Sojourn at Bassac
Lagrée’s choice of a base was not Khong but Bassac, the chief political center for this area of Southern Laos, five days’ river travel further north. Bassac was scenically striking… dominated to the rear and west of the long, winding settlement following the river’s bank by a series of dramatic mountains. As the explorers also soon found, there was a major temple ruin (Wat Phu) nearby to attract their interest. But before this could be investigated, or any survey made of the country to the east or west, they had to wait until the end of the rains. At the end of the rainy season, the monsoon clouds sometimes seem to make one final major effort to flood the land below, and this is what the Frenchmen now experienced. For eight days the rain fell almost without interruption. It was September 20 before the members of the expedition could move freely about their tasks.
The Celebration of the Boats
A big celebration was being prepared all over the valley. It is held by the people to celebrate the end of the rains and the prelude to the harvest. Its popular name is heua song or ‘celebration of the boats’ and its real significance is a homage of gratitude to the river for its fertility and the riches that it brings to the country.
The celebrations began on 24 October. From the morning, the Laotians and the savages from the faraway areas of the province streamed together into the capital.
All the pagodas abounded with gifts. Mandarins, relatives, and friends exchanged customary gifts with each other. In the evening, feasts and concerts were organized in every hut. Some fireworks, brightly coloured rockets, were let off over the river.
It was on the next day that the oath-taking took place. A monk played the role of the sovereign of Siam and the king of Bassac swore him obedience and faithfulness. At the same time, the waters of the river were solemnly consecrated and blessed.
The presence of Mr. de Lagrée and some French bayonets that escorted him, in no small measure contributed to its splendor. The clash of the rifles at the present arms, European style, filled the king with pride and the numerous spectators with admiration.
To complete the joy, a son was born to the king of Bassac the same day. That evening, his rejoicings bordered on drunkenness.
The regattas on the river filled the third day of the celebrations and were the most interesting part of them from the point of view of the costumes, the animation and the local flavour.
These long canoes, some of which were twenty-eight meters long, maneuvered with paddles by more than sixty men, each sported the colors of a village or of a pagoda.
Buffoons, with their faces hidden behind grimacing masks, capered like madmen among the oarsmen, whose ardor they excited by their chants and their energetic goading. The crew answered them with rhythmically uttered cries. The numerous paddles hit the water with a marvelous precision and the barge seemed to disappear under the foam thrown up around the barges.
The kha oarsmen were especially noticeable by the great simplicity of their costumes: a leaf of the vine … in cloth, attached with a thread around their belts, was the only and invisible ornament of these sun-burnt figures who seemed to emerge from the river, while the pirogue which carried them, lay flat on the water.
Garnier, Vol 1: 104-106
The mountains at Bassac
A Description of Wat Phou
Interior of the sanctuary at Wat Phou
Meanwhile, I again visited the Khmer ruins located close to Bassac, which the inhabitants call Wat Phou or the ‘Pagoda of the mountain’.
The peak that is called Phou Bassac has a branch to the south-east which consists of three peaks, successively diminishing in size. At the foot of the first of these, the elevation of which is about a thousand meters, there is an immense sheet of water, in a sandstone basin. From its banks, there stretches out a thick forest which covers the western flanks of the mountain.
To the west, there is a terrace from which leads a long paved street, lined on both sides with a series of boundary markers or columns with pyramidal capitals. This street follows the undulations of the land and rises up the mountain, sometimes by gentle slopes, sometimes by a series of staircases. It ends in a long staircase up a very steep slope which consists of more than one hundred and fifty steps, on both sides of which there statues. According to tradition, one of these statues, which has tumbled to the ground, depicts the king who built Wat Phou.
At the top of the staircase, there is a cross-shaped sanctuary of the type we have already found in Angkor. Behind the sanctuary, there is a long platform cut out of the rock itself. A little distance from there, the mountain is cut completely straight and it displays a wall of reddish sandstone only, some forty meters high and at the foot of which there are a few springs.
A very large quantity of votive objects is placed on the platform, in the fissures of the rock and even in the small basins in which the water of the springs is collected. A balustrade runs along the exterior edge of the platform. Below this, in the vertical flank of the rock, there are some remarkable sculptures.
The site of Wat Phou was skillfully selected. From the heights of the platform, the views of the plain and the river are ravishing.
Garnier, Vol 1: 112-113
People of Bassac
A public beating with rattan
Observing the height of the sun
A Bassac family
The women of the mandarin
Hunting a stag
View of Phou Molong
Portrait of a young Chinese
Joubert at the Se Don waterfall
A chief from the island of Khon and his wife