1840’s – Narrative of a Residence in Siam

“Narrative of a residence at the capital of the kingdom of Siam: with a description of the manners, customs, and laws of the modern Siamese (1852)” by Fred Arthur Neale

Shortly after we had anchored off the bar of Siam, the Captain went on shore to report to the authorities at Paknam, a little town situated at the mouth of the river ” Menam,” (which latter word signifies in Siamese the ” Mother of Waters,”) the arrival of his ship, and to obtain from the Siamese Government permission for the vessel to enter and proceed up the river as far as Bangkok, the modern capital of Siam. This is a form strictly to be adhered to; for the penalty inflicted upon such as neglect it, and enter the river without this authority, is the seizure of the vessel, the confiscation of the cargo, the imprisonment of the captain, (a very terrible penalty in such a country, and in such prisons as it possesses,) and the immediate execution of the Siamese pilot for an infringement of the laws of the “Brother of the Moon, and worshipper of the two White Elephants.” Since, however, strange vessels never would venture to cross the bar without a pilot, and those acquainted with the trade know the necessary forms to be gone through, the threat is seldom, if ever, put into execution, excepting, perhaps, in occasional instances of small Chinese junks, which being ignorant of the law, and drawing only a few feet water, have passed in and been seized.

After a day’s delay, the captain returned with the requisite permit, and accompanied by a pilot; and soon after we weighed anchor, and proceeded towards the mouth of the river. But, however good a helmsman our pilot may have been, he grievously lacked the very necessary knowledge of the ebb and flow of the tides; and after thumping the ship several times violently on the bar, there we stuck, with no prospect or hope of getting out of this position for at least twenty hours. The tide ebbed fast, and as it ebbed, the vessel lay heavily over on her broadside, till her position became so very unpleasant that we could neither stand nor walk, and eventually were compelled to seek refuge on the outside of the outer bulwarks. The position of the vessel caused havoc amongst the bottles and crockery-ware in the cabin, and the pilot came in for a pretty round tirade of abuse from all hands on board.

There is a remarkable phenomenon to be observed on this bar, which is, that though its distance is fully a mile from the Menam, yet, when the tide flows out again from the river, the water alongside the vessel is perfectly sweet and drinkable.

The tide had completely ebbed off the bank before it commenced to rise slowly again; and in this interval we slid down by means of rope ladders, and had no small amusement in picking up the little fish and prawns which had been left, much I should think to their surprise, high and dry, floundering about in an element very foreign to their nature. As the tide returned, so we drew nearer to the vessel; but it came up faster than many of us imagined, and notwithstanding our hurry and haste to scramble up the side of the vessel again, not a few of us got wet feet in the attempt.

It was not till 10 p.m., that I could hope for any ease or comfort in my bed, owing to the curious position that the vessel was in, and when she did right again, I was very glad to feel myself standing in an upright position. At break of day, next morning, there was sufficient water for us to proceed, and being favoured by a gentle sea-breeze, it was not long before we entered the magnificent river, and came to an anchor off the small town of Paknam.

Paknam is one of the most extraordinarily picturesque spots upon the face of the earth. It is like a miniature view of an immense citadel, or a panoramic exhibition of the Boga Tigris.

On a diminutive little island in the exact centre of the river rises a diminutive little white circular fortress, with a very small, but beautifully constructed, Pagoda towering up to a pigmy height in the middle thereof. The absurd notion of erecting such a thing with the design of instilling terror into their enemies could never have entered the heads of any other nation than the Siamese, or their celestial brethren. A broadside of ship’s biscuits would almost annihilate it. Yet this jim-crack little toy is firmly believed by the king and nation to spread terror far and wide, and to be the dread of the English Government, and the only reason why they have never attempted to attack this, as they have all the neighbouring countries. Of course, there is a legend attached to this fort, some story about its having been founded by a Siamese deity, who still keeps watch over the welfare of its worshippers. On either bank of the river there is a long range of buttress, badly constructed and worse mounted ; indeed, many of the guns were so corroded with rust, that it would have been a dangerous experiment to attempt to fire them off. From these fortresses, an ordinary sized ship’s cable is stretched across in times of alarm and danger ; and thus protected, the Siamese presume their country to be impregnable. Hence, every day, at about 1 p.m., the notes of a discordant horn resound through every town and village in the Siamese territories, meant to proclaim to the world at large, “that his Majesty,the King of Siam, had had his dinner, and was graciously pleased to grant permission to all other potentates on the face of the earth to follow his judicious example.” A Siamese would no more believe that any other crowned head dared transgress this law with impunity, than he would in the existence of an electric telegraph; and as for breaking through it themselves, instantaneous death would be the result.

We landed at Paknam, to take a look at the village and its inhabitants. The ground was swampy in the extreme, and elevated pathways constructed of lime and mortar were an indispensable requisite. These pathways were not over and above broad, and the Siamese not very polite, so that, in passing to and fro, they jostled us and each other in the rudest manner, and
occasionally some unhappy individual was edged off the road, and disappeared amidst the mud and marshes of the quagmire. Such an incident occurring to any of our party would have occasioned very serious inconvenience, as we were all dressed in white, with shoes and stockingsa la Franka. Not so the Siamese, (whose simplicity of costume will be commented upon in due order,) who, running to the river, would plunge right in, swim some twenty yards and back, and with dripping wet garments pursue their avocations with all thesang froidimaginable. In the mud, and all around, were numbers of pigs in the full enjoyment of their dirty element; and little cleaner than themselves were the groups of village children that chased them from spot to spot with fiendish delight. Little flotillas of ducks were swimming in puddles and ditches, and there was apparently no want of any kind of poultry.

The villagers themselves were about as cut-throat a set as ever I set eyes on, both men and women, and as we passed, they said something or other in Siamese, which might have been a welcome, or a malediction, for all I cared or knew. Judging from their aspects, I am inclined to think they were cursing us, the more especially as they owed the English a grudge for the sound example that had been made of them, not many years before my visit, for maltreating two British subjects that were amusing themselves by shooting wild pigeons in the vicinity of their temple, or watt. The story was this. Mr. Hunter, a gentleman for many years resident in Siam, and who had the esteem and regard of all the better portion of the inhabitants at Bangkok, his Majesty the King included, was very fond of fishing and shooting, the two only amusements afforded to such as become voluntary exiles, and take up their abode in these little civilised parts. For the better accommodation of himself and his friends, Mr. Hunter had purchased a beautiful little cutter of about 25 tons burthen, in which many and many a time I afterwards accompanied him on exploring trips outside the bar, and amongst the numberless little islands that line the sea coast. In the instance alluded to, he had made up a pleasure trip, which was to extend, I believe, as far as ” Chantiboon” and back. Arriving at Paknam about mid-day, and the tide and wind not favouring, Mr. Hunter determined to land there, and see what sport he and his companion (the master of an English vessel) could get by shooting wild-pigeons, which were very plentiful about the neighbourhood of the watt, where, on the pinnacles of its lofty pagodas, they were wont to build their nests and rear their young. Great success attended the sportsmen, when (just as they were about to return to the cutter) some twenty infuriated priests set upon the pair, armed with murderous clubs, and beat and otherwise maltreated them most unmercifully: the whole populace rose upon these two defenceless Britons, who, nevertheless, fighting back to back, managed to keep numbers of the assailants off, till, attracted by the noise and riot on shore, the crew of a Portuguese brig, then lying at the mouth of the Menam came to their timely rescue, and got them on board the cutter more dead than alive. Mr. Hunter immediately got under weigh, and wind and tide favouring, proceeded back to Bangkok, where he and his companion immediately on their arrival presented themselves at the palace, and demanded and obtained an immediate interview. The king was highly exasperated at the conduct of the people at Paknam, had the governor and chiefs bastinadoed most cruelly, and caused the whole bevy of priests to be expelled from the watt, and exiled as felons into the interior of the country, where their occupation to this day, if they are still alive, is to cut grass for the white elephants that are kept in such grand state, and so much reverenced, by the inhabitants of Bangkok and all Siam.
