The jungles of Laos never produced the riches that the French envisioned when they set out to colonize in earnest. The rubber and timber produced some wealth but they were too dearly extracted and the weather swung between extremes. It was foetid, dangerous, and restive. There was some silk and weaving to be had, and minor substances, like dyes, and of course opium. But the monsoon turned rivers into mudflows and drenched every living thing. Still, the jungle did produce certain other commodities, particularly, stories of the individuals who hacked a path to infamy through the undergrowth.

With that in mind, on a brief trip away from Hanoi where I live and work, I went to view the tomb of Henri Mouhot in Luang Prabang, the small city on the upper Mekong and Laos’ chief tourism draw. Luang Prabang was once the seat of the Lao monarchy before re-forging by the French as a provincial capital in the north. Mouhot was the naturalist and explorer who filled in much of the map as colonial officials cobbled the disparate tribal areas and minor kingdoms of what is now called Southeast Asia into French Indochina. His agonizing death in 1861, at the age of 35, went largely unnoticed.

Mouhot is remembered for one spectacular feat: trekking to Angkor Wat when the complex has been all but buried in the undergrowth. He did not discover it, guidebooks are quick to point out. It had never been lost, merely avoided in the aftermath of the wars that engulfed the Khmer and Thai kingdoms three centuries before. Southeast Asian communities take ghosts, particularly war dead, very seriously, and the monolithic stone faces staring dispassionately out of the jungle would have only made the memory that much more terrible.

In Angkor, one of the most thoughtfully researched guidebooks on Southeast Asia available, Dawn Rooney pays tribute to Mouhot. She writes that he set out from England in 1858 with funding from the Royal Geographical Society bound for Siam. From there he made his way to Cambodia and mapped Angkor. He was a scientist and able surveyor, so his expedition was probably something halfway between the standard cluster of Europeans in pith helmets with an army of bearers for the silverware, and genuine scientific enquiry.

For context, Rooney’s book contains the well-known photograph showing a row of men sprawled on the steps of Angkor in trousers, cotton shirts and ties. This is the 1866 Mekong Exploration Commission expedition. Mouhot is not in the photo. He was already dead. But rightmost in the photo is another mysterious figure, Ernest Doudart de Lagrée, whose maps would break open Angkor for the French. In the photo, De Lagrée’s face is careworn and his eyes sunken, or, more correctly, stricken. Eventually he would fortify Mouhot’s tomb and fix a plaque to it in 1867. Then he too would die in his tracks, just two years later, in China.

From the guidebook I knew that Mouhot’s tomb was 10 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang, near a village called Ban Phanom. At the public market I hired a small covered lorry, a sangthaew, and asked the driver to take me there. The trip to Ban Phanom only took 15 minutes and I realized that, at five dollars, I had overpaid.

The tomb was supposed to be four kilometres past Ban Phanom on a dirt road, then down a steep track, and then 300 metres along the Nam Kan River, a tributary of the Mekong. All the way it was supposed to be marked by signs saying “Mouhot”.

I started walking under a sun rivalled in its intensity only by that of southern Thailand in the dry month of April, and 20 minutes later realised that I was already lost. The temperature was 39 degrees and I had only one bottle of water. The road had no shade and, worse, little traffic. It was just me, the sun and the dust. I have been in Southeast Asia for five years and can verify that the sun in summer hits you like iron. It warps your vision and makes you see things.

I have a macabre habit of visiting the tombs of individuals who endured severe hardship in distant places. The farthest flung was Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia. I wasn’t there expressly to see his monument, but to see the island, which, if you know what Shackleton underwent there, may as well be his monument.. I also once had aspirations of seeking the site of Hannibal’s last stand in what is now an industrial city in Turkey called Gebze, where roman agents pursued him.

The most obscure was Sir Richard Burton, in a suburb of London called Mortlake. His monument is eerie and unusual: a Bedouin tent rendered in stone. I had first heard of Burton at university in 1991. Then, in the university library, I had stumbled upon Death Rides a Camel, a 1963 biography by D.A. Kinsley, which I didn’t read probably because of the overcooked title. Seven years later I purchased Rage to Live: a Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, by Mary Lovell. This I read.

