Into the Meo Country 6

I first put it down to the special kind of heat, to which even the natives of these countries never accustom themselves. It has greatly affected their history. The mountain peoples, attracted by the easy, abundant life of the hot river valleys came down, settled there and with the formidable gift of leisure, built, while their reserve of energy lasted, those brilliant, freakish civilisations that were never given the chance to grow up. Soon they relapsed into peaceful decadence, adopted religions which were suitable to their decline and which also fostered it, and became adepts of sleep. After the hour of the midday meal, Luang Prabang and all Laos is trance- bound. No living thing moves at this season until five in the evening.
But it was beginning to seem to me that, even allowing for the heat, something must be wrong. A hill rises sharply in the middle of the town, topped by a glittering pagoda. The climb up to this, long put off, was so thoroughly exhausting that it used up the day’s supply of energy. The pagoda when I finally got there was very small and contained a collec¬tion of mouldering wooden Buddhas. The redecorating bonzes had not been able to bring themselves to climb up here, so that most of the paintwork and gilding had weathered away, to the carvings’ great advantage. But there seemed to have been a recent clear-out, perhaps in preparation for a refurbishing to come. The images that were too far gone in decay had been stuffed into niches of the surrounding rocks, one of which bore a bright yellow poster which I supposed at first to have some religious significance, but which proved to be an advertise¬ment for the Victory Brand Glorious Firecracker Company, and showed a Chinese nationalist soldier giving the V sign. The attraction of the pagoda lay in its doors, deeply carved with a graceful, swirling design of foliage, dancers and elephants. In either direction one looked out upon a very Chinese scene of mountains and rivers barely sketched in mist. It was viewed through the bare scrawny branches of frangipani trees planted round the pagoda, and at a lower level the slopes were clouded with the flowering trees bearing the blossoms which are called locally golden flowers of Burma.
After the descent from the pagoda I actually felt the need of a pre¬lunch nap, and slightly alarmed I asked a French acquaintance’s advice. Characteristically, he recommended me to a Sino-Vietnamese doctor, celebrated, he said, for his almost magical cures. This readiness to put one’s faith in exotic medicine is another phase of going native. I have seen it happen before in Central America where people of European origin are quite ready to have themselves treated by Indian shimans, excusing themselves with a ‘you never know; there may be something in it, after all’. In this case I had formed the private theory that amoebic dysentery might be the trouble, which, while it exhausts the vitality, does not always produce the familiar symptoms. Should this have been the doctor’s opinion I was rather hoping, for the experience of it, that he would treat me, following the well-known Cambodian method, by an extract of the bark of the pon tree, which is only completely effective when the patient is allowed to cut the bark himself, removing it from the tree at a little above the level of his navel.
The Sino-Vietnamese doctor practised in a well-built single-roomed shack, with a good-sized garden and a river-view. The garden trees were decorated with offerings to the water spirits which naturally predominate in such a riverine town as Luang Prabang. They were contained in miniature ships made from banana leaves, with very high prows and sterns – far higher than those of the local pirogues. Since Laotian spirits have a highly developed aesthetic sense, they had also been offered red flowers. Egg shells had been thrust into the holes and cavities of the trees, perhaps for the benefit of landlubber genii. Unless this was the work of a domestic, the doctor evidently believed in doing in Rome what the Romans did.
Dr Nam Tuan Thanh received me in his consulting-room, a cur- tained-off corner of his hut, which was adorned with flowers in brass vases, coloured photographs of members of his family and several framed diplomas. The doctor was dressed with extreme professional conservatism in a gown of dark blue silk decorated with the Chinese character for longevity. A few distinguished white hairs trailed from the point of his chin and the corners of his upper lip.
The doctor’s manner was sympathetic but gently authoritarian. Grasping both wrists he quickly palpated the nine pulses recognised in Chinese medicine on each; corresponding in each case to an organ or group of organs. This was followed by a brief examination of the finger nails, after which the doctor pronounced me to be a classic example of a chronic excess of yang over yin – the positive and negative bodily humours – somewhat complicated by a minor obstruction of the k’i, or vital fluid. The condition thus originated in the liver – the most prominent yang organ, which, however, sympathetically influenced the yin organs corresponding to it – the spleen and the pancreas. The obstruction of the k’i said Doctor Tuan Thanh, with perhaps the merest hint of contempt, was of nervous or psychological origin, and would clear up of its own account. As for the lack of balance between yang and yin, it would need much treatment and he would content himself with provid¬ing me with a few pointers for future reference. I should limit myself, carefully avoiding the remedies classified as pou, sheng, san, piao and yao, to the category of medicaments known as chiang which comprised the metallic salts and oils of oleaginous seeds. Moreover I should remember that I was dominated by the number nine and the Western direction. The spirit should be refreshed as often as possible by the contemplation of white flowers. And I could expect to feel much better in the autumn.

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