Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

River Road to China

The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-73

by Milton Osborne

“As exciting as it is historically illuminating . . . A tale of heroism that has seldom been duplicated, spurred by the continuing, fatal attraction of the “Great River.” ” –The New Republic

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date April 19, 1999
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3752-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.95

About The Book

In the mid-nineteenth century, no one in the Western world knew the full course”or indeed the source”of the great Mekong River in Southeast Asia. In 1866 six Frenchmen set out on a dangerous mission to seek a trade route up the Mekong. During the two years that followed, they would journey through more than four thousand miles of unmapped territory, from the tropical heat of the swamps of Vietnam and Cambodia to the bitter cold of the mountain ranges of southwestern China.

Their historic expedition is the dramatic subject of world-renowned Southeast Asia expert Milton Osborne’s River Road to China. This updated edition includes a new postscript by the author and more than thirty full-color illustrations by the expedition’s artist. Osborne’s book is not only a stirring narrative account of one of the most celebrated expeditions in a great age of exploration”it is a story of the courage, endurance, and determination of six men in the face of unpredictable dangers and near-insurmountable odds.


“A compelling, finely researched account of an adventure that was hailed as one of the grandest explorations of the nineteenth century.””The Washington Post

“[The] party’s advance up on the Mekong is the highest of high adventure. . . . [Osborne’s] documentation is flawless.””The New Yorker

“As exciting as it is historically illuminating . . . A tale of heroism that has seldom been duplicated, spurred by the continuing, fatal attraction of the “Great River.” “”The New Republic

“With personalities writ large and exploits gruesome enough to satisfy the most jaded tourist . . . Osborne introduces us to a party of French explorers whose attempt to follow the Mekong to its source should rank them with Livingston and Burton.””The New York Times Book Review


A New York Times Notable Book of the Year



The French explorers were men of their age: the enlightened, educated, scientific mid-nineteenth century. But as they rested in Phnom Penh their own age seemed to have lost much of its reality. The new capital of Cambodia (for the King and his court had only just vacated an earlier site a little to the north in this same year of 1866) might not have surprised their forebears of the Middle Ages. For these six men it was a place of constant, sometimes horrified fascination. Where, after all, in Europe was it still quite normal to find the heads of executed criminals rotting under a swarm of flies atop bamboo poles, grisly testimonies to the vengeance of a king against any who transgressed one of his most sacred concerns, the inviolability of his female household?
This was the era of the mission civilisatrice, the French concept of a civilizing mission that they alone among the countries of Europe were capable of fulfilling. Yet, in Cambodia, the role escaped them.