Burton is well known to anyone interested in travel. But to generations X, Y and whatever comes after that he is either a wonky actor or just some sir. The first Burton was a linguist, diplomat, explorer and spy for the Crown, like Gertrude Bell fifty years later. He is also occasionally referred to as a “sexologist”, although the term meant something very different in the 19th century: he conducted a study of the behaviors of British officers in the brothels of India. He was one of the first Europeans to make it into, and then back out of, Mecca. He confirmed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, and in 1854 survived having a spear thrust through his face in Somalia. When he died in Trieste in 1890 Isabel, his wife, shipped him back to London in a lead-lined coffin and had him interred in his stone tent, which is now in Mortlake.

On a blustery day in October I had put myself on the Tube out to Mortlake with nothing but the name of the church where he was buried, Mary Magdalene (though he was not catholic, Isabel had Catholic rites administered), and an A-to-Z. But the London suburbs were a jungle of a different sort, and two hours later I was walking around what appeared to be a retirement community looking for the place where the map said Mary Magdalene would be, marked by a cross. There were at least six other crosses, however, and I found all of them, inadvertently taking myself on a tour of every known denomination of Protestantism in Southern England.

Finally, with the light fading, I asked one last time of a family out for a stroll, “Do you know where I can find Mary Magdalene Church?” One of the family, a young woman, looked at me quizzically: “You’re looking for the tomb of Richard Burton”.

They directed me down a series of winding paths between garden walls, through gates, and finally to a back road, where I found Mary Magdalene behind enormous stone walls. I entered through a wrought iron gate, but the priest was nowhere to be found and the cemetery was locked.

I knocked on the door of the parish house and the maid answered. She directed me to the door of the priest’s rooms and told me he would be out presently if I knocked loud enough. A dog somewhere in the house erupted with very high-pitched snarling. Then a priest, a mild, grey-haired man, came to the door. I told him I had come a long way and asked if I could to see the tomb.

“How far is ‘a long way?”, he asked.

“The USA”, I replied.

“That’s long enough,” he said, and insinuated that donations were appreciated.

He explained that I could not go through the main cemetery gate because that was now permanently locked due to vandals, and I would have to go through the kitchen instead, out the back door, through the maintenance yard and past the tool shed. There I would see the tent.

He didn’t make it clear where any of those things were so just started walking. But it was hard to miss a giant grey pyramid among the gravestones and soon I was sitting across from the man himself, Hajji Abdullah, translator of the Thousand-and-One Nights. The satisfaction was well worth embarrassing pleas to strangers about a neglected tomb in a Roman Catholic churchyard in London. I left one quid on the kitchen counter as I departed, the earlier dog nipping at my heels.

Now in Laos, I was performing the exercise again, only this time under vastly altered conditions. Laos has been contested by the Khmer, the Burmese, the Mongols and even the Javanese. In modern times it has been ground down into particularly dire straits, first under the French and then by American bombs. Now the Lao labour under a kleptocracy that used to be vaguely communist and is now just vaguely nothing. Vietnam clearly influences defence, China is buying up the timber, and cars with the logo of the United Nations Development Programme abound in upscale tourist towns like Pongsavan, near Plain of Jars.

After thirty-five minutes urging myself on, I came to a sign, “Mouhot”, and assumed I had found it. There were mountain bike tracks from people clearly much smarter than me. My clothes were drenched with sweat and I felt the first signs heat exhaustion.

Down I went into the jungle, and was at the river in a few minutes. I began walking along what looked like a track on the riverbank. But this eventually tapered out into nothing. It was clear now that I was also in snake territory. There are cobra in Laos and numerous lesser reptiles that may or may not be poisonous, which equals poisonous when you don’t know what you’re looking at. Then I came to a bamboo shack with discarded clothes on the floor and thought I had probably wandered into a smuggler’s camp and was likely being watched by someone holding a machete.

Now I turned around and walked back about 100 metres. Then I turned around again for no reason. I realized that delirium was setting in. I decided then that I would go back to the road and hitchhike another two kilometres, and if that didn’t do it I would hitchhike back to Ban Phanom and ask the sangthaew to take me down this road until either the road stops or we find Mouhot, who was clearly not on this path. It was good that my wife was not there because if she were she would be assisting the smugglers in administering whatever sort of procedure they would be performing on me with the machete.

Back out on the road, my reasoning that snakes were part of the population was confirmed when first I saw the glint in the sun, then the head and then the whole body of a medium-sized grass snake freshly run over that morning. These are not venomous. Then there was another snake. And then about 100 meters later I saw an item that is indeed venomous, a scorpion, happily flattened on the road.