The houses at Paknam were miserably dirty, constructed of mud and wood, and, as is the case in the Malayan peninsula the upper story only tenantable, the lower one being the abode of pigs, fowls, ducks, dogs, cats, and, I imagine, not a few snakes. The Government House had been built originally of stone; some of the walls were still of this material, but the rest was rudely patched up with firewood and mud. It was the only house at Paknam into which you entered before mounting up stairs, and had rooms both in the upper and lower story. The reason of this was, that the Governor being the head man, and greater than the rest of the villagers, it was no shame for others to pass under his abode ; for a strong prejudice exists in Siam against passing under any man’s abode that is not immensely your superior, a prejudice which I shall hereafter endeavour to account for, and from this cause all the other houses had ladders placed outside. As in Sumatra, the people preferred elevated positions, for two very sensible reasons—the first was, to protect them from the stings of venomous reptiles, with which the whole country abounds ; the second, that the cool sea breezes might have free access to their couches, and help to drive away the swarms of mosquitoes that literally drive one to the verge of insanity by their sharp malignant stings. The interior of Government House was anything but prepossessing; a wretchedly planked room, with an old dingy carpet, and a few smoke-dried cushions to recline against. As for the Governor himself, he was a burly overfed Siamese, with a husky voice, and an inquisitive eye. His questions were mainly of a selfish nature. He asked me, through the interpreter, if I had ever seen such fortresses, or such a town as the one he had the honour to command? I replied, with all truth and sincerity, that I never had. “Ah, then,” said the Governor, “wait till you get to the capital, and then you will see (and here he paused, and covered his eyes with his hands as though the mere reflection were sufficient to blind him with its dazzling glory) – you will see something that will astonish you far more than even the Emperor of China’s rich capital would.” The next thing he wanted to know was, whether I was a doctor or not, and on my replying in the negative, he evinced much delight, declaring all doctors to be ignorant men, who made people swallow abominable filth, whilst they themselves lived on the fat of the land. His own had restricted him the use of ardent spirits, and he said the result was, that he was very ill and dying. He suffered from a constitutional stomach-ache, effectually to cure which he begged very hard for two bottles of English brandy, offering to give us a small detachment of chickens and ducks in return. During our interview, the ladies of his household were amusing themselves by peeping through eyelet-holes, made expressly in a large sail that curtained off the audience hall from their department. They made no secret of their vicinity, for they laughed and talked as loudly as though they were in the same room, and I make little doubt their comments would have been rather disagreeable, had we been able to appreciate their pith and aptitude. As the case stood, however, we were perfectly innocent on this score, and in this instance at least, ignorance was bliss indeed. Taking leave of his Excellency, we returned on board, heartily glad to be enabled to exchange the filth and abomination of that wretched little town for the comfortable clean decks of our own little floating world, small and confined though its limits necessarily were. After tea and a promenade on deck, the tide began to favour us, and the moon rose in all the majesty of her pale glory, to be a beacon light to guide us through the intricate navigation of the river ; the wind was a mere zephyr, but it served to puff and swell out the tiny loftier sails, with sufficient force to urge our little bark on her onward way ; sometimes it was right aft, and sometimes right ahead, now on the lee bow, now on the starboard, according as the windings of the river caused the vessel to sport with its invisible playmate.

