In Laos and Siam by Marthe Bassene (White Lotus)





It's easy for us 21st century travelers to believe that the practice of adventure travel began with the creation of Lonely Planet, which encouraged anyone with a little extra cash to grab a backpack and a guidebook and set off on the road less traveled. Yet our modern adventures look rather pallid and tame when compared to the travels and travails of Marthe Bassene, a flower of the French colonial system in Vietnam, who went with her husband to visit Laos and Siam in 1909, a journey that at that time was a three-month excursion up the Mekong and into the jungle.

There were no roads, only the trails followed by trade caravans, and Mme. Bassene anticipates "difficulties...and some dangers." Crossing the rapids of the Mekong, with its whirlpools, submerged rocks, sandbars that could hold a vessel captive for months, and its gorges with "walls of rock eighty to a hundred meters high" was a daunting experience in a small steamboat, and one that passengers quickly learn to confront with sang-froid. ("Shut up," is the captain's response to Marthe Bassene's initial cry of fright.)

Her week-long trip from Laos into Siam is equally arduous, riding horseback along a mountainous, rocky trail through the jungle, soaked to the bone by rainstorms, and sapped by "the humid, tropical heat that knocks down all courage." Wearing her husband's clothes because her own are thoroughly saturated, riding barefoot because her shoes are dripping wet, Marthe dreams of sleeping on a bed with sheets, indoors, as she reposes on a camp bed near a bonfire that blazes all night to frighten away tigers.

Throughout her travels, Marthe's observations remain crisp and descriptive. The fragrance of Laos impresses her from her first day and follows her through the country, "a subtle and delicate perfume" that, she decides, "is simply the scent of Laos." Arriving in Vientiane, she finds traces of a ruined city that reminds her of Angkor Wat. Sacked by the Siamese in the previous century, the remains of the temples are shrouded by the roots of trees, covered by vines and brambles, and looted by Europeans as well as the Siamese conquerors. "The time is not far," Marthe observes, "when the Laotian gods will be everywhere, except in Laos."

In the kingdom of Luang-Prabang, she meets King Sisavong, a monarch with a French education and an "ironic smile", who tells her "that he often regrets having left Paris." His hospitality opens the city to Mme. Bassene, and allows her a comprehensive view of life in the palace and on the streets of Luang-Prabang. Visiting the markets, she reveals the beginning of globalization and its effects, as she discovers "poor-quality stuff...with English and German factory labels." Falling in love with the city, she decides it's "the refuge of the last dreamers."

When she arrives in Siam, Marthe finds herself a precursor of the bedraggled backpackers of the future, but as a Frenchwoman, she's well aware of the "distorted version of French elegance" that she presents. "My vagabond-like get-up," she remarks mournfully, "shamed me." As a Frenchwoman, she is also disconcerted by the independent, uncolonized Thai spirit; when forbidden to use a cabin on the upper deck of a boat because she is a woman, she threatens to complain to the governor of Phitsanuloke. "The governor governs the city, I govern my boat," she is decisively told by the Siamese captain, whom she characterizes as a "stubborn mule."

Given the imperial tenor of her time, and the length and difficulty of her journey, it's surprising that Marthe Bassene indulged in so little petulance and national chauvinism. It's equally surprising how easy travel has become in the past hundred years. In 2008, to replicate the trip that Marthe did in 1909 would be the height of masochism--if not completely impossible. But wouldn't it be fun--or at least interesting--to try?