Then a ride came along and took me what was probably a kilometer, to a construction site  (here I discovered that the road I was on was not named). I enquired after Mouhot and tried to make the shape of a coffin with my hands, even mimicking death by sticking my tongue out, tilting my head unnaturally and squeezing my eyes shut. A worker there proceeded to tell me in perfect English that he “didn’t understand English so well”. I headed back out on the road and found another ride, this time back to Ban Phanom. It had now been an hour and half.

Dawn Rooney says this of Mouhot’s death “His last journey of the region was an exploration of uncharted territory in north-eastern Siam and a survey of the Mekong in Laos designed to fill in the blanks on maps made in the 17th century. Mouhot continued his work until 1861 when he contracted a fever and died at Luang Prabang in Laos at the age of 35.” My guidebook noted his last journal entry: “Have pity on me, O my God.” The “fever” was malaria.

Back in Ban Phanom, my driver, whose name I now learned was Noi Noi, was dusting the fender of  his sangthaew. I told him, “I want to find Mouhot”. I expected a blank stare.

“Oh! Moo Hoo!”, he said, and proceeded to take out a tourist guide with a map to the exact location as if he picnicked there regularly. It was three kilometres, or about two miles away. I had stopped one kilometre short.

“One-hundred thousand kip,” he said ($11).

“To go three kilometers?” I said. “I’ll give you thirty thousand.”

The Khmer and the Cham, predecessors of the modern Lao, built thousands of magnificent wats right across Southeast Asia. But rapid, unsustainable growth led to rapid decline. Mongols, Thai and Burmese sacked what they could and left the rest to crumble. In Collapse, Jared Diamond also surmises that Angkor Wat used up all its water. Today the Lao still cultivate the stone face of the ancients, always regal, never belying emotion. At other times they are jovial. They can be aloof too, however, perhaps owing to the heat. Yet they don’t practice outright obscurantism like the Vietnamese, whose favourite word is “no”. Nor are they so parsimonious. They are Animist, Buddhist, or just disinterested and are generally referred to as “laid back”. They can be imperious, however, particularly over social protocol, and do sometimes seem to suffer the little emperor syndrome (something they share with the Vietnamese). There is an expression in Vietnam, “the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.”

Now Noi Noi and I were off to finally pay our respects to the man buried in the jungle one-hundred and fifty years ago. In about nine minutes the sign, “Mouhot”, hove into view with the Tricolor above the name. I observed also that the reputation of a sangthaew driver is not built on speed.

I clamoured down the riverbank and found the track. In a few more minutes I saw higher on the bank a large, white sarcophagus with a plaster elephant rearing its trunk from the trees behind. I walk up the path and regard the last resting place of Henri Mouhot, the first French do-it-yourself tourist to Angkor Wat.

The sarcophagus is stately. It would look at home in Montparnasse. There is a plaque on one end placed in 1990 by the people of the town in France where Mouhot was born, Montbeliard, and the one placed by Lagrée on the side. The only sound is the river below, the song of Laos. There is a small meadow, some benches and a statue of a bearded man in bare feet and a linen waistcoat. This is him. I take some photos of the tomb from different angles.

Perhaps Mouhot’s death and interment were too far from his home. Neither can we know the discomfort these people endured, nor what was in their minds, nor what drove them on to such punishing expeditions. We are simply not like them and their memory seems as blank as the blank faces of the Lao. Still the tomb has a peace about it, like a jungle encampment where the fire is out and all of the party are sleeping. I head back to the road feeling the earned exhaustion of a trudge through the heat to one of the rare places of Southeast Asia.


Year of the Rat

March 24, 2009

This post is about a rat that lived under the sink in my kitchen, until one hour ago, when I caught him, stuffed him in a bucket, and threw him into a lake.

The animal made its presence known three days ago when I came downstairs and witnessed him scurrying across the living room floor toward the kitchen and then disappearing under the cupboards. He was a smallish rat, not like the mammoths you see in the sewer grate or at the seashore. He was about the size of my hand and moved somewhat arrogantly that first time, prancing strangely across our simulated hardwood. He seemed clean enough and not so belligerent, though, so I only mentioned it to my wife through the stairwell.

“I don’t want to kill him,” I said.

“Can’t we get some of that sticky stuff to catch it and just peel it off?” said my wife.

“No. That kills it. It crawls across the sticky stuff and its feet get stuck. Then it dies there. Do you want to peel it off?” I said.

“And I don’t want one of those (I made the snapping motion of a standard rat trap with my hands). That’s disgusting.”

