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Seen on a fine winter's day, the Angkorian temple tower standing on a hillside above a valley in eastern France looks inescapably incongruous. No matter that this is a monument to Doudart de Lagree, one of France's most distinguished, if largely forgotten, nineteenth century explorers, a man who served his country in Cambodia. No matter, either, that the tower is located in his birthplace, Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze, a village twenty-seven kilometres from Grenoble and so small that its name does not appear in full on a large-scale road atlas. The ultimate impression is bizarre as a visitor views the monument beneath the towering cliffs of the Grande-Chartreuse mountains and sees, beyond, the distant Alps capped with snow. It would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast than that between the fecund tropical world close to the mighty Mekong River, which the monument's architecture seeks to summon up, and the austere mountains and valleys of the Dauphine.
Yet to dwell on the bizarre would be unfair to the man whom the monument commemorates. Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze was not only the ancestral home of Ernest Marc Louis de Gonzague Doudart de Lagree, French naval officer andleader of the French expedition up the Mekong River in 1866-68. It was also, after many vicissitudes, the final burial place for his mortal remains. Today Lagree's name is hardly known outside France, except among the ranks of those who share a fascination with the history of exploration in Southeast Asia. And even in his natal village his monument seems scarcely to command the interest and respect that might be expected.
Before reaching Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze, I knew that this unusual monument had originally been located in Grenoble, only to be removed by the civic authorities in the dead of night from its place of honour in the city's post office square in 1961 as part of a program of 'modernisation'. And I knew that another, French, writer who had sought information about the monument from Saint-Vincent's mayor had never received a reply to his letter of enquiry. It was as if the commune of Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze felt vaguely ashamed of this exotic monument, just as the councillors of Grenoble had felt it necessary to remove the tower from their city under cover of darkness.
So I was not entirely surprised when enquiries about the monument made at the mairie led to my being directed not to the mock Angkorian tower but to the Lagree family mausoleum, located high above the village in a deconsecrated church. Here, indeed, there is a more conventional tribute to the explorer's memory, with a bust of the man and a fine, black marble slab inscribed in gold with the words that Lagree is supposed to have uttered while still a schoolboy in the Jesuit college at Chambery: 'France is my homeland. I would prefer to be a nonentity here than a great lord in a foreign country.' The best evidence suggests that these words are nothing more than a posthumous exercise in secular hagiography. Only afterwards, and without any indication of its location on the map of the village which the staff at the mairie had given me, did I find the temple tower, with the panels around its base depicting scenes from Lagree's life. All were defaced, with the explorer's head knocked off in every case. There seemed a sad symmetry between this fact and the contemporary rape of the statuary and carvings found in Cambodia's Angkor temple ruins-ruins that are also depicted on this extraordinary monument.
The late twentieth century has been less than kind to the memory of men who were once hailed as heroes, and Doudart de Lagree is not the only one whose monument has been treated with disdain, and worse. Francis Garnier, the man who led the Mekong Expedition to its conclusion after Lagree died a tragic death in China, is honoured with a statue in Paris; a statue which has been mocked by those who abhor the imperialist values it enshrined when it was erected in 1896. In truth, it is an extraordinary confection. Garnier stands in a classically heroic pose, with half-naked women and wild animals drawn from an Indochinese bestiary draped about his legs and feet. When I last saw it, Garnier's nose bore what looked at first like a partially inflated condom. It was a relief, at least, to realise that it was only a faded plastic 'red nose' of the kind sold for charity.
Rather closer to the Mekong River itself, on its tributary the Nam Khan, not far from Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, is another monument, a tomb built over the remains of the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot. Often mistakenly identified as the 'discoverer' of the ruins of the great Cambodian temple complex at Angkor, Mouhot more accurately was their first important Western publicist. He, like Lagree and Garnier, had led a life in the Indochinese region that was closely linked to the Mekong River. When I saw his tomb in 1996, only a few years after it had been reclaimed from the jungle, there were already signs that some recent visitors had tried to vandalise a plaque attached to its side.
This recital of monuments and tombs, of neglect and defacement, has a common theme-the Mekong River. Francis Garnier once wrote that he was obsessed by the river. He had, in his words, une monomanie du Mekong. I hope my own interest in the river can more kindly be described as a deep and abiding fascination. It is a fascination that began when I first caught sight of the Mekong in 1959 through the windows of a noisily vibrating Royal Air Cambodge DC3 flying from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
At the time I knew little more than the river's name and the fact that it flowed through Cambodia, the country in which I was about to begin a posting as a junior foreign service officer. Even though this was in April, and so at the height of the dry season when the Mekong was at its lowest level, what I saw through the thick, dusty haze was a river of enormous size stretching in great serpentine bends into the far distance. My experience of large rivers was limited to having seen the Murray River in Australia and it was immediately apparent that what lay beneath the aircraft was something of a quite different order. I knew nothing of this great river's history. In this, I found, I was part of a large majority, even among those who knew of the river's existence and far more about Southeast Asia than I did in 1959. Neither did I realise that the first major expedition to chart the Mekong's course had set out from Saigon in southern Vietnam less than one hundred years before I had my first aerial view of the river's grandeur. Amazingly enough, and despite all the exploration that took place in the intervening years, it was not until 1994 that the source of the Mekong was finally pinpointed in eastern Tibet. At last there was an end to the debate that had raged over centuries as to just where the river began its long journey to the South China Sea.
Living in Phnom Penh meant being constantly aware of the Mekong. Ocean-going ships came up the river to unload at the city's docks and carry away their cargoes of rubber and rice. Local wood-fired ferries brought passengers downstream from distant provinces. And the river formed the stage for the annual Water Festival which, when I first saw it, was still graced by the presence of the Cambodian king. Taking place over several days, the festival was a mix of bacchanalian excess, gratitude for the end of the rainy season and days filled with boat races whose finishing line lay at the point where the Mekong joins its major Cambodian tributary the Tonle Sap.
