Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant

Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant

Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant is a collection of colourful snippets from various written sources about Bangkok, mostly from the 1800s through to the 1960s.

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The effect is not ultimately satisfactory if you’re looking for a thorough history of Thailand, but it’s otherwise jam-packed with fascinating trivia about the kingdom. Themes are wide-ranging and the overall effect is to paint a fairly comprehensive image of Bangkok over the years. You might, as a reader, seize on something here in particular and follow the thread elsewhere in your reading of other books.

Some sources, which are strung together with minimal occasional commentary, are predictable—old stalwarts like Jack Reynolds, Carol Hollinger (of Mai Pen Rai Means Nevermind fame), Somerset Maugham and Anna Leonowens make appearances—while others are less mainstream, and Burslem has done well to unearth these. We cheered at the inclusion, for instance, of Alexander Hamilton’s description of durian, taken from his days as a Scottish sea captain.

Plenty is to be learned here, by the newcomer to Thailand but also old hands. For instance, the term farang (used for any Westerner today) was used in Siam from the Ayutthaya period (mid 14th to mid 18th centuries) for the Portuguese, but was later applied to all; as late as the 1850s, farang doem (original Europeans) was used to describe Portuguese Christians, Burslem says.

We hear the tale of Greek trader Constantine Phaulkon, a shipwrecked trader who ingratiated himself into the Thai court and was later killed, along with his friend the royal heir, by palace officials who feared that they were plotting to seize the throne: “While Phaulkon was beheaded with a sword, the prince was placed in a red cloth bag and beaten to death with sandalwood clubs. Europeans were not again welcome at the Court of Siam for more than a century."

We learn about the history behind the location of the British Embassy. Back in the day, the move from the banks of the Chao Phraya to its current location was unpopular, as subjects had to travel so far with no bus or tram route servicing the area; today it stands on such prime real estate that Britain sold off the front lawn in 2006 to a department store operator who built a 37-storey hotel and retail complex on it (an urban tragedy, if you ask us).

And: Did you know the Thai government was directly behind the creation of the Golden Triangle, the home to much of the world’s heroin production in modern times? D.I.N writes in Singapore Jottings (1885) that the Thai government feared losing access to Indian opium when World War II broke out. “The Thai military regime prevailed on its Japanese ‘allies’ to give it control of the Shan states in northeastern Burma, an area it had identified as perfect for poppy cultivation. Just two years later, the country was forced to return the territory to British Burma, but the seeds had been sown for the rise of the Golden Triangle…”

Did you know, also, that there was once a Thai Second King known as Prince George Washington? Malcolm Smith writes in A Physician at the Court of Siam (1946) that Prince Itsarate’s “greatest hero was George Washington, and in a flush of enthusiasm called his eldest son after him”. (Upon his death the office of Second King was abolished.)

Or did you know that Field Marshall Plaek Phibulbulsongkram, who rose to power in 1938, decreed that noodle manufacturing should be an occupation for Thais only? Until then noodles were mainly only eaten in Chinese neighbourhoods. Phibul’s wife then claimed credit for inventing phat Thai, based on a Vietnamese dish, Burslem writes. Or (finally, though we could mention plenty more here) that after weeks of investigation, police concluded that the deadly gunshot that killed King Ananda Mahidol in 1946 “was caused by the king himself, or it was caused by someone else”.

Sometimes it’s amazing to see how much Bangkok has changed, and how much it hasn’t. Tourists were once barely courted by the government, for instance, compared to efforts put into luring travellers to China, Japan, Java and Indochina, writes E. Alexander Powell in 1921: “… You wonder why Siam, which has so much that is novel and picturesque to offer, makes no effort to swell its revenues by encouraging the tourist industry.” On the other hand, it seems the traffic has always been bad. Rev. John Taylor Jones writes in 1836: “When a person wishes to transact any business a mile distant which, at home, would easily be done in an hour, it will ordinarily require three or four.”

We read the Kindle version of Tales of Old Bangkok, which we don’t recommend purchasing—go for the real book, where the layout, we suspect, is clearer and would probably make the grouping of the sources into themes more easily understood. The Kindle version has tiny pictures and odd formatting so you stagger from one idea and era to another (not always chronologically) without any suggestion of coherence, and it’s not always immediately clear who is writing.

Overall, Tales of Old Bangkok feels like a cheat sheet to interesting, dine-out-on Bangkok facts. We’d suggest reading it in conjunction with an accessible Thai history like Wyatt’s A Short History of Thailand, to lend a more comprehensive background to the highlights presented here.

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