Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Henri Mouhot's shrine near Luang Prabang

“Henri Mouhot, I Presume?” In May 1867, this could have been Captain Doudard de Lagrée’s address, in Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, his compatriot, explorer and naturalist, passed away, near that city, six years before. Both men had a premature death, as Lagrée expired one year later in Chinese Yunnan and both were hampered to finish their titanic undertakings, a reason why their memories never reached Stanley and Livingstone’s fame.

A rusted panel pointing toward somewhere

Without being totally forgotten, the French Mekong pioneers still deserve more recognition for their contribution to put the "Great River" and Indochina on the map.

The bank of the Nam Kan, near Luang Prabang, is an ideal location to recollect the memories of many French adventurers; It is the place where Henri Mouhot was struck down by Malaria and where several of his compatriots built and rebuilt a memorial for him. 

The Nam Kan river - no much changes since Mouhot's time

Over more than a century, Henri Mouhot's cenotaph had up and downs, but, when in 1975, the “People’s Democratic Republic of Laos” was proclaimed, and when the country closed its doors to foreigners, the explorer's resting place fall into oblivion and was veiled by the jungle.

The perforated monument - Photo courtesy J-M Strobino

Fortunately, there is another “happy ending” to this memorial's saga; in 1989, happenstance had it rediscovered by Mr. J.-M. Strobino, a French writer, historian and traveler. His iconic photograph shows the monument perforated by a tree and only a rapid intervention was able to restore it. A well-documented and interesting chronicle was written (in French) by Mr. Strobino: “1861-1990, Histoire de la sépulture d’Henri Mouhot et de son monument funéraire”. Links for downloading this well illustrated document are given in my write-up.

J-M Strobino putting flower on the rediscovered cenotaph in july 1989 (Photo courtesy J-M Strobino)

The monument during my first visit (October 2012)

Rear monument panel - the date "1887" was corrected later (see write-up)

Overview of the (repainted) shrine (December 2014)

When I first heard about Henri Mouhot's cenotaph, I went into a laborious and dusty quest along north Luang Prabang's bypass construction site. This region is a favorite GT-Rider destination, and, once the new trail around the city is paved, a short drive will lead to an attractive, historic and peaceful, location on the Nam Kan's shore.

Construction site and bridge over the Nam Kan

Along the Nam Kan's rim

A hidden small dirt path leads to the monument

The only dissonances in the shrine's integrity are a couple of nondescript concrete decoration and an imitated Pavie statue, dumped there by private initiative; removing these Disneyesque elements will bring back some serenity and authenticity, an preserve the heritage for future generations to appreciate.

Several nondescript decoration were dumped on the site
Pavie's statue on the site is adorned with graffiti 

Authentic, quiet and peaceful ... an heritage for future generation to appreciate

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