1860’s – The English Governess at the Siamese Court

“The English Governess at the Siamese Court” by Anna Leonowens

MARCH 15, 1862.  On board the small Siamese steamer Chow Phya, in the Gulf of Siam. I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil; and presently the welcome face shines boldly out, glad, glorious, beautiful, and aureoled with flaming hues of orange, fringed with amber and gold, wherefrom flossy webs of color float wide through the sky, paling as they go. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.

The captain told us we must wait for the afternoon tide to carry us over the bar. I lingered on deck, as long as I could dodge the fiery spears that flashed through our tattered awning, and bear the bustle and the boisterous jests of some circus people, our fellow-passengers, who came by express invitation of the king to astonish and amuse the royal household and the court.

Scarcely less intelligent, and certainly more entertaining, than these were the dogs of our company, — brutes of diverse temperament, experience, and behavior. There were the captain’s two, Trumpet and Jip, who, by virtue of their reflected rank and authority, held places of privilege and pickings under the table, and were jealous and overbearing as became a captain’s favorites, snubbing and bullying their more accomplished and versatile guests, the circus dogs, with skipper-like growls and snarls and snaps. And there was our own true Bessy, — a Newfoundland, great and good, — discreet, reposeful, dignified, fastidious, not to be cajoled into confidences and familiarities with strange dogs, whether official or professional. Very human was her gentle countenance, and very loyal, I doubt not, her sense of responsibility, as she followed anxiously my boy and me, interpreting with her heart the thoughts she read in our faces, and responding with her sympathetic eyes.

In the afternoon, when we dined on deck, the land was plainly visible; and now, as with a favoring tide we glided toward the beautiful Meinam (“Mother of Waters”), the air grew brighter, and the picture lived and moved; trees grew on the banks, more and more verdure, monkeys swung from bough to bough, birds flashed and piped among the thickets.

Though the reddish-brown water over the “banks” is very shallow at low tide, craft of moderate burden, with the aid of a pilot, cast anchor commonly in the very heart of the capital, in from ten to twelve fathoms of water.

The world has few rivers so deep, commodious, and safe as the Meinam; and when we arrived the authorities were contemplating the erection of beacons on the bar, as well as a lighthouse for the benefit of vessels entering the port of Bangkok. The stream is rich in fish of excellent quality and flavor, such as is found in most of the great rivers of Asia; and is especially noted for its platoo, a kind of sardine, so abundant and cheap that it forms a common seasoning to the laborer’s bowl of rice. The Siamese are expert in modes of drying and salting fish of all kinds, and large quantities are exported annually to Java, Sumatra, Malacca, and China.

In half an hour from the time when the twin banks of the river, in their raiment of bright green, seemed to open their beautiful arms to receive us, we came to anchor opposite the mean, shabby, irregular town of Paknam, or Sumuttra P’hra-kan (“Ocean Affairs”). Here the captain went ashore to report himself to the Governor, and the officials of the custom-house, and the mail-boat came out to us. My boy became impatient for couay (cake); Moonshee, my Persian teacher, and Beebe, my gay Hindostanee nurse, expressed their disappointment and disgust, Moonshee being absurdly dramatic in his wrath, as, fairly shaking his fist at the town, he demanded, “What is this!”

Near this place are two islands. The one on the right is fortified, yet withal so green and pretty, and seemingly so innocent of bellicose designs, that one may fancy Nature has taken peculiar pains to heal and hide the disfigurements grim Art has made in her beauty. On the other, which at first I took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, with a lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows in the limpid waters below, Add to these the fitful ripple of the coquettish breeze, the burnished blazonry of the surrounding vegetation, the budding charms of spring joined to the sensuous opulence of autumn, and you have a scene of lovely glamour it were but vain impertinence to describe. Earth seemed to have gathered for her adorning here elements more intellectual, poetic, and inspiring than she commonly displays to pagan eyes.

These islands at the gateway of the river are, like the bank in the gulf, but accumulations of the sand borne down before the torrent, that, suddenly swollen by the rains, rushes annually to the sea. The one on which the temple stands is partly artificial, having been raised from the bed of the Meinam by the king P’hra Chow Phra-satthong, as a work of “merit.” Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consists of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain, — altogether not unlike the “tavellae” brick of the Egyptians and ancient Romans. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank, and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to the P’hra-Chadei (“The Lord’s Delight”), a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha. It also affords accommodation to the numerous retinue of princes, nobles, retainers, and pages who attend the king in his annual visits to the temple, to worship, and make votive offerings and donations to the priests.