We discussed asking the maid to go buy some kind of have-a-heart trap, and then realized the folly of that notion considering the place we live, Hanoi. There are rats everywhere. They walk around in broad daylight eating garbage and sneering at pedestrians. When the Vietnamese catch a rat they throw it into the street where it is immediately run over by 50 Honda motorbikes. The body is macerated instantly and by afternoon has been ground to molecules.

I had grown used to rats long before coming to Hanoi. They were prevalent in another crowded city where I used to live, Washington, D.C. Only in D.C. they just flitted about momentarily and spent most of their time in the Metro trying to figure out how to get up to DuPont Circle through the drains. Here in Hanoi, rats are just another denizen, part of a seething mass of living things drifting through space on a wayward planet. They figure heavily in East Asian lore and aren’t always bad. This is, in fact, the Year of the Rat. I asked a friend with six years in the country why rats are even regarded in Asia. She said, “because they are highly intelligent animals”. That’s not to say they are kept as pets. But the Vietnamese have resigned themselves to the fact that there will always be rats.

The one now inhabiting my flat, however, would have to go. I had visions of the maid crouched on the stove, saucepan in hand, screaming and whapping the countertop to bits as the animal danced below. I began to survey the routes of rodent ingress and egress under the kitchen cabinets and under the refrigerator, and devised a model for trapping the animal that would be touchless, instant, and as nonviolent as possible.

The next day, a Sunday, there was the animal again as I came downstairs, travelling the same route, from the living room toward the kitchen. Only this time I visually confirmed that it had gone under the refrigerator, which is actually outside the kitchen, next to the kitchen door. I located my Maglite in the lighting equipment drawer of the dining room hutch and peered behind the refrigerator, where I saw the rodent looking impassively back at me.

Rats are not pleasing to view at close range. They have black eyes that lend themselves too much to the animal’s reputation as vermin. By now I had enlisted my wife to help throw some yellow curtains, long balled up in a cabinet, around the base of the refrigerator.

I peered in from the other side and confirmed again the rat’s presence. Only this time he squared off into the light of my torch and actually made to leap out the very opening I had made to look for him. I recoiled and closed the gap. My wife and I then went out to run some errands and discuss strategy. When we returned, the rat was gone.

The next day I called the landlady, who sent someone to squeeze caulk into the opening under the sink where I believed the animal to be entering and exiting. That made the house smell like caulk. I asked, “Since it always retreats in the same place under the cupboards, shouldn’t we nail strips of wood over those places?”

“But what if the rat dies in there and starts to smell?” asked the rat-catcher-caulk squeezer, who wasn’t a real rat-catcher-caulk-squeezer, but the landlady’s brother.

“I still want something here,” I said.

He nodded yes, which, in Vietnamese, means “no”.

We dined that night unconvinced, and were confirmed when I came downstairs one last time before bed to see the rat picking at a small sack of rice that we had placed two shelves up on the dining room hutch. The animal could scale sheer surfaces! It bears mention here that we don’t really have a living room or dining room, but one space of about 50 square meters with dining furniture at one end and living furniture at the other.

Again the rat shot under the kitchen cupboards near the sink. The caulking had trapped him in with us, or us in with him.

This morning was quiet. I reconnoitered the kitchen. I would take it upon myself to savage a spare piece of shelving, saw it into strips with my Leatherman, and drive the strips into the openings under the cupboards. Note: The locking mechanism on a Leatherman is designed to behead your finger if you try to force it.

But this would trap the animal under the sink and starve him there, or it would trap him in the open where I could descend from above. He had been about in the night. I saw that a bag of coriander seeds had been chewed open, the seeds shelled and only the soft flesh inside them removed.

It took two hours to erect my barricades. Morning passed into lunch and lunch passed into after lunch. I knew the animal was there. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him leap across the counter. I quickly shut the door, put on my shoes, a pair of ski gloves, and my bicycle helmet (visor down), and covered every bit of exposed skin. I wrapped an orange scarf around my neck and collected the blanket, which I would use as a rat net. I sealed myself inside the kitchen and seized a pair of tongs so that I looked like a bike messenger on the way to a barbecue in winter with a blanket.

When the rat saw me, he scaled the edge of a mirror behind the wine glasses to the top of the cupboards. In two lurches I was up on the counter peering at him. He was under a polished stainless steel fry pan. Immediately the tongs became impractical and I threw them away. I attempted to get him in the blanket instead, but failed. He then skirted the cupboards to the other side of the room and tried to hide under a set of nested plastic salad strainers.

I caught my breath and pounced again. Still the rat was too quick, and here I saw something that terrified me. The animal launched himself from the cupboard and flew seven feet to the kitchen floor, like Voldemort. I saw him frantically searching between the cracks of my barricade. But I had built it too well.

