Five Years in Siam, From 1891 to 1896, Vol I

by Herbert Warington Smyth

Type: On-Demand Books

Publisher: John Murray, London. Vol I.

Published: 1898

Pages: 374

Language : English

While the second volume of this book gives more information on Cambodia proper (then vastly under Siamese influence), the author shows a quite perceptive approach to the history of mainland Southeast Asia, and in particular the lasting cultural influence of the Khmer Empire. He obviously got much information from Prince Damrong (then Minister of Education, and later of Interior), who contrary to other Siamese intellectuals was ready to acknowledge the importance of the Khmer legacy.

In addition to insightful notations on the mores and arts of the time, and to the mining prospections that were the main reason of the author's mission to Siam, the following themes are considered:

  • About the rise of the Tai-Siam entity: "Descendants of a hardy race - of whom the Shans form the elder branch of Tai Yai - the Siamese, as the Tai Noi, came down into Siam, split in two the people in possession of the plain of the Me Nam Chao Praya, and so gave rise to the two nations, the Kamen, or Cambodians, on the one side, and the Mon, or Peguans, on the other. With the details of their history, uncertain and full of myth as much of it is, and singularly little known to the Siamese themselves, I will not trouble the reader. How they moved from capital to capital, ever towards the plains, from Sawankalok to Pitsunalok, to Ayuthia, and finally to Bangkok ; how lustily they fought their enemies, the Talaings [Talaing: a member of a people of Myanmar and Thailand related to the Khmer of Cambodia], the Burmese, and the Cambodians ; how wilily they cajoled their cousins, the Lao, and their sea visitors, the Malays - all that belongs to ancient history : and yet in some measure to the present too, for it has left its mark." (p 19)
  • Siam architecture and Khmer influence: "Ayuthia, or Krung Kao, the old capital, is well worth visiting, and has been often described, as it is a pleasant afternoon's steam from Bangkok. The old brick pagodas still stand scattered over many square miles of country, attesting to the former size of the town, and contrasting in their deep red colouring with the dense vegetation all about. In their style they follow that of the towers of Angkor, without the exquisite detail of that wonderful ruin, and with loftier but not more effective proportions. There are still a few fine Wats standing, as at Wat Chang, where the big Buddha is." (p 57) "The buildings at Pitsunalok, like those throughout Siam, show traces of the Cambodian influence. Indeed, the architects of Siam from earliest days have been wont (not unwisely) to go to the Angkor ruins for their style, and, though there have been developments to suit special needs, on the whole there is little that is original in Siam. What does not come from Cambodia may be traced to Hindoo or Burman influences. This does not prevent much of the Wat architecture, especially the effects of the interiors of the Bawts, being impressive. The Siamese architect has always realised that he should not try to hide his roof." (p 91)
  • The Legend of the Gold Buddha: "Luang Prabang received its present name from the Prabang, a golden image of Gautama Buddha, said to have come originally from Ceylon to Cambodia, and thence to have been brought to Luang Prabang. Since its first arrival it has been removed to Wieng Chan, thence to Bangkok, whence it returned once more. When the Haw sacked the place in 1887, some ' wily old Lao ' carried it off' and buried it in safety." (p 189)
  • Korat as a Khmer city: "We learned further from [the French resident] that Korat was a Cambodian city of great magnificence until ruined by the rapacious Siamese of late years. Encouraged, doubtless, by our innocent appearance, he also informed us that Cambodian was the language of the country people round Korat, and of the plateau generally, and that Siamese was not understood except in a few villages, being spoken only by the Governor and his followers." (p 249)

Tags: Siam, Khmer influences, architecture, geography, geology, mining, Lao, Mekong River, gold, gems, Ayuthya, Burma, Indian influences, Mon, Mon-Khmer

About the Author

Portrait of Herbert   Warington Smyth

Herbert Warington Smyth

Herbert Warington Smyth, "Warington" (4 June 1867 – 19 Dec. 1943, Redruth, UK) was a British traveler, writer, naval officer and mining engineer who served the government of Siam in the 1890s and later held several posts in the Union of South Africa.

Warington went to Siam in 1890 as an unpaid assistant to the Mineral Adviser to the Office of Woods, was Secretary of the Government Department of Mines from 1891 to 1895, and Director General from 1895 to 1897. He was secretary of the Siamese legation from 1898 to 1901.

In his book Five Years in Siam, and especially in his study Exploring for Gemstones on the Upper Mekong - Northern Siam and Parts of Laos in the Years 1892-1893 (repub. by White Lotus, Bangkok, 109 p., ISBN 9748434249), he accounted his six-month journey from Bangkok to Luang Prabang and through Nong Khai and Korat, exploring the regions opposite Chiang Khong, on the left bank of the Mekong, for deposits of rubies and sapphires.

Warington had a special interest in the Tonle Sap (which he called "Tale Sap") for geological and hydrological reasons, and he visited the Siem Reap-Battambang area while "being busy making expeditions in various directions in pursuit of rumoured gold mines", as he noted.

A dedicated yachtman, he also published in 1906 Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, and in 1925 Sea-wake and Jungle Trail. He also observed the boat races in Bangkok, noting that the crews were often made of men and women, and the latter, "with their cross sashes of yellow, green or blue, not only looked but also proved the smartest". He himself illustrated most of his published book with sketches, drawings and maps.