Whatever was to happen later, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the 1860s in Cambodia were still a time when old ways were supreme. Not that these old ways were always harsh. The traditional Cambodian legal code viewed adultery outside the royal family with a notable degree of tolerance. As well as the penalty requiring the adulterer to pay for his illicit pleasure in cash, the law did provide an alternative. Accepting that the act of adultery was more likely to take place in the fields about the city than elsewhere, the legal code provided that the guilty parties could absolve themselves by offering to the court the amount of grass that would be eaten in a day by the royal elephants. This “punishment” served the honor of all sides. It suggested heroic efforts on the part of those involved in the illicit liaison, but reaffirmed the vital interests of the King, whose elephants might, in even the smallest measure, have been deprived of their fodder.
In a way that is difficult for many in the late twentieth century to imagine, Cambodia in the 1860s was an unknown and sometimes barbaric land. The French colonizers who had come to the Indochinese region in 1858 had been slow to transfer their attention from the south of Vietnam to this petty kingdom. They knew it was a factious place where the man who held the title of King retained his position because of help from Thailand, and against the undisguised enmity of his two half-brothers. When, in 1863, they decided to insure that their influence was dominant in Cambodia, they were reacting more to imagined threats than verifiable facts. The perfidious British were an ever present danger in many French minds. In the Southeast Asian world they were seen as evil geniuses orchestrating the activities of the Thai court, and thus as likely to threaten the newly established French position in southern Vietnam. It is difficult to be absolutely sure, but the best evidence is that at the time in question the highest ranking British subject within the Thai court was the bandmaster.
So, with a dash of gunboat diplomacy to insure that Thai influence in Cambodia became negligible, the French government, in 1863 and 1864, established a “protectorate” over Cambodia. The expectation was that without Thai influence Cambodia would be peaceful. It was not. As French officials worked to make Cambodia a further shining jewel in Napoleon III’s colonial crown, the country sank deeper into disorder and rebellion. This time the Thais, and their presumed directors, the British, could not be blamed. The problem was more fundamental and more local. It was the problem of the King, and in particular of the contrast between his apparently absolute power at court and his near lack of power in the provinces.
The Frenchmen who were about to explore the unknown course of the Mekong came to Phnom Penh well acquainted with the character of the Cambodian ruler, if not reconciled to it. The leader of the expedition, Commander Ernest-Marc-Louis de Gonzague Doudart de Lagr”e, had already spent more than two years in Cambodia as the representative of the French government. It had been his task to persuade and finally to force the Cambodian King, Norodom I, to agree to the French protectorate. The other naval officers and officials in the service of the French government accompanying Lagr”e knew Norodom only at second hand. Francis Garnier’s experience of the East had been in Vietnam, across the cultural divide from Cambodia. This, too, was the Asian experience of Dr. Clovis Thorel, one of the two medical men included in the expedition. Dr. Lucien Joubert, the other, had never served in the Indochinese region before; his foreign service had been in Africa. Louis Delaporte was also a newcomer to the East. And so too was Louis de Carn”, the youngest member of the expedition, who had gained a place through his uncle’s influence, and who was to provide the one public blot on the enterprise’s honor before he died, five years later, from a disease contracted on the slow journey up the Mekong.
The letters that Doudart de Lagr”e sent home to France in 1864 and 1865 provide some of the most vivid pictures of the Cambodian court and its ruler. It is no wonder that the other members of the expedition, who now met Norodom for the first time, observed and spoke with him in such an interested way. If only half of Lagr”e’s stories were true, then here before them was a living example of an oriental despot. Doudart de Lagr”e might choose to speak of Norodom as a “kinglet,” but this was not the vision held of him by his subjects. Nor, assuredly, was it how Norodom thought of himself.
The man whose Cambodian titles described him as the “Great king with heavenly feet, better than all others, descendant of angels and of the god Vishnu, excellent heart, supreme earthly power as full of qualities as the sun, born to protect men, supporter of the weak, he who knows and understands, better than all others, eternally precious like the angels, victorious, great among the greatest “” was a little man with a pockmarked face. When he was crowned King in 1864, Norodom was twenty-eight years old. Barely five feet in height, he had no doubts as to the rights he should enjoy over his country even if these were seldom translated into reality. He had spent six years of his early life, between 1848 and 1856, in Bangkok living as a part guest and part hostage in the Thai court. During the late 1850s, in the closing years of his father’s life, Norodom spent his early manhood in the Cambodian court at Oudong, twenty miles north of Phnom Penh. As the King’s eldest son he could indulge his pleasures, even if he also risked occasional beating when he incurred his parent’s regal rage. A European visitor to Oudong in 1859 found Norodom to be a considerate host whose English vocabulary comprised only one phrase, “Good brandy.” Throughout his life he showed himself ready to match this statement of approval with unstinted consumption of the brandy itself.
But it was not his heavy drinking, nor his use of opium, that so confounded the French. In their less prejudiced moments, Frenchmen recognized his lively intelligence, but from the very beginning they could not really understand Norodom’s relations with his female household. Why, they asked, when he had so many women should the infidelity of one be the cause of so many deaths and other punishments? Norodom, Lagr”e once wrote, was as jealous as a tiger. It was this jealousy that explained the almost constant succession of hangings and decapitations at his court. With forty-five women to tend his pleasure, the errant behavior of one could lead, as it did one day early in 1864, to the sudden death of seven men and women judged to have infringed the ancient laws of the kingdom.
What the French failed to understand was that the women of Norodom’s court were not merely part of some Cambodian equivalent of a Turkish seraglio. Many of those who shared the King’s bed were also playing a political role, acting on behalf of their relatives, providing the Kong with advice away from the formal meetings that he disliked and distrusted. But more than this, the female household still was one area that had not passed beyond the King’s absolute control. The outer provinces might be in revolt, the Thais and later the French might work their will upon Norodom to force him this way or that. But in his own household his word was absolute. When his father died, in 1860, Norodom inherited the late King’s women. A deep quarrel between Norodom and his half-brother, Si Votha, over what to be done with one of these women probably explains why Si Votha withdrew into the forest and remained a rebel against the King all his life. Symbolically and practically the women of the King’s establishment represented the right he had to absolute power, and Norodom did not fail to exercise that right.
This more than anything was what gave Norodom the character he had in the eyes of the French. He might be amiable with his European visitors, but he was not with his countrymen who broke the laws that said he alone had the right to his women. He even turned his considerable if erratic interest in Western technology and governmental practice to use in this regard. In the early 1870s someone told the Cambodian monarch that on occasion governments in Europe used firing squads to carry out executions. This struck Norodom as a matter of great interest. Pressing a French official for details, he listened thoughtfully while the procedure was explained. Within hours of the conversation a fusillade rang out to bring death to yet more erring members of his household. Later in the century, as he grew older and his female establishment grew larger, the problem of maintaining fidelity grew greater. The court pages, usually vigorous young men in their twenties, sometimes could not resist the blandishments of the women. Neither, always, could Norodom’s rambling brood of sons. As late as 1884 it was only French pressure that prevented Norodom from punishing one of his sons for an illicit liaison with a member of the female household by having him dragged to his death behind horses through the streets of Phnom Penh. The angry King had to be content with confining his son, loaded down with heavy chains.
If such spectacles did not greet the French explorers, there was much to interest and even fascinate them as they paused in Phnom Penh to make their last major supply arrangements before heading into unknown regions. They had left Saigon nearly a month before, on June 5, 1866, and had passed most of the intervening period making the first detailed appraisal of the mighty ruins of Angkor, the center of Cambodian glory between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. Now, in Phnom Penh, they added to their food supplies and, heeding the advice of local traders, bought up large stocks of copper wire for barter in the distant Laotian states.
Though it had only recently become the royal capital once again, Phnom Penh was a site rich with memories and traditions. After the Cambodians abandoned Angkor, in the fifteenth century, this had been the country’s capital for a period. Later, towards the end of the sixteenth century, the city had been the scene of a savage clash between the contending groups of foreigners, including Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, who sought to profit from the weakening state of the country. In a bloody month of fighting and arson the Europeans clashed with the Chinese community and then, in turn, were attacked themselves by the Cambodians. After another century of somnolence, Phnom Penh briefly regained its capital city status in the 1830s during a bitter period of Vietnamese occupation. This led to its destruction when the Thais, as enemies of the Vietnamese, put the city to the torch in 1834. During the 1840s and 1850s the city had a backwater existence as a settlement of small traders and merchants. Now, in 1866, the French had persuaded Norodom to proclaim Phnom Penh the capital of his country once more, and to leave his father’s capital Oudong, just to the north, to decay slowly as the tropical weather pattern and the insects brought down the empty, wooden palace buildings. Not, indeed, that all were empty, for some upholders of tradition remained, unready to live in proximity to the French. Foremost among these was Norodom’s mother. Another was the tragic figure so often spoken of in French accounts as “the mad woman of Oudong.”
This was Ang Mey, the Cambodian princess who had been placed on the powerless throne of her occupied country by the Vietnamese in 1834. Rumor was that she had been the mistress of a Vietnamese general who ruled over Cambodia at this terrible time. Others tempered their allegations of Ang Mey’s wrongdoing; the once beautiful princess, they said, may have sold her country, but not her body to the Vietnamese. Whatever was the case, she had lost her reason. Pushed from the throne when the Vietnamese retreated before the Thais, she lived with the memory of death and dishonor for over twenty years. Norodom left her in the care of old retainers when he and his court moved to Phnom Penh. At Oudong she could still believe that she had some dignity, and her servants could placate the villagers whom she assaulted when her mind was most unbalanced, or pay for the goods that she took as a right from the merchants in the markets.
The city to which Norodom brought his court in 1866 is best seen for the first time from the river. In 1866, indeed, it could not be reached in any other way during the rainy season, and this was how the explorers came. Phnom Penh in 1866 bore little relation to the city that in the early 1960s had a population of 500,000 and that had grown by 1974, as war swept over Cambodia, to a figure well in excess of one million. In 1866, Phnom Penh numbered perhaps 35,000 souls. Most were not Cambodians. There were Chinese and Vietnamese traders in the great market. Merchants from as far away as Laos sold their wares in Phnom Penh before making a slow ascent back up the Mekong. Malay fishermen cast their nets in the Mekong and its tributary the Tonle Sap and sold their catches to the city’s inhabitants. Indian traders sold cloth and lent money, and by 1866 there was even a small resident European commercial community.
These varied groups were crowded into a jumble of wooden houses that straggled along the river bank. They seemed unconscious of the stench that rose from the garbage-filled streets, the primitive drains and canals that inefficiently carried away human waste matter in this city that lacked any organized sanitation. Yet not all the smells that were so characteristic of this busy market town were offensive, or certainly not to the inhabitants. Scents of incense drifted from the Chinese and Vietnamese pagodas. Curries and spices added their contribution in the kitchens behind the Indian traders’ houses, as did the distinctive smell of nuoc-mam, the pungent fermented fish sauce that was, and is, an essential of Vietnamese cuisine. Nor was life for these merchants and coolies just a matter of philosophically accepting an existence that promised so many of them an early death from incurable disease. This was also a city of raucous gaiety, ceremony, and parade. Hawkers shouted their wares with distinctive street cries, and the brassy ring of cymbals and gongs marked the passage of Chinese processions of celebration as well as those that accompanied the rites of death and mourning. Just to the north of the city limits the muezzins called the followers of Islam to prayer. At the edge of the city itself, the bells of the Catholic mission rang for the Vietnamese converts. With the onset of the sudden tropical night the city was lit by the gaudy paper lanterns that hung outside Chinese shops, and the click and rattle of innumerable mah-jong games sounded through the streets. Yet, however much this cosmopolitan bustle and bargaining were part of Phnom Penh, there were sections of the city that were unmistakably Cambodian: the royal palace, the Buddhist temples, and the hill itself from which the city took its name.