But it was not just this range of human activity that captured my attention, for the Mekong has its own life marked by rises and falls in height according to the seasons-the difference between low and high water in Phnom Penh is as much as ten metres. And, most strikingly of all, as the flow of the water in the Mekong grows ever greater in the rainy season, with the river's size swollen not just by the rains but also by the melting of the distant snows in Tibet, an amazing natural phenomenon occurs. With its bed unable to accommodate all of the water flowing down the river, part of the Mekong's volume backs up into the Tonle Sap so that this tributary ceases to flow south and instead reverses to run backwards into Cambodia's Great Lake. For a brief moment at the end of the rainy season the waters of the Tonle Sap stabilise, ceasing to flow in either direction. Then, suddenly the flow reverses and rushes towards Phnom Penh. And as it does, the river carries with it a huge quantity of fish which are harvested for weeks and then carried away in ox carts to be dried to form the protein base for Cambodia's rural population living distant from the river system.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this natural phenomenon and thus the importance of the Great Lake. It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and the fish that are so readily harvested from its waters and from the river that flows out of it contribute more than 60 per cent of the Cambodian population's protein intake. The distinctive pungent smell of drying fish that greets a visitor entering a Cambodian village in late November or early December is testimony enough to this fact. Even a brief review of the Great Lake's dimensions and its variation in size from wet to dry season underline how remarkable is its transition from one period of the year to another. At its lowest level the lake covers approximately 2700 square kilometres, but this coverage swells to no less than 16 000 square kilometres at its highest level, with depths reaching as much as nine metres. At low water, large areas of the lake are little more than one metre deep.
Living in Phnom Penh in the early 1960s meant coming to know the river and its tributaries in peaceful times. It was a focus for water sports, for sailing and water skiing, and even, if you were far enough away from Phnom Penh's pollution, for swimming. But I soon came to know the Mekong as something more than a setting for sport and relaxation. As plans slowly developed to tap the river's potential for irrigation and hydro-electricity, I travelled with the first Australian engineer to carry out a preliminary reconnaissance of the Mekong between the isolated provincial settlement of Kratie and the major waterfalls located at the border between Cambodia and Laos. I saw a very different river from the wide channel, unimpeded by rapids, that flows past the Cambodian capital. A little to the north of Kratie are the Sambor rapids, the first major barrier to all-season navigation. Then, beyond the even more isolated settlement of Stung Treng, lie the Khone Falls, a series of interlocking falls and cataracts spread across some eleven kilometres. Seeing them for the first time in 1960, I was staggered by their power. At that time I knew nothing of the efforts that had been made over the years to find a passage through them so that uninterrupted navigation could continue from Cambodia into Laos. I hardly imagined that anyone could try to overcome this formidable obstacle.
In the years after I made my first acquaintance with the Mekong, I slowly gained a knowledge of its history and of the way in which kingdoms had risen and fallen along its course and its major tributaries. I learned that the river had been a central part of Southeast Asia's history before its existence was known to the Western world, and that later its lower reaches had been the setting for European rivalry both commercial and religious; that it had been the site for extraordinary but ultimately futile Iberian derring-do in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and that its existence was then almost forgotten by the world away from Asia. The more I learned, the more I became aware that war, treachery and massacre were no strangers to the Mekong's banks, a condition that tragically continued to the recent past.
Once my interest focused on the nineteenth century, three facts became strikingly clear. The first was that up to the 1860s no European knew the full nature of the Mekong's course to its many mouths, where the Mekong Delta meets the South China Sea, from its passage through China's Yunnan Province. As for its source, while there was general acceptance that the river rose in eastern Tibet, no one knew exactly where. Secondly, once I had started reading the documents in the French archives and published records, I realised that the French Mekong Expedition, which began in 1866 and came to an end two years later, was an epic endeavour in an age of heroic exploration. And, thirdly, it became clear that this was an expedition that had largely been forgotten outside France. This was despite the admiration the expedition and its members earned in England in the years immediately following its completion. It was striking to think that, as an Australian in 1959, I had known about the exploration of the rivers of Africa by men such as John Speke and Richard Burton, and even had some sense of the importance of the Amazon, yet I knew nothing of the exploration of the Mekong. So impressed was I by this expedition that I tried to capture my admiration for its members in a book recording their progress, achievements and failures: River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-73 (see Sources, Notes and Acknowledgements at the end of the present book). Even now, the fact that the Mekong was explored by Frenchmen seems to weigh against the expedition's receiving the credit it deserves. The Oxford Book of Exploration, published as recently as 1993, for instance, makes no mention of the expedition led by Doudart de Lagree. It is a curious, even extraordinary, omission.
But while I was looking at the past, the Mekong was very much part of a war-torn contemporary world as the Second Indochina War, the American war in Vietnam that spread into Laos and Cambodia, raged ever more fiercely. The hostilities ensured that there could be no possibility of the development plans so confidently proposed in the 1950s and early 1960s coming to fruition. As a regular visitor to Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, I became used to travelling by fixed-wing aircraft and military helicopters above the river and to helter-skelter road trips along Mekong Delta roads through territory which passed into Vietcong control once darkness fell.
When the Vietnam War ended, the Mekong again slipped from general consciousness. As a reviewer wrote about my book describing the French Mekong Expedition, 'Americans discovered the Mekong in 1965 and forgot about it in 1975'.
Excerpted from The Mekong by Milton Osborne Copyright © 2000 by Milton Osborne. Excerpted by permission.
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