In Bangkok, Alec Waugh has created the most fluent, truthful and affectionate portrait not only of the city, but also of the dynasty and culture which created it. Cutting through confusion and veiled mystery, he unravels the plots, coups, wars, assassinations, invasions and countercoups of three hundred years of history as if they were this evening’s street gossip. This loving description of the genius, fascination and enduring vitality of Thailand is told with Waugh’s customary delight in life and sensual appreciation. The story is brought up-to-date with an afterword by Bruce Palling, former Times correspondent in Thailand.
‘A door into the heart and soul of Thailand.’ - Paul Bowles
‘... enough court intrigue, popular uprisings and revolutions to match any Hollywood epic, it’s hard to put down ... a must read.’ - The Times
Bangkok: The Story of a City
Format: 204pp demi pb
ALEC WAUGH, brother of Evelyn, and bestselling author of Island in the Sun and Loom of Youth; first came to Siam in September 1926, and was immediately enchanted by the miasma of Bangkok, and its colourful inhabitants. Returning some thirty years later for a series of extended visits; Waugh resolved to document the history of this uniquely fascinating metropolis.
BRUCE PALLING lived in South-east Asia in the early Seventies – first as BBC World Service correspondent in Laos and later for two years as The Times special correspondent based in Bangkok. Although he continues to have a lovehate attitude towards Bangkok, he returns as frequently as possible to visit friends and consume the local food. Palling currently lives in London with his wife Lucinda Bredin and is writing a history of regime change.
Extract from Chapter One
IT BEGAN WITH a quarrel about white elephants; at least that is what they believe on the banks of the Menam River. In the middle of the fifteenth century the King of Burma asked the King of Siam to give him one of his white elephants. The King of Siam, although he had seven of his own, refused this neighbourly request; that was the start of three hundred years of warfare. At the end of it, in 1767, Burmese forces captured and sacked the Siamese capital of Ayudhya. Which is why they say that but for a quarrel about white elephants, the city of Bangkok would not exist.
At the start of the final campaign, the city was a collection of huts forty miles along the river to the south of its present site. On the west bank of the river was a fort, that could mount eighty guns and that had originally been founded by the French, a hundred years before, when Louis XIV had territorial ambitions in south- east Asia. It was called Dhonburi. On the east bank of the river was a colony of Chinese traders; they called it Bangkok – the village of the wild plum and in the days of good King Narai it was of value as a trading post. When Ayudhya fell, one of the few survivors was a general who had left the city in a mood of pique because the king would not allow him to fire his gun without express permission. With only five followers he cut his way through the Burmese lines, to establish at Dhonburi the base of a resistance movement that would, he hoped, oust the Burmese. His name was Taksin.
The people to whom he addressed his appeal had originally migrated from Southern China, fleeing before Kublai Khan in the
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middle of the thirteenth century. They were a small, dark race with delicate features. They were gay, pleasure loving, avid for freedom, proud of themselves and of their independence. They were imitative, absorbing the national characteristics that appealed to them during their slow trek southwards. Through the Chinese they had become animists, as well as Buddhists. In Thailand today you are unlikely to see a garden or a building which is not decorated with its own spirit house, where the local deity is appeased with offerings of food and flowers. Their animism is fortified with a belief in the tenets of astrology. No Thai would make any movement until an astrologer had pronounced that the day intended was propitious.
On their way south, where they contributed their labour to the construction of Angkor Wat, they were deeply influenced by the Khmers. Their Buddhism was coloured and informed by the Brahminism that justified their need for pomp and ceremony. The strict code of Buddhism would never have completely satisfied their exotic natures. It might be said that in mingling the two strands of second-hand Indic culture, they rejected extremism and retained happiness.
By the middle of the fourteenth century their wanderings were finished; they had reached their frontier, and in 1350 they founded their capital of Ayudhya – which they called the divine blessed city – on the banks of the Menam, in the centre of the fertile plain that was enriched by the waters of the Himalayan snows, fifty miles from the sea. Not only was the countryside capable of producing enough rice to feed a considerable population, but Siam was admirably placed to conduct a two-way traffic with India and China. When the Portuguese arrived in 1500 they found a city numbering a million inhabitants and resplendent with monasteries and temples.
