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Absorbing insight into ancient times

A reissue of "Samut Ratchaburi", first published nearly a century ago, will give a glimpse of how Ratchaburi and five other provinces of the Ratchaburi Circle (Monthon Ratchaburi) were at the time. Monthon Ratchaburi included the provinces of Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Prachuab Khiri Khan, Kanchanaburi and Samut Songkhram. The Ratchaburi Circle at the time had a population of about 500,000.

The book gives details on geography and ethnography, as well as legends and the way of life in the provinces during the reign of King Vajiravudh (King Rama VI).

Chanwangtho Phraya Khatha-Tharabodi, the then governor of Monthon Ratchaburi wrote in the first issue, published in 1926, that the book was prepared for the Siamese Kingdom Exhibition and to celebrate the 15th anniversary of King Vajiravudh's coronation.

The Siamese Kingdom Exhibition was planned for January 23, 1926 at Lumpini Park but was cancelled because the monarch passed away a few months before.

A manuscript on Samut Ratchaburi, however, had been almost completed for print. Phraya Khatha-Tharabodi decided to continue the printing and launched the book to commemorate the late King Vajiravudh's birthday on January 1, 1926. Unfortunately, the book was rarely seen by the public.

A copy kept in the Prince Damrong Rajanubhab Library had a handwritten message on the front page that read "Phraya Katha-Tharabodi brought [this book] to give [to ...] at Hua Hin Hotel on 27 January 1925."

"I had heard about Samut Ratchaburi for over 30 years but had never found it in the libraries of Chulalongkorn University or other libraries," said associate professor Chalong Soontravanich, head of the Department of History at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Arts.

The historian recently obtained a copy of the first print of Samut Ratchaburi from a rare book collector, Thongchai Likitpornswan, who bought the copy 15 years ago at a rare books shop at Chatuchak Market.

Chalong, president of the Thai Club of Japan's Selection Committee on the Reprinting of Rare Books project, was quick to add the book to the list.

"I was interested in the local history in this book. It is important for historical studies of Thailand. In the past, our history relied on royal chronicles rather than local sources. The book also reflects the way of thinking of Thai rulers," he said.

"Samut Ratchaburi's" contents include: the legends of towns and administrations; occupations and important products of the Ratchaburi Circle; places to go and see for holidays; wars; miscellaneous stories told about the royal palaces the former kings of Siam built and visited in the provinces; a language of the "Krieng", an ethnic group living in the mountains along the Siam-Burma border; and wildlife and hunting.

The Krieng were described as a "special ethnic group" in the book's chapter on "Nation and Populations". About 100 members of the Krieng came from Baan Mekawa in Moulmein, Burma to settle in Huay Chonkalia in Kanchanaburi province. A Krieng leader was later appointed chief of Sangkhla Buri town.

"It can be said that their origin was ethnic-Thai (Laos owned the former land). But there were foreigners such as Khom [Khmer] and Khaek [people from South Asia] who came in and mixed [were married] with the locals," the Krieng chapter reads.

Monthon Ratchaburi was also home to Mon from Tavoy and Lao-Song and Lao-Vieng captives from Srisatanakonahut, now Luang Prabang.

Images of these people and their way of life were also published in the book, as well as photos of archaeological sites and popular tourist attractions at the time.

"Samut Ratchaburi isn't just a record of the period, it is also a body of knowledge for Thai historical studies, especially economic history, the history of tourism, and ethnography," said Chalong, who is editor of the "Samut Ratchaburi" reprint to be published by the Thai Club of Japan.

Samut Ratchaburi is the sixth rare book published in the Reprint of Rare Books Project. It contains 325 pages and 52 photos.

The reissue of "Samut Ratchaburi" is available from Original Press. You can call 02 952 9203 for more details.

Three days in Old Siam

From the gossipy account of a Dutch traveller's trip to Ayutthaya in 1665 comes a detailed picture of 17th-century life in the Kingdom

A Traveller in Siam in the Year 1655
By Gijsbert Heeck
Translated and introduced by Barend Jan Terwiel
Published by Silkworm Books, 2008
Available at Asia Books and Kinokuniya, Bt595
Reviewed by Michael Smithies

Gijsbert Heeck, sometimes spelt Heecq, is well-known to cognoscenti of 17th-century Siam for his detailed description of the Dutch "lodge" (warehouse, comptoir, go-down, office, call it what you will), the extent and rather luxurious nature of which were the envy of the other foreign communities in Ayutthaya, be they Portuguese, French, English or Japanese.

What is much less known is that his account of his stay in Siam extended far beyond the establishment of the Dutch East India Company on the east bank of the Chao Phya below Wat Phananchoeng.

Heeck, born in 1619 near Utrecht, a ship's surgeon, had twice travelled to the Indies before he returned to the Netherlands to settle down, but the death of two successive wives and one child caused him to change his plans and depart once more, in 1654, this time as chief medical surgeon for three years.

In Siam, 1655 was the last full year of the reign of King Prasat Thong, who came to the throne in 1629 after a messy power struggle and whose succession was in turn similarly disputed the year after Heeck's visit; Prasat Thong's tempestuous and volatile character is made clear in the works of that other VOC employee, Jeremias van Vliet.

Heeck points out that the court's relations with the Dutch were a little strained, but that did not stop him visiting Ayutthaya from September 9 to 12 and leaving a detailed and seemingly accurate account of the capital, noting the fast-flowing water in the straight canals that criss-crossed the city, and the empty elephant houses because the elephants were taking the air outside the city to escape decimation from an infectious disease.

Nor did it prevent the Siamese coming down on the side of the Dutch in a dispute with the Portuguese.

The book is divided into three parts: 19 pages of introduction, 48 pages of translated text, and 41 pages of the original Dutch. We are given for good measure several pages of colour illustrations, including two fold-out maps of the Chao Phya, one being the well-known Valentijn map of 1724-6, the other the much less known Siamese River manuscript map circa 1690 from the National Archives at The Hague.

Heeck in some ways is a bit of a gossip - thank goodness, for we learn a good deal about life in mid-17th-century Siam. One other aspect that comes out in this account is the constant desire of the Company to reduce costs (already seen in the sending of the first Siamese embassy to Holland earlier in the century) - to the point of pushing for a marriage to reduce office expenses and offload an employee to Batavia.

One section in the otherwise exemplary introduction is pretentiously if politically fashionably headed "Gender studies", when all it covers is the role of Siamese mistresses of the Dutch and their offspring.

But any quibbles are minor, and can be ironed out in a later edition. For now, we should be very thankful that a complete edition of Heeck's text has appeared in the original and in English translation, and this relatively slim volume should quickly find a place on the bookshelves of every person interested in 17th-century Siam.

Copyright 2011 © Thai Apple. All rights reserved.

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