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THE COUNTRY AND THE PEOPLE OF SIAM.
Few countries in the world oan rival, none surpass, the kingdom of Siam in the wealth of nature. In its extensive provinces are developed to perfection the riches of the vegetable and the mineral kingdoms, whilst animated nature is profuse and prolific. The superficial surface of the soil abounds with all that is necessary for the wants of man or beast, and with a great deal that is superfluous and luxurious; whilst its subterranean wealth is uncounted, untold, unknown. From the soil of Siam is derived an abundant supply of sugar, which is transported thence to Bombay, and eventually Great Britain; and enormous quantities of rice, over and above the immense consumption of that grain by the natives, are carried to the Straits of Malacca and various seaport towns of China and Cochin China; besides which, there is an abundant yield of cotton of the finest quality, but which, as yet, has hardly found its way into European markets, though, under the present pressure, speculation may more fully develop the resources of Siam in this respect. It is, however, an indisputable fact, that not a hundredth part of the empire is under cultivation; that there are immense tracts of waste land and jungle, the resort only of the tiger, the elephant, and other denizens of the forest, whose ivory and skins alone constitute a considerable and valuable trade, followed up by the hardy hunters of the interior, who barter these valuables chiefly with enterprising Chinamen for raiment and the commonest necessaries of life. Thence, also, borne upon the rapid waters of the glorious Menam-that river which traverses the vast kingdom from the sea to its unknown sources-float cargoes of gamboge and logwood, with many other precious dyes, gums, spices, and an immense variety of valuable timber. And the mountains are almost all mines affording gold, silver, copper, lead, and many precious stones, which only require the hand and judgment of skilful and educated man to prove an El Dorado. Gold and silver must be plentiful, indeed, with a people who can afford to make mats of these precious metals for the white elephant to wear away under its ponderous flat hoof. All the spires of the various watts, or temples, are another glittering evidence of the wealth existing in the land as they sparkle in all the brilliancy of Eastern sunset, like so many fabulous fairy-tale castles-literally one mass of gold and silver, and precious stones of a great variety of hues.
From the stately banana and teak-tree down to the fragile sensitive plant, from the hedgerows of dense and impenetrable prickly pears (where myriads of cochineal insects feed undisturbed) to the delicate airplant which, suspended from a thread fastened to the ceiling, decorates the interior of many a Siamese dwelling-the vegetable kingdom embraces a vast extent and variety of trees, and plants, and shrubs, and flowers. Neither is the valuable indigo by any means unknown or uncultivated in the interior. The nutmeg and the clove grow wild, as do the mango, the mango-stein, and the dhurian, whilst many other delicious and but little known fruits are the spontaneous production of the soil on which subsist countless hordes of monkeys, some, especially the snowywhite ones, very rare and very much venerated by the natives, and per
fect cohorts of parrots and paroquets. Herb for the use of man is also abundant. The Indian brinjal and bandicoì; the drumstick vegetable, produced by a tree; the pepincoy, and a vast variety of pumpkins, cucumbers, and spinage, besides yams, sweet potatoes, and many other roots and edible bulbs, luxuriate in the climate and soil of the kingdom of Siam. What has been said of the vegetable kingdom is also applicable to the animal. From the monstrous elephant, larger in the interior than in any other known part of the world, down to the tiny, little, exquisitely shaped moss-deer, whose delicate limbs snap under the gentlest touch of man, great, indeed, is the variety in size, shape, colour, and nature of quadrupeds that are to be met with throughout the length and breadth of the land, many of them affording excellent food for man, as, for instance, the whole of the deer tribe, the wild boar, the hare, and the delicate flesh of the bison calf. So also is the variety found in the more loathsome genus of reptiles, from the huge boa-constrictor down to the tapeworm-like carpet snake, beautiful, but deadly of sting; from the iguana to the loathsome tokay, or leoproseed lizard; from the alligator to the ant-eater; and, amongst the finny tribe, from the voracious sealawyer or blue shark (which never ventures up the rivers) down to the smallest of small whitebait, delicious indeed as eaten by the natives in savoury curries.
It is no uncommon thing during the intervals between the two monsoons to see fleets of water-fowl floating upon the surface of the rivers, whilst legions of beautiful humming-birds not bigger than an humble-bee are fluttering round the honeyed blossoms of the tuberose or the wild Indian jessamine. In short, mountain and plain, river and sea, abound with riches and delicate luxuries. Be it fruit or vegetables, fish, poultry, flesh, or the more sordid and substantial, and certainly equally useful and requisite, mineral wealth, Siam possesses everything, and everything in abundance; and basing our knowledge upon such little as the researches of the few educated and enterprising men have afforded to the public, we may rest assured that we fall far short of the mark in classifying Siam amongst the richest kingdoms of the earth.
