May 10 2011
In 1951, the West was introduced to a fictional version of Siam (Thailand’s name until 1939) through the mega-success of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Based on the 1944 Magaret Landon novel Anna and the King of Siam, the story follows Anna, an English teacher from London, as she makes her way through her new life at the Siamese court, finding time for a little royal lust along the way. In Thailand, the story is considered to be completely offensive, in large part due to its disrespectful portrayal of the King.
Nearly 100 years before the musical, the real life Anna was living and working in Bangkok’s Royal Palace. The English Governess at the Siamese Court is an autobiographical memoir by Anna Hariette Leonowens describing her six years spent in the Siamese capital.
Originally published in 1870, The English Governess at the Siamese Court traces Leonowens’ years as an English instructor at the palace. The memoir is a fascinating read for many reasons, including seeing firsthand what sparked the now famous, and largely fictional, romance between Anna and the King. Her records may not be textbook factual, but the opportunity to glimpse Bangkok through the eyes of a Westerner in the early 1860s is captivating.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the memoir is the complete and total time travel it affords. Through Anna’s descriptions of royal ceremonies such as the cutting of the heir to the throne’s hair, or the symbolism of white elephants, the complexities of life in the court come into focus. Through details of palace gossip, daily routines and daily struggles comes the picture of a wild yet beautiful life, almost completely foreign to the West.
I found the most memorable and compelling passages to be descriptions of the actual city of Bangkok. These days as you travel by Skytrain and subway, zipping past (or underneath) skyscrapers and through traffic, it is nearly impossible to imagine Bangkok as a city at the whim of nature. At the time Anna was living here, Bangkok was still struggling to tame the forests around it, with houses and shops being seldom more than rafts on the Chao Phraya river.
“At night the city is hung with thousands of covered lights, that illuminate the wide river from shore to shore. Lamps and lanterns of all imaginable shapes, colours, and sizes combine to form a fairy spectacle of enchanting brilliancy and beauty. The floating tenements and shops, the masts of vessels, the tall, fantastic pagodas with minarets, and, crowning all, the walls and towers of the Grand Palace, flash with countless charming tricks of light, and compose a scene of more than magic novelty and beauty.”
While so much of the city has changed with time, what is perhaps even more remarkable is how so many of the observations and sentiments noted by Anna are things still palpable here today.
It might not be a conventional page turner but the memoir is a fascinating look at the Bangkok of 150 years ago. The book’s passages and illustrations make for a great then-and-now comparison while exploring the city.
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