Monday, August 24, 2015

Fort Carnot, a forgotten Houai Xai promontory.

Peeking over the river, from Chiang Khong, on the north Thailand Mekong rim, visitors can spot a square, red roofed, brick tower pointing out of the vegetation, on a Laos side hill. In the last years, however, this building, located in Houai Xai, has been dwarfed by a newer and larger construction, hosting the “Bokeo Provincial Administration” [1].

Houai Xai view from Chiang Khong

When stopping over in Houai Xai it is worth to climb the hill, in the city’s center, to pay a visit to this old tower. It is a compelling call for history lovers and rewards hikers with a gorgeous view over an important Mekong’s stretch.

This panoramic outlook, a neat observation point toward Thailand and a good overview of the river’s northern traffic, commanded the building’s location; this tower, actually, is a part of “Fort Carnot”, a colonial fortification.

In 1900, the French protectorate extended over all the former Laos kingdoms, leaving only the extreme northwest apex, the Muang Sing Lue principality, in an unsettled state. Houai Xai was strategically important to keep an eye on the fluvial traffic, down from British Burma and from Siam, and, with this in mind, a citadel, with watchtowers, was erected in the capital of the former Hua Khong province.

The fort was named after Comte Carnot (1753 – 1823), a politician and engineer, who designed a new fortification layout, with particular walls, first used in Europe and, later on, implemented in the French colonies [2].

The place’s interest probably faded once Muang Sing was confirmed under the French umbrella, and when another fortification was built in this top north location. It seems anyway, that Fort Carnot never hosted an important garrison.

Nowadays, visitors are greeted, at the compound's entrance, by a large banyan tree and a blue panel detailing a renovation project financed through an ADB grant. The completion deadline was set to six month, starting in 2009 (!) [3].

Renovation project, Asia Development Bank grant 111'964.89 US$ [3]

For years, after the departure of the French, in 1954, the fort’s buildings were used as barracks, for Lao soldiers, and the premises were off limits to visitors. The first settlers were from the Royal Lao Army; they are said to have partly burnt the place, before leaving it to the Pathet Lao troops [4]. The “ongoing” renovation program, announced at the entrance, is part of a broader “Sustainable Tourism Development Project”, which should boost the interest of this historic vestige.  Unfortunately, lack of funding and interest, in the small and new Bokeo province [1], hindered the rehabilitation venture.

In 2014, I was lucky to find the fort’s gate open. No guard was on duty, the planned “Ethnic and Historic Center” [4], which should feature old riffles and local tribes artifacts, was closed, and no tickets were sold at the entrance booth.
Southern entrance and southern watchtower – with a ticket booth.

North wall on the verge of collapse

From outside, the southwest bastion with defense “meurtrières”

When entering the compound's garden, the first attraction is the characteristic northeast tower, the landmark seen from far abroad, particularly from the Thai side.

Northeast watchtower
Northeast watchtower

The grass in the garden is high and probably inhabited by serpents; a walker friendly pathways, however, does not always lead to the right spot, for a complete visit, or to get another photographic perspective.

Northeast watchtower and north wall

When I reached the northeast tower’s entrance, I met a group of kids, obviously at home in these old stones.  They invited me to climb a rusty staircase to the dilapidated top; I did not put too much thought in the safety of such and endeavor, as my young guides seemed very confident in their playground.

Mekong view from the northeast tower top
View from the northeast tower top
On the towers’ south side, the view plunges back to the entrance garden and to the east barrack. This was my next visit, once I had safely left the shaky fortress stairs behind me.

The east barrack, the officers’ quarter
The east barrack, the officers’ quarter
The east barrack, the officers’ quarter

Fort Carnot is deemed to be the best preserved colonial military construction in Laos; this says a lot about the conservation level of the few others. I did not feel, however, that a lot was done to keep this “monument” afloat, and I had difficulties to spot parts which had benefited from the tourism development grant. Mr. Jean-Michel Strobino [5] confirmed to me the low interest, shown yet by the new Lao authorities, for such historic stones.

My next stop was at the dilapidated “cells” building; its vision sends chills down the spine; but, at that time, prisoners were probably happy just to be still alive.

