Sunrise Near Pak Ta On the Upper Me Kawng

Five Years in Siam (1898)
by H. Warington Smyth


Crossing the Bar

THE first land made by vessels bound to Bangkok is that of Cape Liant, known to the Siamese as Lem Sa Mesan, and the islands off it form an awkward landfall in the thick weather of the south-west monsoon. Here the Siamese Government have built a much-required lighthouse. It is the second important light in the gulf, the other being the melancholy screw-pile sentinel on the bar of the Me Nam Chao Praya.

When, for the first time, I passed the latter on a chill November morning, and watched him blink his last before the rising sun, I confess my heart sank at the prospect the day brought. All around an expanse of dirty, mud-brown water, about fourteen feet in depth at its best, stuck here and there with fishing stakes, which gave to the whole scene a disorderly, ragged sort of look, and rimmed along the north horizon by the long low stretch of unrelieved mangrove towards which we made our way. Having seen the yet vaster and more forsaken expanses at the mouths of the Hugli and of the Rangun River, I remembered that something more hopeful might lie beyond, until there came into my mind the encouraging yarns spun by kind friends in Singapore of the horrors of Bangkok. I would warn the reader never to believe a word he hears from Straits friends about either Bangkok or Siam; they are all grievously prejudiced against it. Even the cricket eleven, consisting presumably of lusty specimens of British pluck and manhood, dared not accept the invitation of the Bangkok C.C. to go up and play a match. Bangkok is to the Straits a land of myths and terror.

As the ship slowly makes her way, stirring up the mud astern, an extensive stretch of brilliant green rivets the attention on the port side. It is the roofs in the fort, painted “invisible” green of a gaudy kind, far outdoing the modest mangroves. The total absence of marks, and the strange irregularities of the tides, constitute the chief difficulties of crossing the bar. There are no leading marks. The lighthouse stands alone outside, and there is nothing to give a cross-bearing but the lightship inside the river, which burns a meagre red lamp like a cigar end. If the weather is kind it is visible for five miles; but at times, in the drift of the south-west monsoon, its radius is more like five ships’ lengths. Sunken junks and other obstructions on each side of the lightship—placed there to keep out an enemy, and quite useless for their purpose block the fair way. The lead is generally a fair guide on the bar, the bottom on the west being mud, gradually passing into sand on the east. But the tides which run across are often difficult to calculate for, and even the old pilots, who have pitched about in their boats outside for twenty years past, can take a ship up no better than a skilful skipper who follows his sailing directions.

Owing to the inefficiency of the lightship light, and the great difficulty of keeping off the west banks inside the Black Buoy at night—due to the cross-set of the flood—there is certainly much need for a light at the Black Buoy; and a Government which felt more interest in assisting shipping would long ago have put one there. It would not only be invaluable for the main channel, but also for craft passing through the south-east. In default of this the light should be improved on the lightship. Except the light at Kaw Chuen, nothing for the last six years has been done towards improving the port. A cone should also be hoisted at the lighthouse during high tide, while there is twelve feet of water—or any depth of the sort that may be thought more convenient.

Captain Hamilton gives an account of how they crossed the bar in 1720. “Siam bar,” he says, “is only a large bank of soft mud, and, at spring tides, not above ten or eleven feet water on it. It is easy getting into it in the south-west monsoons, because in two or three tides, with the motion the ship receives from the small waves and the assistance of the wind, she slides through the mud. My ship drew thirteen feet, and we had not above nine on the bar when we went into the river; but coming out with the north-east monsoons, the sea being smooth, we were obliged to wharp out with anchors and halsers; and if the ship draws any considerable draught of water we are sometimes two springs in wharping over, but at twelve feet draught I got over in four tides.”

The “small waves” and “sliding through the mud” refer to the middle ground, which, had it been harder, would have cost the life of many a vessel. From this description it would seem that the bar has deepened to an extent of two feet or so. Crawfurd took a week to warp out, a process for which the ship was totally dismantled. Ten days more were spent in getting the ship rigged again, and nine more in watering and wooding in the roads at Kaw-sichang. Truly there was leisure in those days! Now vessels must cross with the morning tide, finish loading, and leave the same day.

