Bokeo’s Fort Carnot a must for history buffs

Welcoming Visit Laos Year 2018, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images inviting you to experience the authentic nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, Jewel of the Mekong.

Fort Carnot in the small town of Huayxai in Bokeo province is definitely a place worth spending an hour or so if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the area.
The fort, named after a French engineer and physicist, was built during the early 1900s, when Laos and France were battling for dominance during a time of French rule.
After Laos gained independence in 1954, the Royal Lao Army and then the Lao Army took over the structure, using the building as accommodation.
Pictures of the fort grace the cover of a brochure published by the province’s Information, Culture and Tourism Department, which outlines a one-day tour programme of Huayxai.

The commander’s dormitory.

I have been to Huayxai many times but never really explored the fort or climbed to the top before, but on my last visit I spent a few hours there.
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 Bokeo head office.
On the right side of the building, head up the steep dirt path towards the red and white telecom towers, a 10-minute slog. 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 you do go, 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.
When I first went there I thought I must not be in the right place because it looked so different from the photos on the brochure.
The buildings look older and more dilapidated and the area was overgrown with head-high weeds.
I walked very slowly in the company of a local man but he hadn’t been there for some years.
We walked cautiously and guardedly as the pathway was broken up.
My friend was afraid to climb up the steps because the tower was in a bad state of repair, especially the old wooden stairway.
I looked around and could see that other people came here quite often and had climbed the steps.
At one point I spotted a lot of small holes in the wall.  My friend told me that French soldiers used them as lookouts, so they could see any advancing troops but could 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.
You could see right across the Mekong over the town of Huayxai and beyond to the border with Chiang Khong in Thailand.
I was there in the afternoon and I felt it would be a great place to be later in the day to catch the sunset.
After that I climbed back down to see the rest of the fort, the old offices, and a dormitory.
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. For France, Laos had above all strategic importance in relation to the demarcation of the British colonial empire, which included British India and Burma.
Ban Huayxai was important as a border post of the French colony 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.

 

 

By
Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest Update June 2, 2018)

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