Cambodia Book Reviews: Mad about the Mekong by John KeayDecember 1, 2008
The Mekong Exploration Commission started their expedition to find a trade route from the Mekong Delta through to China in 1886. It spent two years on this mission which quickly turned into a nightmare journey, and ultimately failed in its original objectives.
The journey started off in a relatively comfortable steamer, with plenty of space for the twenty-strong crew, and their extensive luggage, equipment and supplies. Besides their main mission, they were mapping and surveying the area, figuring out its potential and resources. There were long-term future interests to be taken into account, so they often treated any local people or chiefs very diplomatically, and came armed with plenty of gifts.
This comfort lasted a couple of weeks. After leaving Saigon, they took a quick diversion up the Tonle Sap to do some work at Angkor, sort of a dry-run for them, I suppose. Lieutenant Louis Delaporte’s excellent drawings from this part of the trip were the first of their kind and are well-known to this day. After this comfortable stint, it was all pretty much upstream, but downhill. The expedition had to transfer to less comfortable transport at Kratie, and this meant large canoes, or pirogues as they were known. The first of these, as they had to change ship numerous times to deal with different territories and topographical conditions, had a bread oven installed. Unfortunately for their Gallic tastes, all the casks of flour and wine were spoiled or lost not long into the journey – a source of much anguish.
After negotiating the dreadful Sombac, Sombor, and Preatapang rapids, they reached Stung Treng. At the time, Stung Treng was actually in Laos and just north of here the team met with their biggest quandary in many ways. The “Thousand Island” area, as it is now sometimes called, is a series of waterfalls, rushing gorges, and dangers, spread out over a huge area. It does not have any sheer drops on the scale of Niagara or Victoria Falls, for example, but its sheer volume of flow dwarfs either. One of its major falls is about 15 km wide. One might wonder how one gets a canoe up a rapid or even a waterfall. The technique is called piking, where rather than in punting where one uses a straight pole to push oneself along, one uses a hook on a pole. Pulling on various rocks, vines and plants, they could move upstream. Added to this, they could use various ropes and cables pulled by teams from ashore to aid this exertion. If all else failed, they either pulled the boats ashore and overland to circumnavigate obstacles, or just moved off on foot, and got another boat organized later. It was around the time they hit these particular falls that the expedition realized that there was no easy path up to China via the Mekong; however they persevered with their exploration.
Ravaged by disease, lack of funding, and later on downright sabotage in the Shan States, the mission was doomed to failure, nevertheless, thirteen of the original twenty who set out returned via China, and many wrote valuable accounts, from which this book has been compiled.
The author has done a good job with his descriptions of the nineteenth-century expedition. Where the book perhaps fails is in its up to date inserts. The author has travelled much of the original route, and visited many of the places described by the commission. I can hardly expect an author documenting such an extensive trip to spend long in one particular place, but I do expect a book to be accurate and well-researched. It is always good to be brought up to date on a person or place, and some of the modern-day descriptions the author gives of the various locations are wonderful, others are sadly lacking.
According to the book, published in 2005, Independence Day is celebrated on April 17th in Cambodia. Well, actually it has been on November 9th for quite some time, in fact most of the time since the Kingdom became independent from France. There was a liberation day celebrated on April 17th quite some time back, right up till at least the mid 80s, but that’s not quite the same.
Other parts, are just mildly-annoying nonsense. One wonders what the author thinks of the Khmer language if he has the following to say: ‘’Although the hell lasted less than a decade, it left such a reek of pain that even the place names –“Svey Rieng”, “Kompong Chhnang”, “Stung Treng”, sound like the agonized utterances hissed through the gritted teeth of the dying. ‘’
Then we have this odd idea that there are piles of skulls and bones stacked up on the sides of roads around the country here, I have yet to see any. There certainly are many near various pagodas and other sites, but saying they are by the roadside makes one wonder if the author overheard some third hand information and misinterpreted it: The exhumed skulls are still stacked by the roadside like bleached watermelons; but the visitors are mostly foreign tour groups and the souvenir potential is limited. Pol Pot is dead, but life does not go on. And later still: ‘’The earth smells of blood. Seeing the country as other than the site of a holocaust proves nigh impossible.’’
Many of the residents here would beg to differ. Later he treats us to some other unqualified nonsense about how; ‘’Kampong Cham, the first port above Phnom Penh, is today notable as the hometown of Prime Minister Hun Sen and as the site of the brand-new bridge. The two things are not unconnected. Kampong Cham roots for Hun Sen and Hun Sen rewards Kampong Cham. The country’s strongman is as locationally linked with its most impressive piece of civil engineering as are the two sides of the river by the bridge.’’
A couple of obvious problems here are that Kampong Cham province has had a mixed bunch of allegiances, and not always in Samdech’s favor. And if anyone is ‘’locationally linked with the most impressive piece of civil engineering,’’ it would be the Japanese. It’s the most populous province in the country, and there wasn’t any better place that needed a big bridge. None of this gives me much confidence in the author’s judgment, but luckily the book’s narrative is led by the original journey, rather than his often interesting, but other times banal commentary.
The original mission covered a huge distance in its two years, greater than the length of Africa, and travelled through many Kingdoms, Fiefdoms, and different territories which have been absorbed by other nations since. Its recounting in this book gives an interesting introduction to the little-covered pre-colonial era, when now forgotten bands renegades fleeing the Taiping Rebellion and Ho bandits ravaged South-East Asia, and French speculators started getting their sights lined up. The mission’s findings had long-lasting consequences for the region, and many borders still exist as a result of their expedition. Outside of some minor faults, the book is a fascinating read, and most people with an interest in the region should enjoy it.