On further acquaintance this same bar turns out a really interesting character. What old sea-secrets he has to tell on a breezy afternoon, when the gulls scream round, and the fishing craft are plunging out to their stakes or skating under sail across the mud flats; of the fleets of square-rigged ships beating out in the old days, twenty at a time; of the huge, many-masted junks warping out with their great wooden anchors and long grass ropes; ay, and further back, of the broad-sterned Dutchmen and the piratical Portuguese—until, of a sudden, a threatening squall begins to flash and growl in the north-west, coming up across the wind, and cutting short our cogitations; and the long lug-rigged boats are running home, and, in a few minutes, not a sail of the sixty that were bobbing in sight is left, and the lonely old bar is in his passion shrieking and howling at his maddest.

But it takes a long time to learn his secrets. I saw none of them that morning. In humble guise, in some small craft, his acquaintance must be made ...

Running before the southerly seas,
Creeping to windward in the shimmering noon
in the sudden chill of the off-shore breeze,
And the howl of the mad monsoon.

Only thus, at last, by patient knowing, he grows upon one; and his eccentricities, his wildness, and even his sulks become a part of his charm and beauty. But no steam-launch fiend and no steam-boat man is admitted to this intimacy.

Rua Chalom—Running

As the ship turns into the river the long low-lying village of Paknam comes in sight. It is a village of some little importance, with a population of about six thousand, consisting mostly of fishermen. It is connected with Bangkok by a metre gauge line, the first railway built in the country, whose passenger traffic is already sufficient, after four years’ running, to pay a modest dividend, and there are signs that it will in time obtain more of the fish traffic to Bangkok. At present all the fish are trans-shipped from the big boats from outside to smaller craft, which take them up to the Bangkok market. These boats are quite a peculiarity of the place, and are all of a type known as Rua Chalom, distinguishable by their high stem and stern-posts, their long finely modelled lines, and their queer viking-like double rudders, hung on each quarter. When the big square-headed lug-sail is hoisted, the rudder on the leeside is used, that on the weatherside being often hoisted up. Before the wind both are in use. This is a favourite type with the Chinese on all parts of the “inner gulf,” and even as far south as Champawn and east to M. Kleng, and very smartly they sail them. The larger boats of this type which are used for trading purposes often carry the two mat lug-sails which are usual in the gulf, and have a kadjang or plaited covering amidships; but either rua pets or small two-masted junks are generally preferred for cargo, owing to their greater carrying capacity size for size. The Rua Chalom is thus usually only used for fishing, and is a “day” boat without much shelter. The larger class are manned by seven or eight men, and pull as many oars in light winds; the smaller, almost entirely confined to the Bangkok River, are just long enough for four men to use their oars, which they do with wonderful effect. In the latter, to save weight, very often only one rudder is carried, and is shifted from side to side as required, while an oar is temporarily used to keep her straight. Off the wind they are exceedingly fast, but to windward they sadly need some such contrivance as a centre-board or lee-board, and it is astonishing that neither has found its way to the gulf, although the centre-board has long been known in Formosa, and as near as Hainau, and the lee-board is familiar at Shanghai.

Here at Paknam in the old days all foreign ships had to unload their guns and ammunition; thus far foreign warships have a right to come by treaty; and here all craft bring up, to be boarded by the Customs people. Across the river lies the low mud island of the Inner Fort, armed with some fine breech loading guns of large calibre with disappearing carriages, and with a complement of some sixty men of the Marines.

The Pagoda in the River

Just to the north of it stands the little Wat, or monastery, known as the Prachadi Klang-nam, “The Pagoda in the River,” one of the prettiest and most characteristic things of the kind in the country, highly typical of the land we are entering, where, as in Burma, the pagoda and the monastery form such a large part in the life of the people.

To the lover of architecture, fresh from home, accustomed to see the “construction,” and to expect an architectural reason for every ornament in a building, the lofty white pagoda of Burma and Siam, varying though it does in shape and character, is at first a disappointment; from a distance being too like an elaborate effort in confectionery, near at hand a rather meaningless mass of white daubed masonry.

