BOOK REVIEW: Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam by Henri Mouhot

Travels In Siam, Cambodia, Laos, And AnnamTravels In Siam, Cambodia, Laos, And Annam by Henri Mouhot

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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If you can stomach the blatant racism and false notions of the virtue of Imperialism, reading the journals of 19th century naturalists and explorers can be fascinating for modern-day travelers. I will say that Mouhot’s work is less offensive than many of his contemporaries in this regard (e.g. the eugenicist polymath Francis Galton.) That is to say, he tries to be objective, and—when he fails–his condescension is as likely to be vaguely complimentary as not (e.g. noting certain “savages” are surprisingly intelligent.) However, one should remember that this is the journal of a journey that took place in years corresponding to the lead up to the American Civil War. (I should note that these snooty inclinations toward superiority aren’t uniquely Western, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan also viewed the Southeast Asian people with condescension.)

Alexander Henri Mouhot left London on April 27th of 1858, traveled to and throughout Southeast Asia, and died in the jungle on November 10, 1861. The journal was received by the explorer’s brother, Charles Mouhot, who is responsible for seeing it published, and for adding some front matter as well as tying up the end of the journal because Henri Mouhot died fairly abruptly of a feverish ailment that he contracted in the jungle.

In many ways, Mouhot’s work is similar to Daguan’s 14th century Record of Cambodia. Mouhot covers a lot more ground, but they both chronicle the natural, cultural, and commercial environment of these lands. Mouhot prides himself in being a naturalist, and he writes quite a bit about the diverse flora and fauna of these lands as well as of the geography. Mouhot collected many specimens of plants and animals that were unknown in his native France. About mid journey, he lost his collection to a maritime accident. However, he was able to reacquire some of these specimens in the latter portion of his journey.

Mouhot writes extensively about the locals and their customs. As I already suggested, these descriptions are often highly biased. For example, he tends to refer to the indigenous spiritual beliefs of the locals as “superstitions” while he bemoans the fact that these people are “living and dying in utter ignorance of the only true God!” However, for the most part he tries to maintain a scholarly detachment, and often he is complimentary of the local people (e.g. his apparent surprise that some of hill people would be offended by being referred to as savages is an example of his benign condescension.)

Also like Daguan, he discusses the possibilities for trade. It’s clear that one of his intended audiences are those interested in the commercial potential of the region. He writes both about what natural resources these nations contain, and what products they might be sold. He is ambiguous about the local market for European goods, first skeptical and then sanguine. He says that the locals don’t have much need for the goods produced in Europe, but then he suggests that the wealthier individuals do like to emulate European style and fashions. Perhaps, he is saying there are potential consumers among the small slice of wealthy individuals, but that is a limited market. Of course, the desire for commodities from Asia in conjunction with the wish to avoid drawing down precious metals reserves (i.e. forcing Asians to buy Western products) was no small cause of Imperialist shenanigans during that time period.

Among the most interesting chapters are those on Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. In these chapters, one receives an account of the state of Angkor between Daguan’s era (when the Angkor civilization was still active) and a modern-day Angkor that exists in the wake of successive waves of pillaging by the French (and other treasure hunters), the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnamese soldiers.

Mouhot was also interested in whether Jews had settled and integrated in the area. His theory was that there likely were. He says he sees a “Hebrew character” in some faces, but he acknowledges there is no hard evidence to support his belief and that the locals deny such a presence.

I guess the intrigue in Mouhot’s journal is a picture of this region during an era in which the world was not yet homogenized. Now when one travels to “remote villages,” one often sees people wearing the same mass-produced Western clothing that one sees at home, and they sit around with their smart-phones ignoring each other as at home. Mouhot’s era was one in which one traveled by elephant, boat, or by foot and often advanced no more than ten miles in a day in the jungle. It was an era of discovery. This may account for some of the xenophobic biases of that time; the ways of other people were new.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Record of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan

A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its PeopleA Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Traveling to an archaeological site as grand as Angkor, it’s natural to wonder what the city must have been like in its heyday. Angkor’s population was estimated to be as much as 1 million people, making it one of the world’s biggest urban centers in its day. One can get a feel for how vast and impressive Angkor was by way of the restorations, its artwork, and even the lay of its rubble fields. However, today’s Angkor is in large part a testament to the power of Mother Nature to swallow once proud temples and palaces with strangler figs and to shatter stout walls with white silk cotton trees. It’s hard to fathom what it was like when it was occupied by kings and concubines, slaves and shamans.

A Record of Cambodia offers a rare glimpse into life at Angkor at the tail end of the 13th century—near the city’s peak. It was written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat sent by Yuan China [Mongolian era] as part of a delegation. Zhou spent almost a year at Angkor during 1296-1297. His report was translated into French during the 19th century, and all the English translations in existence had been based on the French not the original Chinese (i.e. twice translated.) This 2007 edition, however, was translated directly from Classical Chinese by Peter Harris.

The thin volume weighs in at only about 150 pages, but fewer than 40 pages are Zhou Daguan’s report. The other 110 pages include front matter, graphics, appendices, and notes. The Introduction, at 30 pages, is almost as long as Zhou’s document. However, this should not be taken as criticism. There’s a lot of useful expansion upon, and explication of, the information in Zhou’s report in both the Introduction and the end-notes. While it’s written by the translator, Peter Harris, it’s probably best to think of the Introduction as an Editor’s Introduction rather than a Translator’s Introduction–the latter creating an impression of a discussion of the minutiae of ancient grammars. (There is a little of that in a separate “Notes on the Translation.”) Harris’s introduction sets the background, elaborates on certain mistakes that Zhou seems to have made, and contrasts Zhou’s report with the accounts of other famous travelers such as Marco Polo, Ibn Buttata, and Xuanzang

Zhou’s report is divided into 40 chapters; though the word “chapter” seems more fitting for some than others, as many are no more than a single short paragraph. Each chapter is themed by some element of Khmeri life during the era. They include coverage of how people dressed, the nature of slavery at Angkor, what the buildings looked like in their glory days, sexual practices, agriculture, trade, local flora and fauna, and eating practices.

While short, Zhou’s book gives us a great deal of information that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I learned a number of intriguing facts such as that fireworks displays were a regular event, runaway slaves had their faces tattooed blue, and the only ones not all allowed in Angkor Thom were those who were missing a toe(s) (removal of digits was a punishment back in the day.) Zhou has a great curiosity with the sexuality of the Khmeris, which was a great deal more liberal than that of China. Even the practice of toplessness among both men and women of all classes drew Zhou’s attention.

As when one reads the accounts of European explorers and adventurers, there’s a certain bigotry and conceit that comes across in Zhou’s writing—though it doesn’t come across as jarringly as in the works of, say, Francis Galton. Zhou does report on matters where the Khmeris looked down on Chinese practices as uncivilized (e.g. using human waste as fertilizer or using toilet paper / not reserving their right hand for sanitary endeavors.) On some cultural differences, Zhou comes across as mocking the Khmeri ways (e.g. communal bathing practices), and he goes as far as to refer to them as “Barbarians.”

If you’ve been to (or plan on going to) Angkor, I’d highly recommend giving this thin volume a read. It won’t take much time, and it’ll allow you to see the ruins in a new light.

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