During the next hundred and fifty years Ayudhya’s prosperity increased. It was the entrepôt for trade between India and China. The journey round the straits of Malacca was long and dangerous. On the west coast of Siam, on the Bay of Bengal, was the Port of Mergui which at that time was owned by the Kings of Siam. From it the river Little Tenasserim ran into the long leg of the Malay Peninsula. This part of the journey was pleasant enough, but it was followed by a rough passage through the jungle. Finally the traveller had to proceed on foot, with carts carrying the cargo. As a trading route it must have been highly uncomfortable, but even so it was preferable to the journey round the Straits, and Indian traders in Ayudhya were able to collect Chinese and Japanese silks, tea, porcelain and copper goods, in return for scented woods, pepper and hides. Geographically the city could not have been better placed. Yet it was open to attack by the Burmese both from the west and from the north and so was highly vulnerable.
Of the city’s million inhabitants, barely ten thousand were left after the sacking of the city; those who were not slaughtered on the spot were taken captive. The king himself, though he sought refuge in a temple, was put to death.
The Burmese had no intention of occupying the city they had captured. They were concerned with loot and with revenge. They destroyed everything that did not seem valuable enough to carry home. Nearly all the records were burnt. Yet even so, General Taksin did not feel that the task of recovery was beyond his power.
It is surprising that he should have done so, in view of the particular and peculiar structure of the people to whom he issued his appeal. There was no country of Siam in the sense that we understand the term. The kings were known as Kings of Ayudhya. And they themselves owned the country as well as commanding the complete allegiance of the inhabitants. The kings could claim their people’s services, either as soldiers or as workers. They were known as ‘The Lords of Life’, yet at the same time there were no frontiers to their kingdom. They had claims on Cambodia and on parts of the Malay Peninsula, though it was not clear what those rights were. As rulers they were entitled to tribute, though the actual amount was not specified and as a result they did not always get it. They claimed a voice in the election to the Cambodian throne. Yet there were provinces in their own north, over which their authority was dubious. You will hear it said that Paris is not France, that London is not England, that New York is not America; but Siam on the other hand was Ayudhya, just as later it was to be Bangkok. Therefore when Ayudhya was destroyed, and its Royal Family liquidated, one would have thought that the country would fall as well.
Yet that did not happen. Taksin’s appeal to the various local leaders was effective. He soon raised an army and luck was on his side. Burma suddenly found itself involved in a war with China, and was only able to leave a certain number of garrisons scattered about the country. Taksin destroyed them, one by one. Finally, within a year and a half in a single main battle near Ayudhya, he broke the effective power of the Burmese army, and was proclaimed King.
We know very little for certain about King Taksin; his reign was to last for fifteen years, but for most of this period he was engaged in military campaigns. The Burmese returned to the attack and had to be beaten back. There were other campaigns on the northern frontier. He had no time to devote to the building of his new capital. He allowed the future city of Bangkok to remain across the river, a collection of Chinese tradesmen. His chief lieutenants during these campaigns were two brothers, whose father had been an official in the old regime. They were called Tong Duang and Boorma; and there is every reason to believe that their mother was Chinese. Each rose quickly in rank and prominence – the elder one being elevated to the noble rank of Chao P’raya Chakri, the other as Chao P’raya Surasih. Until 1917 what we call surnames did not exist. A man was known by what passport authorities today call his given name. Often he was known by the rank he held. The word Chakri meant commander-in-chief; so Tong Duang became known as General Chakri, and in this way the long succession of kings that was to ensue became known as the Chakri Dynasty.
General Chakri was a powerful figure in the battlefield; he repelled four Burmese invasions and brought back to heel two Laotian principalities. In the course of his operations he brought from Vientiane the Emerald Buddha, which is today the most important object of worship in the capital. No one knows how old it is. Prince Chula believes that it was carved in northern India by the Greeks. He considers that the original nephrite stone came from the Caucasus, and that its journey through Ceylon and Burma to Siam must have taken a thousand years. It is an age-old belief that the grisliest fate will befall any man who swears falsely by the image.