But to a man who has lived and travelled in pagoda countries, the infinite variety of shape, the grateful relief it gives the eye, wearied of the everlasting green, the welcome it offers, shooting far above hill and jungle, to the tired traveller, and the memories it raises of pleasant faces and kindly hearts, combine to give the pagoda a value half artistic and half sentimental, but which is very real and grows in strength.

And when the flood waters are high in October and the Yearly Thot Kathin (the laying down of monks’ garments in the monasteries by way of giving alms) comes round, and every one is busy offering their gifts at the monasteries, then the Prachadi Klang-nam is the goal of thousands of cheery peasants, come to make a little “merit” and have a jolly time.

From sunset on to dawn the little isle lies a blaze of brightness in the great dark river; the crowded boats come and go into the ring of light, and the long-peaked yards of the fishermen stand inky against the glare. The deep bass of the monks intoning in the high-roofed Bawt swings across the water, with the subdued mirth and chatter of the never-ending stream of people circling round the pagoda.

Laughing, love-making, smoking, and betel chewing, the good folks buy their offerings, and none omit a visit to the Bawt, to light their tapers before the great Buddha, nor alms to the musicians, who have come here under their accomplished old teacher from the capital.

The boats of the visitors lie swinging in the tide to long bamboos worked into the mud, or moored in crowds along the island. The tired children lie in rows athwartship, the tallest just fitting in to the broadest beam, and all sleep soundly heedless of the din, while the mother sits aft watching and waiting for the father and the elder ones. And so the fun and merit-making go on. Then suddenly the morning light breaks across the river, followed by the level rays of the sun himself. Every one is off now. The fair stalls are empty, and the lights are smoking in a dissipated way. Every man, woman, and child is upon the river. A little water to the mouth and a comb to the hair and all are fresh again, commenting on the lines of a new racing canoe from their own village, or laughing at the capsize of a rival, till the sun has climbed two hours from the horizon, and pretty faces, cheery voices, gay dresses, all are-gone.

A Canoe Race

The Sailing Club House lies opposite, a place of many happy memories. Two years ago the club tried at this festival to revive the races, which had formerly led to such keen rivalry that the authorities had stopped them. Money prizes were given, and some very good races, especially among the small four and five paddle boats, took place over

a course about a mile long, off the Club House, opposite the Fort. A larger class of market boat, paddled by mixed crews of men and women to the number of sixteen or twenty, gave capital sport. The women crews, with their cross sashes of yellow, green, or blue, not only looked but often proved the smartest. Their rate of stroke was from thirty-six to thirty-seven for the first half-minute, after which it varied-now a long sweeping dozen to rest the tired muscles, then a spurt again, and finally they passed the line going splendidly and striking sixty-two to the minute, soaked and laughing, and ready to do it again. A race for the four-oared fishing boats was also most successful, the winning four rowing thirty-six of their powerful long strokes to the minute-a most remarkable performance, considering how well it is shoved through.

These things, too, I knew not, on that November morning. But I saw with wonderment the little brown children working their small canoes about the river, and diving into the steamers’ wash; saw the pretty lines of betel and cocoanut palms, the distant perspectives of yellowing padi, the snug riverside cottages, the floating houses on their rafts, and at last, before us, Bangkok.

But where was the Bangkok I had read of—that Venice of the East, delighting the soul with its gilded palaces and gorgeous temples? Before us lay but an eastern Rotterdam; mud banks, wharfs and jetties, unlovely rice mills belching smoke, houses gaunt on crooked wooden piles, dykes and ditches on either hand, steam launches by the dozen, crowded rows of native rice boats, lines of tall-masted junk-rigged lighters, and last, most imposing, towering even above the ugly chimneys of the mills, British steamers, and Norwegian and Swedish barques and ships-the Swedes always distinguished, as of yore, by their light paint and quaint balustrades.

I had yet to learn that there are many Bangkoks, and this was the port of Bangkok, the commercial and the European Bangkok, where the rice 7 and teak e are milled and cut and shipped away.

