There was a gun in the corner – a muzzle-loader of the kind it takes a Meo two years to make. They are copied from the guns first supplied by the Jesuits to the Chinese, but are turned out by an endlessly laborious process involving boring out a solid bar by twirling a white-hot iron in it. It was enormously long, like an old-fashioned Arab stove-pipe gun, and when Dupont took notice of it the Meo offered to show it to him in use. We went outside and he loaded it with powder and shot he made himself. This process took about five minutes. Before pressing the trigger he warned us to stand well away because of the muzzle blast. The target was a small banana-leaf, skewered against a bank at twenty paces. There was a tremendous bang when he fired, but the leaf remained intact. He blamed this on the maize-spirit which we had just drunk, and was quite delighted when Dupont, giving a demonstration with his American light carbine, also missed.
There were no dogs at all at this village. They were all down at the poppy fields with their owners, the Meo said.
Luang Prabang lies at the end of a long, curling descent from the mountains and through smoking bamboo groves, on the banks of the Mekong. It is built into a tongue of land formed by the confluence with the river of a tributary; a small, somnolent and sanctified Manhattan Island. A main street has turnings down to the river on each side and a pagoda at every few yards, with a glittering roof and doors and pillars carved with a close pattern of gilded and painted designs. There is an infallible sense of colour, a blending of old gold and turquoise and of many greys; but the bonzes are continually at work, painting and carving and refurbishing, so that everything is just a little too new (an extraordi¬nary complaint in Laos), too spruce, too odorous of freshly applied varnish. The roof finials glisten with newly applied glass and china mosaic. The ancient, blunted features of lions and dragons get regular scrubbings, have their teeth painted dead white and are refitted, as required, with new eyes of green glass. A year or two’s neglect might greatly improve Luang Prabang.
For all the briskness with which its holy places are maintained, the silence in Luang Prabang is only disturbed by the distant, classroom sounds of bonzes chanting in Pali, and the slow, mild booming of gongs. It is the hometown of the siesta and the Ultima Thule of all French escapists in the Far East. Europeans who come here to live soon acquire a certain, recognisable manner. They develop quiet voices, and gentle, rapt expressions. This is accompanied by the determined insouciance of the New Year’s reveller. It is an attitude which is looked for and is put on like a false nose or a carnival hat. Laosised Frenchmen are like the results of successful lobotomy operations – untroubled and mildly libidinous. They salt their conversation with Laotian phrases, all of which express a harmoniously negative outlook. Bo pen nhang, which is continually to be heard, means no more than, ‘It doesn’t matter’. But said in Laotian it takes on the emphasis of a declaration of faith. Single men instandy take to themselves Laotian wives, completing their bride’s happiness with the present of a superb bicycle, covered with mascots and pennants, and with chaplets of artificial flowers round the hub-caps, instead of the leather, dust-removing strap one sees in Europe. Several painters have retired here to escape the world, and to produce an occasional tranquil canvas, but Luang Prabang has not yet found a Gauguin.
On the day after our arrival I was invited home by Dupont to meet his wife, whose bicycle was still in pieces when he got back. They lived in a charming Mediterranean sort of house that had nestled down well among the pagodas. It was full of animals, including a large, handsome, domesticated goat that delighted to lurk behind furniture and charge unsuspecting guests.
Madame Dupont was pretty and gay, tall for a Laotian and evidently as nearly European in type as Dupont had been able to find. They seemed very attached to each other. Dupont assured me that jealousy was quite unknown in Laos, and that his wife not only expected him to have adulterous adventures while away from home, but actually advised him in the precautions to take. He did not know whether she allowed herself similar liberties, but thought it likely that she did. At all events he didn’t see how he could very well show himself less civilised about it than was she. I was sorry not to be able to understand anything his wife said, except the inevitable bo pen nhang which was repeated several times. In a polite effort to make me feel at home, Madame Dupont brought out the family snapshot album and we turned the pages together. There were one or two photographs, evidently taken by her husband, of not fully dressed ladies who were also not Madame. She drew my attention to these, giggling slightly.
After supper, an army officer came in with another Laotian lady. Speaking in an extraordinary whisper, he told me that she was a princess – a member of the royal family – and entitled to a parasol of five tiers. He admitted, quite frankly, that there was no shortage of princesses in Luang Prabang, and all genuine. They had been friends for fifteen years now, he whispered, although they had never troubled to marry … why, he couldn’t think. It was easy enough. Dupont agreed with him here, mentioning the case of a subordinate of his who had recently arrived. ‘At six o’clock,’ Dupont said, ‘he expressed the wish to get married. My wife went out to look for a suitable girl, and was back with one by six-thirty. At seven the bonzes came and performed a marriage ceremony which took half an hour. At seven-thirty we opened a bottle of champagne and drank to the health of the bride and bride¬groom, and by eight they were already in bed.’
The evening was rounded off by a routine visit to the local opium den, which, probably by design, was as decrepit and sinister as a waxworks exhibit. We stayed only a few minutes in this green-lit, melodramatic establishment, but it was clear that the unprofitable puff at the pipe was not to be avoided. One had to make some show of going to the devil.