Continuing my research into nineteenth century Siam, I couldn’t miss the journals of French explorer Henri Mouhot who, between 1858 and 1861, made extensive inroads into Siam, Cambodia and Laos, exploring uncharted jungles and sketching and describing old ruins and the people who dwelled in their vicinities.
Although a Frenchman, Mouhot received support from London’s Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society to collect botanical and zoological specimens. Convinced that he could ward off the terrible jungle fever by abstaining from alcohol and drinking only boiled water, Mouhot embarked on four expeditions, beginning with a trip to the ruined city of Ayutthaya and then to Angkor (written by him as ‘Ongcor’). His third journey was to Phetchaburi where he hoped to move north into Laos but was pushed back by bureaucratic stubbornness. He tried again the following year and succeeded in reaching Luang Phabang; the former capital of a Laotian kingdom of the same name.
For the journals of a botanist, Mouhot’s travels are marked by high adventure involving attacks by tigers and leopards, audiences with kings and scrambling around overgrown temples and crumbling cities. Very much a man of his time, Mouhot’s opinions won’t sit well with most modern readers. As a staunch Christian and friend of missionaries, he sees the natives as clueless savages ignorant of the existence of ‘the one true God’. In his defence he does have a brief moment of uncertainty concerning the benefits western civilisation might have for the east, wondering if imperialism might only add to their present miseries. But the colonialist in him eventually wins out with his alarming defence of the French atrocities (rape and murder) in conquering Cochin China, seeing them as; “inevitable in time of war, especially in a country where the soldier suffers from the climate and privations of all kinds.” His clean and sober lifestyle eventually failed him however and he died of a fever in Laos in 1861. The final entries in his journal are a sombre read, clearly written by the hand of a man suffering terribly, delirious and begging for God’s pity.
Mouhot is regularly credited with ‘discovering’ the ruined temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia although technically it was never lost as its existence was always known to the locals. Rather, he brought the temple to the attention of the west through his extensive descriptions and sketches. Built in the early twelfth century as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu and consisted of a ‘temple-mountain’ with five towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru in Hindu mythology. It is surrounded by a moat representing the ocean and then ringed by galleries worked with extensive and beautiful bas reliefs. As the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor’s style was copied by temples built throughout its kingdom. Angkor was sacked by the Chams (hailing from Vietnam) in 1177 and the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII moved the capital to Angkor Thom and the state temple to the Bayon. Never completely abandoned, Angkor Wat gradually became a Buddhist temple itself while the Khmer Empire began to crumble. The Thai kingdom of Sukhothai gained independence in 1238 and was conquered by another Thai kingdom – the Ayutthaya – which went on to replace the Khmer Empire as the dominant power in the region.