But all other wonders were as nothing compared with the steam-launches, which, the farther one penetrated, became more innumerable, and apparently observed no rules either of the road or of courtesy. One began innocently to ask where the harbour-master was. “Harbour-master!” ejaculated the skipper viciously, as he opened his whistle for the fiftieth time, and went hard astern to avoid an erratic cargo boat; “it’s every man for himself here!”

And so, indeed, after five years’ sailing and pulling about the port of Bangkok, I left it-still the same. Launches without lights tearing full speed, with a fair tide, right along the shop fronts, lighters and cargo boats anchored anywhere, and no rules but one: “Thou shalt not rebuke or in any way inconvenience a Chinese coolie, whatever he may do.” He is the master of the port. He may grapple on to a steamer with his cargo boat as she comes up river and seeks her moorings. He may refuse to cast off when the captain has to change her berth; he may, and probably will, refuse to load the ship in any way but his own, even to the peril of ship and cargo; he may spit and smoke on the poop, and may generally lord it. But he must be allowed his sweet will; and if an officer cuts his rope away, or a quartermaster kicks him over the side, there is a general strike, and the captain is dropped on by the agents. For the Chinaman is a privileged person, and the port is run for his private edification and enjoyment. And Providence loads the ships; skippers do not interfere, or allow their officers to interfere; it could only mean trouble for them with the agents.

We anchored in deep water (a characteristic of this goodly river from the bar inwards for over fifty miles), at the tail of a long row of steamers in the middle of the stream.

On the east side of the steamers lay the fair way, with here and there a junk sedately riding in the middle of it. And along the shore the rice mills stood, conspicuous by their long galvanised iron roofs and the occasional howls of their ear-piercing sirens, which, joined to the everlasting screeching of the launches, make this a noisy reach, to say the least.

On the west lay the row of lorchas that form a characteristic of Bangkok, and are an outcome of the perverse nature of our friend the bar.

Lorchas — After Rain

Owing to the shallowness there, ships can only load down to twelve or thirteen feet, according to the, phase of the moon. They then go out and complete loading at the lovely anchorage of Kaw Sichang, twenty-five miles southeast of the lighthouse, in the south-west monsoon, or at the open roadstead of Anghin, about twenty miles east of the same, during the winter months. To these places the balance of the cargo goes out in the Chinese-manned lorchas, which are, as a rule, flat-bottomed craft of from 200 to 240 tons of European build, with the three batten-lugsails of the junk rig. The vessels, of which over sixty are owned in the port, are fine craft, and when turned out clean, with new gear and sails, have a very smart appear, ante. But this is soon lost. The ruffians who command and man them are too lazy to hoist their sails up properly, too dirty to keep them clean, and too wilful to obey orders; and owners see their craft returning every trip with ropes chafed through, and sails pulled out of shape by bad setting and sheer carelessness. It is a great wonder that more accidents do not occur among them. At night they anchor anywhere in the fair way of the river, and they will be beating out over the bar half a dozen at a time, with or without lights, according to pleasure. Side-lights are never carried; and when the proposal was made some time back that they should be made to do so, in the interests of safety and of shipping generally, their owners objected that the crews would not be able to remember which light should be shipped on which side, and that accidents would happen owing to their being wrongly placed. A more remarkable contention could not be advanced: for, first, it is impossible to ship a starboard light in a portside screen if properly made; and, secondly, men who can beat a 200-ton craft out over the bar by night or day in any weather, and make Kaw Sichang many times a month without serious mishap, must have brains enough to distinguish between red and green.

Abreast of these lorchas, along the shallower western shore, on the inside of the bend, the up-country boats lie when they have sold their rice, and their pleasure-loving crews would do a little of the gaiety of the capital before returning home. So, while mother does the shopping and buys the cargo of salt and cotton stuffs, father takes the children up to town for a ride in the tram or a visit to the nearest monastery, where some merit-making is going on or a cremation taking place; and in their best panungs and little white jackets the youngsters buy fairings, or sit and smoke and chew their betel in front of the Lakon. A theatrical performance is sure to be provided for the occasion, and there the elder boys and girls watch untiringly the whole night long the story of the King of Snakes or of the lovely Princess, and the small ones coil themselves up and go to sleep within ten feet of the big drum. In the morning grey they are off back to their floating house, and get a start behind some tow boat for a few miles, in company with twenty other craft, on their month’s journey of poling and pulling homewards, to where the water is clear and runs over the shaded shingle banks, and where the noisy drunken Farang they met in Bangkok streets is never seen.

