mouhot's birth, Montbeliard, arranged for the grave's restoration.

History regards Henri Mouhot with mixed emotions. He was a scientist, a bold explorer and a cartographer who, in a sense, gave Angkor back to the world.

And yet those same maps he made paved the way for France's expanding colonial empire in Indochina, a foreign presence that remained in control until 1954.

No comments: