On the trail of the great Henri Mouhot

If you have been to Luang Prabang, you probably have climbed the 300 steps up Phousi, the hill that stands in the middle of the town. From the top, you can see not just the breadth and length of the former Lao capital and a Unesco World Heritage site but also the Mekong River a stone's throw to the west and the smaller Khan River nearby to the east. The two waterways meet just north of Phousi.

I have visited this hill a couple of times. And each time I lingered on the east-facing side of the hilltop to feast my eyes on the Khan River -- Nam Khan, as the locals call it -- which drowsily winds its way through a mountainous terrain into Luang Prabang. It's such a mesmerising sight. But that's not the sole reason. I also knew that somewhere further upstream, on the bank of Nam Khan lies the final resting place of Henri Mouhot.

In the mid-19th century, the French naturalist and explorer made expeditions to the hinterland of what is now Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Of course, back then there were no paved roads in these parts. Everywhere it was the wilderness teeming with wild animals and tropical diseases. This guy was a hardcore traveller.

Although Mouhot was not the first Westerner to witness the mysterious grandeur of Angkor Wat, he was the one who made it world famous. His memoirs and detailed drawings of the ancient Khmer ruins excited people across Europe about past civilisation on this side of the globe.

Mouhot died less than two years after he visited Angkor Wat. On Nov 10, 1861, during his second journey to Luang Prabang, he succumbed to malaria. He was 35. And he was merely 10km from his destination.

I've always wanted to see the grave of the great explorer but never got the chance to do so until my recent vacation in Luang Prabang.

With mountain bikes which my friend and I rented for the day at 50,000 kip (It's around 200 baht and Thai bank notes are accepted), we cycled eastward out of the town. The road runs alongside Nam Khan leading up and down mild slopes past the weaving community of Ban Phanom all the way to the access road to the tomb site. Along the way, we stopped a couple of times to ask the locals to make sure we were always on the right track. Lao and Thai people speak virtually the same language so basic conversation like asking for directions should never be a problem.

However, it turned out many of the folks we approached seemed clueless when asked about Henri Mouhot's grave. One of them, a young watermelon vendor, even told us to ride back to Ban Phanom. We later found out from a van driver that we would have got a better answer if we had asked for Than Mouhot, as he is called by the local name instead of using his full French name.

An even easier keyword, added the driver, is Kaeng Noon, a section of Nam Khan which is popular among the locals as a swimming and picnic area. Kaeng Noon is just a few minutes' walk downstream from Mouhot's grave.

The white tomb, which has been restored on many occasions over the past century, is on a small clearing in a dense forest. It's here that Mouhot's epic journey ended. The guy had such a short life but he lived it to the fullest. I'm not sure if he would be happy or not if he learnt about how much Luang Prabang, Angkor Wat and Bangkok, which he had used as the base for his expeditions in Southeast Asia, have changed.

Before we got bitten by too many mosquitoes like Mouhot, my friend and I hopped back on our bikes and headed back to the town. We didn't have enough time for a dip in the clear, running water of Kaeng Noon but a nice glass of ice chocolate near the end of Nam Khan at the end of our little journey was also refreshing.

Luang Prabang - Henri Mouhot’s grave

  • GPS co-ordinates (Mouhot's grave): 19°53'06.07" N 102°11'30.30" E
  • Trail condition: Mostly on-road, except for the short section near the tomb.
  • Distance: Around 20km from the town to the tomb and back.
  • Getting there: From Luang Prabang downtown, ride east towards Ban Phanom. At a right curve almost 4km further up the road from Ban Phanom, you will find the access road to Kaeng Noon and Mouhot's grave.
  • Food & drinks: There is a restaurant at Kaeng Noon but it's not open until lunchtime. To play it safe bring some drinking water.
  • What your family can enjoy while waiting: Let them explore Luang Prabang on their own. The town is small and basically every attraction is within walking distance.
  • Accommodation: There are numerous choices available. The one I stayed at this time is called Rim Vang Guesthouse. It's a humble place but the breakfast, especially the mango jam, was impressive.

Well, see you here again soon. Until then, if you have questions, news or biking insights you wish to share, please feel free to send an email to pongpetm@bangkokpost.co.th or go to Freewheel Bangkok community page on Facebook.

Pongpet Mekloy is the Bangkok Post's travel editor and a mountain bike freak.

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