Traditionally Cambodia had been a vassal state of the Kings of Ayudhya, and Taksin, elated by his victories, was resolved to reassert his rights and ensure that its throne was occupied by a monarch who had been approved by himself. He felt, however, that he was too old and exhausted by many wars to undertake a new campaign, so he entrusted General Chakri with its command while he himself remained in Dhonburi to devote his energies to the interior organisation of his kingdom. This, in view of the country’s interests, was no doubt a prudent decision; it was less fortunate for his own position. The long years of defending his country, followed by seven years of absolute rule, had corroded his stability. Military men are not always successful as politicians. Men who have obeyed and issued orders as soldiers – in the confidence of instantaneous obedience – feel that treachery is afoot when their opinions are debated by a cabinet. In his role as King, Taksin became distrustful of his advisers to the point of hysteria. His reprisals were fierce and frequent. He tortured his wife, his sons and a number of high officials in an attempt to make them confess to crimes which they had not committed. He began to suspect that his courtiers were carrying on illicit trade, thus robbing him of the revenues to which he was entitled. He accepted as evidence the sworn testimony of a single individual and unscrupulous informers grew rich on the fines which they extorted from their neighbours.
It has also been noted that soldiers in their declining years tend to become fanatically religious. This happened to Taksin. He imagined himself a reincarnation of the Buddha. He fasted in the belief that he would thus acquire the power to fly and he flogged the monks who refused to worship him. He became in fact insane. It was not long before the city was in revolt with a General Sanka restoring order at the head of a military junta.
The news of this confusion reached General Chakri in Cambodia. He immediately abandoned his campaign and hurried home. He was welcomed on all sides, General Sanka meeting him outside the city walls to make obeisance. The officers of state followed, and on April 6th offered Chakri the throne which he accepted. It was a bloodless revolution. Taksin surrendered without a protest, and requested that he be allowed to live out his days in a Buddhist monastery. Chakri had been his favourite general. They had fought side by side; they had never quarrelled. Taksin might well have hoped that this wish would be conceded him. But it is not expedient to have a deposed king living even as a priest within the confines of the country over which he once ruled; and it must be remembered that a priest can leave a monastery any time he likes. It would be equally impractical to have him living outside the country, where he might become the centre of a conspiracy against the state. There was no alternative but to execute him. He apparently bore no ill will, and on his way to the scaffold asked if he might be able to take his leave personally of his old brother-in- arms. It is reported that Chakri could not trust himself to speak; he was in tears and waved the messenger away.
In Siam the blood of a royal person may not be shed; the execution of such a one is performed by a blow on the back of the neck with a scented sandalwood club. Prince Chula has said that death was instantaneous and that it was as merciful as the guillotine. On the other hand there are reports that the victim was placed in a velvet sack and beaten to death – which must have been a lengthy process. The last prince to be executed in this way was Prince Raksanaret in 1848. But when Prince Chula in 1931 asked whether there remained on the staff a man trained to perform an execution in the traditional manner, he was assured that there was.
History is replete with the stories of men, honourable enough, patriotic enough, astute politically, responsive to self-interest, who – in the fog of revolutionary partisanship – have backed the wrong horse or the right horse at the wrong time and faced a firing squad. At first glance it would seem that General Sanka was one of the lucky few who spotted the winner at the start. He had headed a revolt that had become inevitable and had restored order to the capital, without any intention of taking over the supreme authority himself. When the ideal leader appeared at the gates with his elephants and troops, Sanka recognised the man of destiny who would save the hour. Surely he deserved some reward from the state in general and from Chakri in particular. In any other country he could have expected a quick promotion, but not in Siam.
Treachery was the greatest crime a Thai could commit. It is not surprising that it should have been, as it was endemic in the country. Of the thirty-three kings who ruled in Ayudhya during the four centuries of its existence, a third were murdered or reached the throne through murder. To plot against a king was the greatest of all crimes and Sanka had conspired against Taksin. Chakri was innocent. He did not usurp a throne. He had merely occupied an empty one. But Sanka was a criminal and therefore had to pay the penalty. He was executed not with a sandalwood club but with a sword.
In this way the reign of the Chakri dynasty began with an episode that is curiously interpretative of the Thai mentality, of the Thais’ regard for tradition and for the exact letter of the law; in short for their refusal to let the end justify the means. Only in Siam could the general who had enabled a brother officer to ascend a throne have been rewarded for his services by decapitation. It is an episode to remember whenever one is puzzled by the apparent contradictions of Thai policy and conduct in private as in public matters.