Going to Bangkok in 1904

These days, it doesn’t seem such a big deal preparing a trip to Thailand. It is no longer the unknown as millions of people join package tours to Thailand every year. But, a hundred years ago things were very different. What I thought I would do tonight is give you some extracts from a guidebook for Bangkok published in 1904. It is interesting to see how much things have changed.

Fishing Boats in Paknam

How to Reach Bangkok

Bangkok, though somewhat “out of the track”. may be reached in a variety of ways. The traveller from the West may come from Singapore direct, or via the West coast of the Gulf of Siam or, should he so desire, may cross the Siamese Malay portion of the peninsular from Penang to singora, over the very excellent road constructed a few years ago. Should he hail from India or Burma he may follow the regular trade route descending along the Me Ping river from Chiangmai, in Northern Siam.

Out of the way it may be, Bangkok is well supplied with steamers and rarely does a day pass without one or two leaving or departing. The general time taken by the direct boats from Singapore is about three and a half days. You can also travel to Bangkok from Hongkong and Saigon. Other routes to Bangkok had best be left to the explorer or professional traveller as they present difficulties which require a great deal of surmounting. As for what to bring with one, the stores of Bangkok can, as one of them proudly boasts, supply you anything from the proverbial needle to the anchor and just an ordinary outfit suited to the tropics is all that is needed.

A Street scene in Paknam

On the River

The first indications of the approach to the mouth of the Menam Chow Phya (literally “Mother of Waters”) to the stranger are usually a distinctly muddy tinge in the otherwise clear waters of the Gulf, followed by the appearance of a group of islands on the starboard bow. These island are the Koh-si-chang group, the highest of which is some 670 feet in height. Then come the Lightship and Bar lighthouse whilst the coast proper presents a rather flat and depressing appearance.

Here it may not be amiss to make a few remarks about “Bangkok’s first line of defence,” the Bar. As may be gathered from the flatness of the surrounding land, there always has been a bar of some kind at the mouth of the river. This bar is a great hindrance to navigation and commerce but the authorities refuse to dredge it for two reasons, first that it affords a protection against enemies in case of war and secondly that, were it removed, the brackish water would go much higher up river than it does during certain seasons.

On entering the river proper a lightship showing a red light at night, will be observed on the left hand side. Here some 45 years ago the Siamese sunk four large junks laden with stones in order to prevent a hostile Cambodian suadron from entering the river, whilst further obstructions were added during the troubles with France in 1893.

The Temple in the Middle of the River

After this is passed the river usually assumes the appearance of a placid lake and three miles further on the first view of what may be termed Siam proper meets the eye, in the shape of the village and island temple of Paknam, the former the customs station where every vessel has to stop, whether bound inwards or outwards, and the latter a rather fine example of Siamese ecclestical architecture.

Paknam itself is a typical Siamese village, or would be but that it boasts a big telegraph office and is the terminus of the little fourteen mile line of railway, the pioneer line in siam, running to Bangkok. The Paknam temple is truly a striking erection of its kind. Although by no means the largest or finest of the temples within Bangkok, its situation renders it picturesque.

There are various forts in this vicinity, the only really conspicious one being that bearing the big flagstaff on the island behind the temple, but in various places, notably at Paklat on the left hand bank, there are the ruins or walls, half decayed and covered with vegetation, of all kinds of various old forts suggestive of the days of bows and arrows rather than those of modern artillery.

The steamer passes on between banks richly clad with tropical vegetation of all kinds, mostly consisting of mangroves and palms. Occasionally the vegetation is broken by a brief gap through which a glimpse of a paddy land or temple spire may be seen. As we proceed further upriver the boat traffic becomes thicker and little gatherings of the three-gabled floating houses more frequent until a swing around a bend brings into view the distant graceful spires of Bangkok.

Source: The 1904 Traveller’s Guide to Bangkok and Siam by J. Antonio

A few notes. Paknam means “river mouth” in Thai. The city is now called Samut Prakan though many people still call it Paknam. The temple in the middle of the river is now on the left bank despite still being called “the temple in the middle of the river”. Paklat is now more commonly called Phra Pradaeng. The conflict with the French took place 112 years ago. The anniversary is next month and I will tell you more about it then. I will also mention the difference between the school book version and what was reported by foreign observers.

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