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A voyage with an explorer, from Angkor to the grave

A voyage with an explorer, from Angkor to the grave

Denise Heywood visits the tomb of Angkor Wat "discoverer" Henri Mouhot in Laos.

Exactly 135 years ago, in January 1860, Angkor Wat was 'rediscovered' by Henri Mouhot. Although he was not the first Westerner to visit the temples, his expedition brought them to the attention of the world. He died the following year, aged only 35, after continuing his explorations up the Mekong into Laos. The tomb of this exceptional man, explorer, naturalist, philologist and artist, is outside the ancient royal Lao capital of Luang Prabang.

Until 1990 the tomb, like Angkor, had been forgotten. Situated on top of a steep, verdant bank of the Mekong, with panoramic views, it was rediscovered by a journalist from Nice, Jean-Michel Stronbino. He found it with the help of Lao guide Mongkhol Sasorith. Visiting the deserted spot by tuk-tuk, and negotiating the last stretch on foot, one still has the impression of stumbling across a new discovery, much as Mouhot reportedly stumbled across Angkor.

The monument has since been restored with the help of the French embassy, an aid agency and Mouhot's native town Montbéliard in France.

Mouhot, son of a clockmaker, was born in 1826 in Montbéliard. He was a precocious child, passionately interested in the natural sciences and botany, a gifted linguist and a skilled artist. At the age of 18 he traveled to Russia and taught French in the military academy at Voronezh for ten years. The Crimean war forced his return to France in 1854.

For the next two years he traveled in Europe with his brother, Charles, making daguerreotypes (an early photographic process) and engravings.

In 1856 the two brothers went to England, where they married the two nieces of the great explorer, Mungo Park. Mouhot lived in Jersey with Annette, continuing his research in the natural sciences. Attending a lecture on an English voyage to Siam, he was inspired with the idea of going to Southeast Asia on a botanical expedition.

France did not support his proposal. But The Royal Geographical Society in London, instigator of the greatest expeditions of the19th century, organized the trip, though they provided no financial support. He set off in April 1858.

His curiosity about Angkor had been awakened by several papers written by the French missionary Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, who had visited it in 1854. Landing in Bangkok, Mouhot toured Siam, collecting insects, butterflies, shells and minerals, and drawing animals. His notes were sent back to the British Museum.

He arrived in Cambodia and took a wooden fishing boat which brought him, in January 1860, to Angkor. Although his posthumous reports claimed the discovery of the ruins hidden in the jungles, Father Bouillevaux declared that Angkor had not been rediscovered, because it had never been forgotten.

However, Mouhot's reports, illustrated with his fine drawings, appearing posthumously in a magazine called Le Tour du Monde in 1863, stirred the imagination of romantic travelers and writers. In fact, they focused as much on Cambodia's vegetation and natural wonders as on its archeology.

It was not until 1868 that they were published in a book, Voyage in Siam. In 1866, the first photographs of Angkor appeared by English photographer John Thomson.

Meanwhile, Mouhot continued his expedition up the Mekong to Laos.

He traveled by elephant into the jungles, discovering another temple, and on July 25, 1861, arrived in Luang Prabang, where he was welcomed by the king. He continued his journey, but solitude and his health undermined him.

On Sep. 5 he stopped writing his journal. Voyaging close to the Chinese frontier, he decided to turn back towards Luang Prabang. On Oct 19, suffering from malaria, he wrote: "I am stricken with fever...". He became delirious and on Oct. 29 wrote: "Lord have mercy on me ..." He died on Nov 10.

The French explorer Doudart de Lagree constructed the tomb in 1867. In 1990, Montbeliard donated a plaque: "Proud of our son."

Visitors can stay in Luang Prabang, at the Phou Vao Hotel, on a hillside over looking the city, where Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen stayed last year. The hotel can organize a local tuk-tuk to take you to the tomb.

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