He led me on two circuits of the floor, and I momentarily despaired that he had an emergency exit somewhere in the door frame. Then there was another terrifying demonstration. He positioned himself in front of the lower panel of our corrugated aluminium kitchen door – not corrugated aluminium like on the roof a tool shed, more like an indoor kind of nice kitcheny corrugated aluminium – and crabwalked right up it, gripping microscopic ridges left in the aluminium at the time of forging, on his face a look of utter focus, if rats can be said to have a face.

Now the rat was just running to run, however. The vertical walk up the door required all of his resources and I hurled my blanket at him, knocking him to the floor. Even with my blanket on him he managed to wriggle free once, but then he seemed to tire, and fell. I closed my hands around him like a spider and stuffed him, blanket and all, into the bucket. The only thing visible now was that hairless tail.

I removed my protective uniform, put on my Ray Bans, and went out into the street carrying my bucket. The route would take me about 200 meters out to the small lake in my neighborhood.

At the water’s edge I positioned the bucket between my feet with the mouth pointing seaward. I held a corner of the blanket tightly and whipped it over the water. The rat flew out sideways and sunk so quickly that I thought maybe he had suffocated on the trip over and was just dead. But then he surfaced a meter or two offshore, paddling out into the stream like a tub toy. I watched him out to the middle of the channel hoping he would reach the far shore. He swam fast for an animal with sticks for legs. But then there was a gust of wind and I lost sight of him.

I walked home. The house seemed somehow diminished now, too quiet and too clean. The animal had brought activity to a mundane life and had given me something to grapple with other than how to get Microsoft Word to automatically put the same margins on all bulleted lists. We’re still jealous of our place at the top of the taxonomy and will not countenance anyone from below. This hairball of an animal with a small brain had taken three days to catch, and even then it was never certain until I had him stuffed into my bucket. Victory now mocks me, King of the Rats.

I live in Hanoi and I commute to work on a folding bicycle. If you’ve been to Hanoi, or have seen it in the news, you’d probably say that this is tantamount to suicide. As Asian cities develop, the streets are literally becoming impassable with motorbikes and cars. Infrastructure is not catching up because public funding rarely goes where it’s supposed to, and each day more and more people stuff themselves onto roads that are not growing to accommodate them. They regard red lights as electric things next to the road that make a nice color as they speed past. Or in Bangkok, when there is a freak instance of open road, cars immediately accelerate to triple digits as if it were possible to go faster than the earth is spinning and get back to where you would have been were there no initial delay. (By the way, none of this is researched or fact-checked. I live it.)

The air pollution is beyond belief in all of these places. At major intersections here in Hanoi the fumes actually distort your vision like the heat off a desert road and I once saw a lorry driver roll down his window and vomit. Public transport is too little too late and in most cases just makes things worse particularly because city traffic authorities buy used busses from developed cities like Seoul, with diesel engines that have already done several hundred thousand miles.

Riding through the middle of this is me on my ‘folder’, offsetting at least one person worth of carbon monoxide. I would like to stop being a minority, but how do you tell people that, just as soon as they get enough cash in pocket to improve their lot with personal motorized transport, they can’t have that because the West has already brought us to the brink? The history involved in answering that question is far more than any folding bicycle ever asked for, but it definitely didn’t create an environment conducive to high-minded talk of saving the planet. Vietnam has 85 million people and they all want cars, because they were already riding bicycles. They had no choice. Most Vietnamese would just as soon never be seen on anything with pedals again, and there is virulent disdain among the nouveau riche for real peasants in their conical hats, flooding onto the cities, hawking tomatoes from rusted, brakeless bicycles.

A lot has to happen to get urban Vietnamese on folders, then. Like broadcasting the message in awareness-raising campaigns that motor vehicles create harmful emissions and bicycles don’t. The United Nations Environment Program, IUCN, WWF, and some others are tapping young people too, and they’re finding that there is a healthy respect for sustainable development. It’s just a sprig now, and survives on foreign funding, but it is there and the Vietnamese will probably go along with it as their cities are increasingly flooded during the monsoon by rains that even they have never witnessed in thousands of years of living next to a shallow, warm sea. Last autumn, Hanoi had its worst flooding in 20 years and I saw, for the first time in my life, a drowned person, a woman who had gone out during a storm and fallen into a small Lake that hadn’t overflowed its banks in living memory. For her, climate change turned out to be too real.