Kids in the headquarter

In the southeast corner a fifty meter long tunnel leads to the outside shelter, the guard station.

My young guides, in front of the fifty meters long east fort passage.
A banyan tree and the tunnel entrance
The tunnel entrance and first stairs down

The southeast watchtower is another favorite playground for kids. Here, however, I did not follow them in their climbing ventures. With the portal’s sharp spades and precarious bricks footsteps, it seems quite dicey.

Climbing the southeast watchtower
Climbing the southeast watchtower
Climbing the southeast watchtower

The next bastion is on the southwest side. From there another tunnel digs its hundred meters way to the neighboring hospital and guard station.

Finding the compound’s gate open and meeting young locals familiar with the place was a lucky and fun experience. It is, however, not the usual tourist adventure and, probably not officially encouraged.

Fun young guides to Fort Carnot’s compound

I paid another visit to Fort Carnot in 2015. During that time, the doors were closed and no kids were playing around; a neighbor told me that the children might still have a key, but it was not a holiday time. I had already be warned, by the “Tourist Office” in town, about the compound’s closure, due to lack of personal to man it.

Watching through the bars, I did not notice any improvement since the previous year. Without progress in the proposed renovation work and with gates closed to visitors, the once fierce French citadel will continue its journey into crumbled ruins, and disappear into oblivion.

It is already difficult collect official or literature facts about Houai Xai’s Fort Carnot. Mr. Jean-Michel Strobino [5] a respected French Laos scholar, has already researched this topic for the “Ethnic and Historic Center” project [4]; his short write-up is used by the Tourist Office and by most information publications.

In my readings, I only found a mention in Dr Charles Weldon’s war account, “Tragedy in Paradise” [7]:

“As one travels upriver on the Mekong, the last river port of any importance in Laos before reaching China is called Ban Houai Sai. This nondescript little town of fewer than 3'000 people is strung out along the northeast bank for about two kilometers.

... on a high hill overlooking the town is an old French fort - called Carnot - whose guns controlled the traffic on the river, both in and out of Burma and China, during colonial days. Nowadays, Fort Carnot thick, red-brick walls are crumbling away, and its guns are a mass of rust”.

Few things have changed since Dr. Weldon’s visit and writing.

Somewhere north, from a private garden, a view toward the watchtower; a consolation picture, when the gates to the compound were closed.
Gorgeous perspective of the Mekong river. Without an access to fort Carnot’s viewpoints, this panorama cannot no longer be enjoyed by visitors.




“Bokèo, literally "gem mine"; previously, Hua Khong, meaning "Head of the Mekong", is a northern province of Laos. It is the smallest and least populous province in the country. The province was created in 1983, when it was split off from Louang Namtha Province”.

[2] ADB Grant No. :0117-LAO Project Name :GMS Sustainable Tourism Development Project Executing Agency :National Tourism Authority of Lao PDR
Amount of Contract: US$107,250.00 Date of Contract :10 April 2009

Fort Carnot Improvements & Don Chai Tourist Service Center
 175,000 NCB August 2010

[3] About Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot and Carnot walls:

« Portrait Lazare Carnot » par Inconnu

[4] Project of an “Ethnology and History Centre”:
(Report)  “Development plan for an ethnic culture and local history exhibit at the French Fort in Houay Xai, Bokeo Province”
Submitted by:  Lauren Ellis, Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, 29 September 2010.

“The Fort was used by the Lao Royal Army until they abandoned it to Pathet Lao forces in 1962, apparently setting fire to it on retreat and causing damage to some of the timber supports”.  (This information was taken from Claire McClintock’s “Fort Carnot, Houay Xai: Preliminary condition report”, July 2009)

(Report and Information kindly transmitted to me by Mr. J-M- Strobino [5])

[5] Mr. Jean-Michel Strobino is credited for having rediscovered Henri Mouhot’s tomb, near Luang Prabang, in 1989.  He is also researching various other epics linked to the French exploration of the Mekong. Some of his publication can be downloaded on the site:

[6] See also a well illustrated GT-Rider trip report:

[7] Tragedy in Paradise  - A country doctor at war in Laos
Charles Weldon MD
Asia Books 1999

[8] Other Bokeo links:

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