A charming spot, yet not one to be contemplated with unalloyed pleasure; for here also are the wretched people, who pass up and down in boats, averting their eyes, pressing their hard, labor-grimed hands against their sweating foreheads, and lowly louting in blind awe to these whited bricks. Even the naked children hush and crouch, and lay their little foreheads against the bottom of the boat.

His Majesty Somdetch P’hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the late Supreme King, contributed interesting souvenirs to the enlargement and adornment of this temple.

The town, which the twin islands redeem from the ignominy it otherwise deserves, lies on the east bank of the river, and by its long lines of low ramparts that face the water seems to have been at one time substantially fortified; but the works are now dilapidated and neglected. They were constructed in the first instance, I am told, with fatal ingenuity; in the event of an attack the garrison would find them as dangerous to abandon as to defend. Paknam is indebted for its importance rather to its natural position, and its possibilities of improvement under the abler hands into which it is gradually falling, than to any advantage or promise in itself; for a more disgusting, repulsive place is scarcely to be found on Asian ground.

The houses are built partly of mud, partly of wood, and, as in those of Malacca, only the upper story is habitable, the ground floor being the abode of pigs, dogs, fowls, and noisome reptiles. The “Government House” was originally of stone, but all the more recent additions have been shabbily constructed of rough timber and mud. This is one of the few houses in Paknam which one may enter without mounting a ladder or a clumsy staircase, and which have rooms in the lower as well as in the upper story.

The Custom-House is an open sala, or shed, where interpreters, inspectors, and tidewaiters lounge away the day on cool mats, chewing areca, betel, and tobacco, and extorting moneys, goods, or provisions from the unhappy proprietors of native trading craft, large or small; but Europeans are protected from their rascally and insolent exactions by the intelligence and energy of their respective consuls.

The hotel is a whitewashed brick building, originally designed to accommodate foreign ambassadors and other official personages visiting the Court of Siam. The king’s summer-house, fronting the islands, is the largest edifice to be seen, but it has neither dignity nor beauty. A number of inferior temples and monasteries occupy the background, and are crowded with a rabble of priests, in yellow robes and with shaven pates; packs of mangy pariah-dogs attend them. These monasteries consist of many small rooms or cells, containing merely a mat and wooden pillow for each occupant. The refuse of the food, which the priests beg during the day, is cast to the dogs at night; and what they refuse is left to putrefy. Unimaginable are the stenches the sun of Siam engenders in such conditions.

A village so happily situated might, under better management, become a thriving and pleasing port; but neglect, cupidity, and misrule have shockingly deformed and degraded it. Nevertheless, by its picturesque site and surroundings of beauty, it retains its hold upon the regretful admiration of many Europeans and Americans, who in ill health have found strength and cheer in its sea-breezes.

We heartily enjoyed the delightful freshness of the evening air as we glided up the Meinam, though the river view at this point is somewhat marred by the wooden piers and quays that line it on either side, and the floating houses, representing elongated A’s. From the deck, at a convenient height above the level of the river and the narrow serpentine canals and creeks, we looked down upon conical roofs thatched with attaps, and diversified by the pyramids and spires and fantastic turrets of the more important buildings. The valley of the Meinam, not over six hundred miles in length, is as a long deep dent or fissure in the alluvial soil. At its southern extremity we have the climate and vegetation of the tropics, while its northern end, on the brow of the Yunan, is a region of perpetual snow. The surrounding country is remarkable for the bountiful productiveness of its unctuous loam. The scenery, though not wild nor grand, is very picturesque and charming in the peculiar golden haze of its atmosphere. I surveyed with more and more admiration each new scene of blended luxuriance and beauty, — plantations spreading on either hand as far as the eye could reach, and level fields of living green, billowy with crops of rice and maize, and sugar-cane and coffee, and cotton and tobacco; and the wide irregular river, a kaleidoscope of evanescent form and color, where land, water, and sky joined or parted in a thousand charming surprises of shapes and shadows.