The Straits of Malacca, Indochina and China

by John Thomson

Language : English

1875 - Digital Version on - 546 pages - On-Demand Books Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, London

John Thomson's recollection of his years in Southeast Asia and China remains an essential reference for historians and travelers. Among the numerous insights the author shares with us, we shall stress out:

  • About Chulalongkorn (King Rama V, Phra Chula Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, จุฬาลงกรณ์, 20 Sept. 1853 – 23 Oct. 1910): "Siam has greatly changed since the time of my visit to that country. The first and second Kings have both been gathered to their fathers, and their sons now reign in their stead. Antiquated laws and objectionable customs have passed out of date, and a liberal policy is being steadily pursued. Slavery has been abolished, and the custom of crouching in the presence of a superior has been discontinued by the express order of the Sovereign. His majesty lately visited Singapore and Calcutta, and the experiences which he gained there seem to have been taken to heart. The education which this young King received from the English Governess, Mrs. [Anna] Leonowens, at his father's court, must have had its effect in forming his character, while constant intercourse with foreigners, together with his own manly ambition to make the most of his inheritance, have all contributed to render his career an exceptional one in the history of his country. One might almost suppose that he has in his veins some of the blood of those ancient Cambodian rulers who built their marvellous cities and temples, who conquered and subdued the surrounding countries, and founded for themselves a mighty empire, of which no traces save their stone monuments remain."
  • About Siem Reap and the fact that Angkor remained an important Buddhist pilgrimage destination at that time: 'The Chow Muang of Nakhon Siamrap received us with great courtesy, placing a house at our disposal for two or three days, until a Laos chief, who had come with a considerable escort on a pilgrimage to Nakhon Wat, should have started on his homeward journey, and left room for our accommodation. The old town of Siamrap is in a very ruinous state — the result, as was explained to us, of the last invasion of Cambodia — but the high stone walls which encircle it are still in excellent condition. Outside these fortifications a clear stream flows downwards into the great lake some fifteen miles away, and this stream, during the rainy season, contains a navigable channel.'
  • About his visit to Phnom Penh Royal Palace: 'The King treated us with great courtesy, assigning us a house within the palace grounds, and entertaining us repeatedly at his table, where excellent dinners were specially prepared for us in completely European style. The fact is, his majesty had a French cook in his pay ; and this was the secret of a culinary skill which at first took us somewhat by surprise. These dinners were a real enjoyment, for we had not had a good meal for some time ; as my readers will understand when I tell them that at Nakhon Wat — thinking: we should be all the better for some strengthening food, and not being familiar with the American plan of cutting a steak as we required it, and keeping the animal going alive — we had to purchase a whole bullock to secure a joint of beef. The animal afforded us about three good meals, and caused us to be looked upon as demons by the devout Buddhists for slaying an ox. We then tried to preserve portions of the carcase, but it was a failure. His majesty honoured us with a long performance of his dancing women. However, it was truly a tedious affair when the first novelty of the exhibition had worn off.'

About the Author

John Thomson

Scottish photographer and geographer John Thomson (14 June 1837, Edinburgh – 29 Sept. 1921, Edinburgh) was a pioneer in photographying the ruins of Angkor in 1866, part of his ten-year long travel stint across Asia after joining his elder brother William in Singapore in 1862.

When he left for the Far East, he had studied photography processing and technique as an apprentice in an optical and scientific device manufacturing company, while enrolling to evening classes at Watts Institution and School of Arts to study chemistry, philosophy and geography.

Thomson was welcomed at the Court of Siam in 1965, and then to Phnom Penh Royal Palace the following year. After Cochinchina and Indochina, he traveled around China, documenting local cultures, landscapes and artefacts of the East. He insisted to travel to Angkor, with the assistance of his friend H.G. Kennedy, a British Consulate officer fluent in Siamese, after reading Henri Mouhot's travel accounts, first published in English even if Mouhot was a French citizen.

After his Asian period, he worked on the street people of London, deveoping a style of social documentary viewed as the historic basis of modern photojournalism. Yet he was at ease in all strata of society, to the point that he became portrait photographer of the Mayfair High Society, with a Royal Warrant granted to him in 1881.

Like most pioneer photographers, Thomson rarely took photos of himself. This one was taken by accident during a street life photoshoot in China:


See the short online biography by the National Library of Scotland.