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The period of exploration

Henri Mouhot, the naturalist, opened up one of the first exploration routes, travelling into Siam, Cambodia and Laos between 1858 and 1860. He was able to introduce the ruins of Angkor to Westerners before progressing as far as Luang Prabang in the Lao kingdom, then a Siamese protectorate, where he died of yellow fever and deprivation in 1861. Five years later, Ernest Doudart de Lagrée, a brilliant naval officer and the architect of the French protectorate in Cambodia, was designated by the Governor of Cochinchina to undertake a scientific reconnaissance mission in the Mekong. At that time, it appeared that the great Indochinese river might be a favourable access route into southern China, which was so greatly coveted. The expedition included Commandant Francis Garnier, the photographer Emile Gsell and the artist Louis Delaporte, the future director of the Museum of Indochina in the Trocadero in Paris. The explorers brought back a wealth of photographs, drawings and reports, but the Kratie Rapids prevented any progress upriver. The impracticability of the Mekong having been demonstrated, the explorers then turned towards the Red River (Song Koï) which linked Hanoï to the wealthy Chinese province of Yunnan. Doudart de Lagrée died in 1868 while charting its course. His second-in-command, Francis Garnier, reached Shanghaï via the Yangzi Jiang (Great River).

The travels of Jules Harmand marked the end of this period of exploration. A military physician and, from 1873, member of an archaeological expedition to Cambodia led by Louis Delaporte, Harmand made five journeys between 1875 and 1877. In the south west of the great lakes of Cambodia and in Laos, he attempted to make his way as far as possible up the Mekong and reached the uplands of southern Annam where he made contact with the mountain peoples.