There is one peculiar feature in Siam which isolates it from every other empire of the earth: Siam has no cities! No strong-built, wellfortified, elegantly-constructed towns and cities, with suburbs and suburban villas. The pagan in Hindostan rivalled in the architecture of his temple the most splendid efforts of Greece in her sunniest days. The Taj Mahal was something exquisite in the conception of the brain that first conceived its existence in embryo. China and Japan have noble specimens also of architectural beauty, and all Christendom and the Ottoman Empire have something to show in the shape of what constitutes a city. The tent of the Arab of the desert and the floating-house of the Siamese are very much assimilated. Now they are swallowed up in the vortex of some town or city constituting an item either central or suburban. Now they are isolated and lonesome. In fact, the Siamese may be called the Bedouins of the river. Whilst the Arab's faith clings tightly to his mare, on whose back he may fleetly traverse the sandy wastes, pursuing or pursued, the Siamese relies upon the excellence and swiftness of his canoe, which constitutes his all in all, whether for pleasure or for flight, or for the remunerative services it renders him in fishing or in the con
veyance and vending of the produce of the soil. As in the desert we may encounter the solitary tent of an Arab, his spear stuck into the ground and his well-beloved mare fastened thereto, so, in desolate portions of the Menam are to be encountered single floating houses, with the indispensable canoe chained to the front, and here, in fishing or some other occupation, the inhabitants pass the time in undisturbed tranquillity. The capital of Siam, Bangkok, is nothing more nor less than a congregation of wooden huts or cabins floating upon strongly constructed bamboo rafts, any score or two of which may at any given moment be loosed from their moorings and shift the scene of their future homes either farther up or lower down the river, thus weakening the city in the number of its houses and inhabitants. Or else, as is not unoften the case, some thousand-ton ship or junk of huge proportions swings suddenly to the tide, carrying awayla small colony of houses, which drift away rapidly, to the astonishment and terror of the yelling inmates. With the exception of a few palaces and watts, a few monumental pillars and European residences, Bangkok has nothing substantial about it, and some unusual floodtides might any night sweep away the greater mass of houses and population, and leave the astonished inmates of the more solid fabrics on terra firma positively alone in their glory.
That a people so lodged should be almost amphibious in their natures cannot be a matter of surprise. The first duty of man, and of woman also in Siam, is to learn to swim, and infants barely able to toddle about take to the water as kindly as young ducklings. They may be said to be a scrupulously cleanly people if often lavations are a proof thereof, for one half of the day, excepting during the monsoons, they are paddling and swimming about, men, women, and children, heterogeneously mixed up, and destitute of any sense of delicacy or shame as they almost are of clothing. Yet with all this it cannot be said that the Siamese are an immoral people; indeed, in this respect, they are far superior to the natives of the continent of India, and there is much more of simplicity and gentleness about their disposition, and none of that crafty treachery and revenge which is the predominant feature of the Malays, to whom in every other respect they bear close resemblance. As a rule, admitting of very few exceptions indeed, the Siamese, both men and women, are short of stature, but remarkably sinewy and strong about the legs and arms. Their complexion varies, according to their exposure to the sun, from a light fawn colour to a deep copper, verging sometimes upon bronze. They have all flat faces with high cheek-bones, small sharp eyes, flat spreading noses with large nostrils, but, generally speaking, very fair mouths with beautiful white teeth, which the women disgustingly disfigure, according to their notions of beauty, by dyeing into a jet black with the aid of betel-nut. Both men and women shave the head, leaving only an upright tuft of hair sticking up just in the centre of their low beetle-browed foreheads. Their costumes consist, from the king downwards, of a loose punjunnah, or skirt, which fastens round the waist and hangs to just below the knees. Unmarried girls wear in addition to this a loose white scarf flung over the shoulders so as to conceal the bust. Indeed, the costume of the Siamese women is precisely the same, excepting only the head-dress, as the Nayar women in the Travancore districts; the great difference in their personal beauty, however, is immense.
With the exception of the lowest menials, all others in Siam rank upon a gradation scale, one higher than the other, until at the top of all presides, all-powerful and despotic, the king. The abject grovelling method they have of evincing respect is singularly illustrated in the ante-chamber of the royal palace on levee or council days. The first arrival, perhaps, may be a nobleman of inferior note, but his appearance is the signal for all the attendants to prostrate themselves, and on all fours they crawl about, and meet his behests. The next canoe lands somebody of higher grade, and instantly the first noble crouches to the ground, and so, by turns, each big man sings small himself as some one greater than himself arrives. Until at last comes the Praklan, the prime minister, who only knuckles down to the prince who is heir-apparent to the throne, whose name is of no importance, seeing that it might occupy me a week to spell it; and he, in his turn, knuckles down when the brother of the White Elephant and cousin of the Moon and Sun presents his bulky and greasy royalty to his trembling courtiers: a fat bull of Bashan amongst a multitude of crawling frogs. Then it is that his Siamese majesty, solely in all the kingdom entitled to shelter of umbrella, or any other covering to intervene between his highly-polished pate and the blue canopy of heaven, summons his high priest of Buddah, and bids him, through trumpet blast, announce to the world at large that his celestial majesty having banqueted, others may partake of their vulgar food.