So deep is the Menam and so void of shoals and banks, that, as we worked tack and tack up certain portions of the river, the bowsprit of the vessel got fairly entangled amongst the mangrove bushes, and tore away twigs and even boughs in disentangling herself again ; and as these bushes waved gently to and fro as the night breeze swept over them, nothing could be more magnificent than the aspect they presented, thickly bestudded as they were with myriads of glittering fire-flies that ever and anon sparkled forth from the black obscure shade of the bushes, throwing upon the water and all around one bright transcendant glow of radiant light. This was the sentimental part of the scenery, for on the other hand we were beset by perfect clouds of mosquitoes, whose perpetual dinning drowsy hum was only to be rivalled by the acute sharpness of their venomous stings. I sought refuge under the mosquito gauze, only to find that scores of these vile insects had already found their way there; and being locked in with such an enemy was even worse than facing them in an open field; but as the night advanced these wretches betook themselves to the shore, and gave us a few hours of peace and tranquillity. Whilst endeavouring to fall asleep, I was surprised to hear what I supposed to be the beating of a native drum or “Tom Tom” apparently close alongside the vessel; and yet, to my certain knowledge from ocular demonstration, no human habitation existed within many miles of where we were then sailing; the ground being on either side of the river, as far as the eye could reach, a swamp unfit even for the cultivation of rice, and which was continually being subjected to inundations of the river. This noise arose, as I afterwards learned, from a species of fish that followed in the wake of the vessel, and which from this circumstance (I mean the noise they make) are termed by the Siamese the Drum Fish. I saw some specimens of them afterwards in Bangkok : they are very ugly, with a species of bladder under the throat, (from which the curious sound is emitted,) and wholly unfit for food.

Towards morning we approached the second town, constructed on the banks of the Menam, after entering the river. This is called Paklat Belo or Little Paklat, to distinguish it from Paklat Boon, a large and more considerable town some twenty miles further up the river. Paklat Belo is, strictly speaking, nothing more than a village ; in fact, not so large as many of the villages in the vicinity; but it is a place of some consideration, from the fact that the neighbouring land on either side of the river is laid out in vast paddy fields as far as the eye can reach, and the rice produced is here shipped and carried to Bangkok and Yuthia for the consumption of the inhabitants. Here the eye first observes signs of cultivation, and here also commences that busy scene of life which goes on thickening and increasing as you draw near to the capital. Boats laden with every kind of marketable produce now make their appearance. This is the utmost limit of the floating vendor’s boats ; they come down with a favouring tide, so that no manual labour is required to urge the well-stocked canoes from village to village along the shores of the river: hence it arises that one seldom sees more than one individual in charge of a canoe, and their only duty consists in skilfully steering the boat, which the stream rapidly carries whichever way it may chance to set. These canoes are piled up in a manner that would lead one uninitiated in the art of skulling to imagine their safe guidance through the waters to be a moral impossibility; yet such is the facility which practice gives to these almost amphibious people, that the canoes are generally entrusted to the care of a child not above ten years of age, and that child a girl. Accidents are very rare indeed, and this indeed is perfectly marvellous, considering the thousands of larger and paddled canoes that are perpetually plying to and fro, and which, in some sudden bend of the river, hidden from each other by mangrove bushes, come sharply round the corner, threatening instant destruction to the smaller and more humble boat of the vendor of fish, fruits, or vegetables. From Paklat Belo there is a canal which is navigable at high water to canoes paddled by as many as eight men ; and this canal leads direct into the very heart of the city of Bangkok, cutting off a distance of nearly twenty-five miles. Proceeding from Paklat Belo, we gradually came upon a higher and more richly cultivated country: pretty little hamlets and villages were scattered over the plain in the distance, and in some parts the country was thickly studded with beautiful fruit trees ; their dark foliage contrasting well with the lighter and more brilliant green of the country around. One curve in the river would bring us in sight of the tall and graceful sugarcane waving to and fro as the wind sighed enviously through its foliage. No bee, however cunning, could hope to suck sweetness from its coarsely covered canes—no one but man possessed the secret of the rich sweetness well concealed beneath its rough unseemly bark—and none but man knew how to squeeze the juice ; and, in short, not to be too sentimental, play the deuce with it by melting, boiling, skimming, and many other cunning processes, and so produce the sugar-rum and sugar-candy. One stout old Chinaman, who was ordering about some labourers, seemed evidently to possess the secret: he did look so happy and so fatly contented. A second curve in the river, and nothing but betlenut plantations on either side; a third, and innumerable fruit gardens sprung up to view ; and so the scene went varying from beautiful to most lovely, and from most lovely to charming, as we spanned that river’s waters, mile by mile. About mid-day we reached Paklat Boon, and the tide being against us brought up for that evening and went on shore to have a ramble.