Built at the confluence of two wide rivers, Phnom Penh sits on dead flat ground. The Phnom (hill) from which it takes its name is not large, rising only some eighty feet above the ground. It is topped by a stupa, a Buddhist monument that rises a further ninety feet above the top of the Phnom itself. In a flat land this combined height of the hill and its monument was enough for it to dominate the city. Then, as now, it was a favorite spot for fortune tellers and for Buddhist monks in their yellow robes. These monks were a constant reminder that this city existed in a different world from that which the Frenchmen had known in Saigon. There were Buddhist monks to be seen in Saigon, some even followers of the same branch of Buddhism as that practiced in Cambodia. But there was nothing like this. With the dawn of each day the monks streamed into the streets from their monasteries to beg for food from the faithful. At any Cambodian ceremony the monks would be present, their yellow robes providing a splash of color, their voices tirelessly murmuring the prayers and rituals that gain merit through constant, almost trance-like repetition. The King himself had been a monk for a time: had entered a monastery, taken the robe, and had his head shaven. One of the French explorers was later to write that Norodom mocked the Buddha at times when he felt well and happy. This was the mockery of a true believer. For the King exemplified the rule that “to be a Cambodian was to be Buddhist.” Yet to be Cambodian was also to be a follower of other religions. For the peasants, animism was the dominant belief. For the royal family, Brahmanic rituals, borrowed some fifteen hundred years before from India, still played a part alongside the other Indian religion, Buddhism, that was proclaimed the faith of the state.
With their departure set for the next day, the French explorers were summoned to the royal palace to dine with Norodom on July 6. If this was no new experience for Doudart de Lagr”e, the occasion fascinated the other, younger members of the party. To enter the royal palace was to come close to the most vital and mystical features of King Norodom’s world. The supreme guides to court ritual were the Brahman priests. Centuries before their ancestors had been truly knowledgeable in the philosophies of India. Their nineteenth-century descendants preserved the ritual but had little understanding of the philosophy that lay beneath it. Their long hair caught up in the traditional “buns’ of their Indian counterparts, these Cambodian Brahmans cast horoscopes and were the interpreters of signs and portents for the King and his family. Possibly their most solemn duty was to guard the famous sacred sword of the kingdom, the preah khan. This sword, that had been passed to the ruler’s remote ancestors by the gods, was a symbol and a measure of the kingdom’s prosperity. It was, in the words of the Cambodian coronation ceremony, “the lightning of Indra,” the king of the gods. None save the Brahmans could touch it, and even they were forbidden to touch the naked blade with their bare hands. The most terrible disaster would follow if the sword were lost or captured. Should the blade grow rusty or discolored, the fate of the kingdom would be less terrible but grave nonetheless.
Norodom’s palace was not grand, if judged against Versailles, the Vatican, or the residences of lesser European rulers both spiritual and temporal. But it had its own dignity, not least for the Cambodians, who saw the palace as a symbol of man’s place within the universe, the earthly center of their existence that was the dwelling place of a semi-divine monarch. When the explorers came to the palace, they saw but the beginnings of what by the end of the nineteenth century was to be a vast complex of buildings within a compound surrounded by a castellated wall. Already, however, there was a throne hall, a pavilion for the royal ballet’s performances, and another pavilion where the king met his officials in daily audience and received the petitions of his subjects. These were wooden buildings, richly carved along the eaves and lintels, painted and gilded, and roofed with glistening tiles of blue and yellow that shone in the tropical sun and provided a fitting completion to this architecture of fantasy. A few years later, following the opening of the Suez Canal, the Phnom Penh palace was enriched by a new French gift to the King: the prefabricated cast-iron palace that had been used by the Empress Eug”nie at the opening ceremonies for De Lesseps’ canal. Shipped out to Cambodia and re-erected, it became, if we may believe the repeated claims of French authors, Norodom’s favorite building in the royal compound.
It was not architecture alone that made the palace a matter of interest and wonder. There was the abiding fascination provided by the members of the court: the officials, the court dancers, the royal guard and the royal orchestras, the hereditary servants who tended the royal elephants, paddled the King’s barges, and daily risked death at the King’s passionate whim. Norodom was not a rich ruler, by whatever standards were used to judge him, but his wealth was sufficient for a court of two thousand persons. A devoted admirer of the traditional Cambodian orchestra composed of flutes, stringed instruments, and a range of drums, gongs, and xylophones, he listened with equal pleasure to his band of Filipinos who played in the Western style. His cavalry was led by men from Thailand. His gunners were the mixed-blood descendants of Iberian adventurers who had settled in Cambodia in earlier centuries.