A day at Bangkok in fine weather is a well-illustrated page of the country and the people of Siam. It has been a sultry night, so sultry and still that every ripple on the water has been clearly distinct ever since the moon went down, about a couple of hours before daybreak. You are lying in that state of torpor which is neither sleep nor wakefulness, and yet is a compound of both, afraid to think, lest the very effort should awake you. The disgusting cry of the tokay somewhere close over your head gradually subsides as the night verges into morning, and you are just flattering yourself upon the enjoyment of a couple of hours' wholesome sleep in the delicious freshness of the early dawn, when a scuffling and rustling about the rooms warn you that one or more snakes have pursued some hapless frog into a cul de sac, and are meditating an early breakfast. If you had any doubts about this subject, they are soon dispelled by the cries of the hapless frog and the angry squeaking of the tame house-rat (every house in Siam has a tame rat, which, being taken young and carefully reared, grows to a great size and of prodigious strength, and expels all other vermin of a like genus that offer to intrude upon the premises), who likes not the proximity of such ugly customers, and scampers up the bedpost for better protection. The possibility of its being followed by some hungry snake induces us to strike a match and light the candle, and in two seconds afterwards the room is cleared of intruders. It is no use thinking of any more sleep, for there comes those certain harbingers of day, countless legions of noisy crows flying overhead like black and impenetrable clouds, and bound from the cocoanut topes where they roosted to the rice-fields in the interior, in search of early grubs. In half an hour's time hence they will all be back again with redoubled cawing, and take up their regular positions for the day, spread all over the city, and each individual crow bent upon committing a felony at the earliest available opportunity.
The hour between daybreak and sunrise is the most enjoyable of the twenty-four in the day at Siam. Then the freshness of morning mingles with the breeze, and the whole atmosphere is scented with newly-blown flowers. Then the cool waters of the Menam are thricely tempting to the fevered frame, stung to desperation by legions of mosquitoes. Into the river everybody plunges sans cérémonie, and as the first rays of the sun illuminates the loftier spires of the city, multitudes swarm out of the water again, and all the floating houses and shops open for the day. The first thing after bathing is to have a smoke-everybody smokes in Siam-and it is no uncommon sight to see a child leave its mother's breast, and, taking the boree (a cigarette made with tobacco rolled up in a dry bananaleaf) from its mother's mouth, inhale a few whiffs, and then refresh itself with another draught of milk. Up to this time the river has been void of boats, saving only those belonging to the huge junks and stately menof-war and merchantmen anchored here and there. Suddenly a yellow eruption breaks out upon the blue surface of the river. In countless scores of boats the talopians, or priests, in their saffron garments and bald pates, are paddling from house to house, levying black mail, in the shape of rice and fish and curry stuff, from every householder, bestowed not as a charity, but as a tithe to support these indolent and rascally villains, who are too lazy to work, and while away the live-long day in the pleasant shady topes attached to their various watts, smoking, drinking, eating, and sleeping. They are bound down by vows to celibacy, deviation from which, when detected, ensures a certain and cruel death. priests having carried off their day's supply of food, the population bethink themselves of their own breakfasts, which consist for the most part of the remnants of last evening's dinner-cold rice, cold stewed fish, some pieces of cocoa-nut, red chillies and cucumber, and onions ad lib. This repast they wash down with the water from the river, and, considering that the rice has turned sour during the night, it is no great marvel that cholera often scourges the population, making a clean sweep of two-thirds of their numbers. Before the sun is high enough in the heavens to make the day oppressive, groups of young men congregate under the shady trees which line the bank-side of the Menam about Bangkok, and indulge in athletic sports. It is something really marvellous to see how pliant and supple are their limbs, and with what dexterity and force they can bring their feet and toes into play as readily as their hands and fingers. Their game of battledoor and shuttlecock is always played with the foot, the shuttlecock being firmly clenched between the big and the first toe, and thus hurled up into the air and received skilfully upon the sole of the foot. They keep up this game by the hour, standing in a circle, and seldom, if ever, missing their aim. A Siamese will in this manner project a smooth pebble to a considerable distance, and with fatal precision, amongst a posse of noisy sparrows, seldom failing to pocket his bird. Tired of these sports, they congregate under some wide-spreading tree, and indulge in really harmonious music. One of their favourite instruments, composed of a double row of hollow canes clasped together by a wooden mouthpiece, emits the most dulcet and cadent notes, little inferior only to the finest-toned organ. Of music as an art, however, they have little or no conception.
By this time the traffic for the day has fairly commenced on the river.