A little higher up begin the floating houses: here a colony of Malays, with their graceful little fishing canoes lying in front; there, a row of Chinese-owned shops, displaying their goods to the passing boat-people.

Floating Houses

And many tongues are heard and many colours seen among the floating Asiatic population of the upper river. The coolies, boat-builders, carpenters, and sawyers are all Chinese, and Chinamen form the majority of the market gardeners, smiths, and tradesmen. The Malays work the machinery of the mills and are padi cultivators, and they share the fishing with the Annamites and Siamese. The latter are the boat and raft men, and cultivate the fruit and padi of the suburbs. The Javanese are gardeners, the Bombay men are merchants, the Tamils cattlemen and shopkeepers, the Burmese gem dealers and country pedlars, the Singalese goldsmiths and jewellers, and the Bengalis are the tailors. But everywhere the Chinaman is advancing, and the Siamese is handicapped by the corvee customs of his country.

The Tidal River

And then comes consular Bangkok, where fair-sized verandahed houses, flagstaffs, tennis-lawns, and flowering trees adorn the eastern bank; where, in the days when I first saw them, a couple of American citizens occasionally dined with their minister, or libelled one another in his office; where the official staff of the Portuguese consulate wandered alone and forlorn up and down his bunding in the last stage of boredom; where the French minister admired the colours of the tricolor at his mast-head, and dreamt of the future; and the British consul was besieged by litigation-loving subjects of the Empress, intent on ruining their friends in costs—some of which things are much changed now.

And this same consular Bangkok has played in the past, and will in the future continue to play, an important part in the history of Siam; and, to those who know a little of its working, it will appear not unnatural that extra-territoriality should seem as unpopular with the Siamese as it does unpronounceable.

In the tennis, cricket, dinners, and club life which centred round it, it was much like any other settlement of the kind, except for its more cosmopolitan character. At one table would be seated Danes, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Belgians, Americans, and Britishers-the language invariably that of the last. Frenchmen there were none, except one or two officials of the consulate, who generally held aloof, and one popular trader, who, with the conspicuous gallantry of his race, long held the only French mercantile house in Siam above water, and who was at a later date rewarded by a proud and grateful country with an official position in Cambodia.

Very charming, too, could this life be, though nothing perhaps could have been more out of touch with that of the people in the midst of which it used to thrive. Not unnaturally, of Siam, and the Siamese as they were, it could know but little. It had its routine of work by day, its drive and tennis after five; it drank whisky and soda from sundown to dinner, and was waited on by machinelike Chinese till it went late to bed, and late it arose neat day to begin again. It had not the leisure to notice, or to attempt to understand, the curiously complicated civilisation by which it was surrounded.

Yet from it the globe-trotter got his information about the Siamese, and by its after-dinner measurements he sized up their character.

About the Author of Five Years in Siam

Herbert Warington SMYTH was born on June 4, 1867 and died December 19, 1943 at age 76, He was a Barrister and was widely traveled. He was to serve as Director of the Department of Mines in Siam, Secretary for Mines in the Transvaal, Commissioner for Mines in Natal and as Secretary of Mines and Industries in the Union of South Africa. He was the author of several books, including: Five Years in Siam, Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, Sea Wake and Jungle Trail and Chase and Chance in Indochina. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society and the Royal Geographical Society, a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve (1915-1918) and was honored as a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and as Commander of the Order of the White Elephant of Siam. He married Amabel Mary Sutton in 1900. He was first cousin to Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (B-P, founder of the World Scouting Movement).