Guards and servants were clothed in reds and blues and wore hats that seemed to have remained unchanged in design from those shown on the low-relief sculptures of the temples at Angkor. The more elevated members of the court, both male and female, wore a rich silk sarong, a sampot in the Cambodian language, drawing its hem up between their legs to fasten at the back and give the impression of loose, floppy breeches rather like the loose-fitting trousers worn by Dutchmen in so many seventeenth-century paintings. Each day of the week had its own color; the sampots worn on a Friday, the day of the planet Venus, would be blue; those worn on Wednesday, the day of Mercury, would be green. None of this daily exoticism, however, came near to the impression created by the entertainment the explorers had been summoned to the palace to see: the special splendor of the royal troupe of dancers.
Whatever judgments nineteenth-century Frenchmen made of Norodom–and most of them were harsh–all agreed on two aspects of his character. He loved both banquets and the dancing of his court ballet that was an essential accompaniment to the feasting. There are men still alive in Cambodia who remember, from the early days of the present century, being told by their parents of the mammoth feasting that took place within the palace at Norodom’s command. Royal banquets would last as long as the King’s endurance. European wine and brandy flowed alongside locally distilled spirits, and course followed course in a seemingly endless profusion, served from the heavy chiseled silver dishes made by the royal silversmiths. As the banquet progressed the royal ballet provided an ever-changing backdrop.
The dancing that Lagree and his companions witnessed was quite unknown to all but a very few in Europe. When, fifty years later, Norodom’s half-brother and successor, King Sisowath, took the Cambodian ballet to France, it was a true succes de th””tre. The artist Rodin led Paris society in lauding the dancers’ grace and beauty. Dressed in the richest silk shot through with gold and silver thread, wearing golden tiered crowns or the masks of chimerical beasts and decked with jewels, the court dancers performed a repertoire that drew on the ancient Indian epics for its subjects: the heroic deeds of Rama and the legends enshrined in the Mahabharata. But the dances were not Indian in form. They were slower and more measured, less sensual but no less full of meaning. Gestures with hand and finger meant as much as a sudden movement with the whole body. In some cases, as when the monkey gods joined in battle, the dances were realistic to an almost buffoonish degree. The dancers in their monkey masks struck simian poses, bent-legged with outstretched arms or thoughtfully scratching their armpits for fleas. On other occasions, the motions of individuals and groups were as intricately abstract yet as disciplined as those of a wheeling flock of birds.
The French visitors watched the dances by the soft light of candles, with the incense blown through the pavilion by the river breeze that floated from the water a bare three hundred yards away. They sat at a long table facing the floor on which the dancers performed, waited upon by palace servants who crawled along the floor so that they should remain below the level of the King. Seated at the head of the banqueting table, Norodom mixed banter with a more serious purpose. Which of the dancers, he inquired, struck the Frenchmen as the most beautiful and accomplished? They gratified their host by correctly pointing to the King’s current favorite; Norodom’s attentive gaze had made their choice none too difficult. More earnestly, in conversation with Lagr”e, the King strove to press a bar of gold upon the group’s leader for their expenses along the way. Doudart de Lagr”e refused. He realized that Norodom hoped in offering them this gift, to ask in return for their further delay. For if the banqueting and dancing kept the Frenchmen from daily cares that were soon to be frequent and demanding, these diversions had a similar part to play for Norodom. As he savored his brandy and watched with a connoisseur’s appreciation the steps that his dancers performed, he knew a rebellion was already under way in the eastern provinces of his kingdom which could threaten his hold on the throne.
The real world beckoned the explorers. The river was visible from the dancing pavilion, and it was why they were here. Fantasy would be in short measure in a little while, but this night’s experience could not be prolonged. Norodom might stay watching the ballet, but the explorers took their leave, following the strict naval discipline that Lagr”e’s orders demanded that he preserve. The next day the expedition left Phnom Penh. Their route lay north up the Mekong, as the smoke from their final cannon salute drifted behind them and towards the shore.