FEATURE: A historical gem in Bokeo province

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - As French rule waned in Laos the Indochina War dominated the country from 1946 to 1954, but the remnants of this era litter the country and provide a fascinating insight into those tempestuous days of Lao history.

The structures that remain are worth seeking out and offer a different perspective on Laos. If you have the time and are prepared to go digging, there are several sites worth seeking out in the south and northeast of Laos.

Huayxai, the provincial capital of Bokeo, is definitely a place worth spending a day or two in if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the area and the part it played during French rule.

The best place to get a feel for the past is the ruined Fort Carnot, named after a French engineer and physicist, which was built during the early 1900s, when Laos and France were battling for dominance.

After Laos gained independence in 1954, the Royal Lao Army and then the Lao Army took over the structure, using the building as accommodation.

I visit Huayxai at least twice a year and always spend a few hours at the fort.

It’s not hard to get there - you just walk along the main street (Mekong Street), past the Post Office and the Lao Red Cross office.

On the right side of this building, head up the steep dirt path towards the red and white telecom towers, a 10-minute hike. Eventually you reach a mini plateau of houses and government buildings.

Along the path you will see a sign indicating the way to the fort.

If it’s your first visit, it’s advisable to go with a local who knows a bit about the place so you can get some answers to your questions, as there is no one at the fort to show you around.

The buildings look older and more dilapidated and the area is overgrown with head-high weeds if you’re there in the wet season.

But autumn is the perfect time to visit because the rain has finished, the weeds are not so high, there are lots of wild flowers, and the weather is very pleasant.

I love going there in the morning when the town is shrouded in mist, when you get a fairy-tale view as the fog dissipates.

Some people might be afraid to climb up the steps because the tower is in a bad state of repair, especially the old wooden stairway, but people do come here quite often and climb the steps.

There are a lot of small holes in the wall which French soldiers used as lookouts, so they could see any advancing troops but not be seen themselves.

The holes were made deliberately small so that bullets would be unlikely to enter but the defenders could fire shots from inside.

When I eventually reached the roof-top, I was afraid because of the age of the building but it still felt strong and when I looked out at the view it took my breath away.

Another good time to visit is late afternoon when you can watch the sun set across the Mekong over the town of Huayxai and beyond to the border with Chiang Khong in Thailand. The sky and the river turn red and the world seems aflame with colour.

Some people just stay there for a few minutes and then leave because the place is somewhat disorderly and there’s no one around to provide information.

The fort is rather neglected and the authorities should clean up the site and make it safe for visitors so that more people are encouraged to explore and learn from it.

At the very least something should be done to beautify the site, especially as it’s in a conservation area. And visitors would appreciate a display of some sort that explains the fort’s place in history.

On October 3, 1893, Laos was incorporated into the French colony of Indochina as the so-called French Protectorate of Laos, which at that time consisted of Cambodia and Vietnam. 

Until the end of the first Indochina War in 1954, Laos was administered and exploited by France. Laos was of strategic importance in relation to the demarcation of the British colonial empire, which included British India and Burma (today known as Myanmar).

Ban Huayxai was important as a French border post to protect the area against the British and Siamese. Fort Carnot served as an outpost with a small unit of a few French officers and about 30 Lao and Vietnamese soldiers.

From the fort there is a clear view to the river border with Thailand, up to the Golden Triangle and Myanmar beyond. Although the site is now a ruin, Fort Carnot is the best preserved colonial military building in Laos.