Books by H. Warington Smyth

  Five Years in Siam (1898). Introduction by Professor Tamara Loos;
  Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia (1906). "Illustrated from drawings by E.W. Cooke, R.A., W.L. Wyllie, A.R.A., W. Robins, Sir W. Warington Smyth, F.R.S., Major Nevill Smyth, V.C., and the author. A momentous work of reference for world sail. There is more concentration of eastern sail types in this book than in any of our other reference volumes on the subject and each is fully illustrated in a volume that is just stuffed with illustrations.... There are also line drawings and/or sail plans of a number of the craft described, including a Norwegian Pilot Boat, a Northland Boat, a Norwegian Skiff, a Redningskoite, a Scotch Fifie and a Scotch Zulu. A thorough-going reference indeed!"  (Description from D. N. Goodchild, "The Shellback's Library").
  Sea Wake and Jungle Trail (1925). "Mr. Warington Smyth, who is head of the Mines Department in South Africa, is not only one of those fortunate authors who is equally skilled with pen and pencil, but also an exceptionally expert, practical sailor, as his previous book, `Mast and Sail,' testifies. He is thus able to depict as well as to describe his various experiences and adventures during many years' travel. His devotion to animals and to the sea is such that he has the power of treating them as personal friends, and, above all, he has the gift of humour, which enables him -and his friends-to. see the bright side of everything." (From the publishers advertisement for Sea Wake and Jungle Trail).
  Chase and Chance in Indochina (1934). "Autobiographical, fictional account, Chase and Chance in Indo-China, might be read alongside this publication (Five Years in Siam) for insights into Smyth's outlook. Its narrator, "H. W.," works with people who have the same names and personalities as did Smyth's actual associates in Siam. His duties at the Department of Mines, the time period and even the episodes are familiar. There is, however, an element of fantasy that the rubric of fiction allows him to pursue." (From the Introduction to Five Years in Siam by Tamara Loos of Cornell University).

  H. Warington Smyth, M.A,, LL.B., F.G.S., F.R.G.S., a son of Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth. He was Director of the Department of Mines in Siam, and later Secretary of Mines and Industries in the Union of South Africa. He was the author of several books, including: Five Years in Siam, Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, Sea Wake and Jungle Trail and Chase and Chance in Indochina. He was B-P's first cousin.
  Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth, M.A., F.R.S. was the father of H. Warington Smyth and Sir Nevill Maskelyne Smyth. He was a brother of Henrietta Grace Smyth Baden-Powell and Uncle to B-P. He was Professor of Mining and Mineralogy at the Royal School of Mines, President of the Geological Society of London in 1866-1868 and a Fellow of the Royal Society. After university, he spent more than four years in Europe, Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, paying great attention to mineralogy and mining. Among his published works were A Year with the Turks” (1854), and A Treatise on Coal and Coal-Mining” (1867). He was knighted in 1887.
  Sir Nevill Maskelyne Smyth, son of Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth, brother of  H. Warington Smyth and B-P's first cousin. He had a distinguished career in the army, rising to the rank of Major-General. He won the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Khartoum.
  Admiral William H. Smyth, grandfather of H. Warington Smyth, rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy to retire as an Admiral in 1863. He was a noted hydrographer and astronomer and was Vice President of the Royal Society. According to his great-grandson, his charts of the Mediterranean were still in use in 1961. His "Cycle of Celestial Objects" remains a classical text in the history of astronomy and was republished in 1986.
B-P's Mother: Henrietta Grace Baden-Powell, 1824-1914. Links to Admiral W. H. Smyth (B-P's grandfather) and other members of the Smyth family including: Charles Piazzi Smyth, Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth, H. Warington Smyth, General Sir Nevill Maskelyne Smyth and Nevil Maskelyne. She was the aunt of both H. Warington Smyth and General Sir Nevill Maskelyne Smyth.
  Baden-Powell Family History. A series of links based on the research of Robin Baden Clay, a grandson of Baden-Powell. They are focused on the genealogy of the Powell family. The author is extremely grateful to Mr. Clay for sharing the results of his labors with the Scouting community. Links are provided to pages for three of B-P's brothers: Baden, Warington and Sir George Baden-Powell as well as to the genealogy of the Smyth and Warington families.
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