Street Scenes in the Venice of the East

Bangkok, the Venice of the East, was not the Capital of Siam during the earlier period of that country's history. Formerly the seat of government was at Ayuthia; but the ancient capital is now a heap of ruined temples and dwellings, an attraction for travellers, but of little importance to the people themselves. At the time when this mouldering city was the home of the Sovereign, a man of Chinese origin was sent to govern one of the northern provinces of the country. He is known in Siamese history as Phya Tak, and was a man of great administrative ability. When the invading armies of Burmah, in their triumphant march through Siam, reached the neighbourhood of the ancient capital, Phya Tak was sent for by the king, to aid him with his counsel and strength. His reputation as a brave and powerful warrior secured for him his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Siamese army. Mustering all the available forces of the kingdom, he set out to do battle with the enemy. It was hoped that he would utterly rout the invading army, and so free the land from its powerful enemies. But when the valiant Tak came in sight of the foe, he was not long in realising that any attack that might be made by his small army against the much greater numbers of the Burmese, could only end in his utter defeat. He promptly fled with all his own retainers, and with as many of the soldiers as cared to follow him, to the port of Chantaboon. Here he leagued himself with all the fighting men and chiefs of the neighbouring provinces, and finally collected an army of about ten thousand men. He supported himself and his soldiers by robbing and pillaging all the villages along the coast.


The Burmese, carrying with them many captives, and much treasure of gold and silver gained at the sack of Ayuthia in 1767, at last returned once more to their own land. Then Phya Tak came north again, and on the spot where the Regent's palace now stands, built himself a home and proceeded to found the walled city of Bangkok. Having accomplished this work, he several times defeated the Burmese, then re-organised some form of administration and caused himself to be acknowledged as king of the land. Associated with him in all his adventures and successes was a close personal friend and confidential adviser. This man was of noble birth and vigorous character, and it was to his counsel and assistance that the new sovereign owed much of his success. Soon after the king had completed his great work of re-organisation he unfortunately became insane. The priests brought against him accusations of sacrilege and impiety, and tried to stir the people to revolt. He was extremely unpopular on account of the heavy taxes he had levied on the wealthier classes, as also for the extreme cruelty with which he had treated all ranks of his subjects. Stimulated both by the exhortations of the priests, and by the oppressive treatment to which they were daily subjected, the citizens of the new capital at length rose in rebellion. Their sovereign fled from his angry subjects and took refuge in a neighbouring monastery, where he donned the yellow robe and declared himself a priest. This declaration saved his life for a short time, but soon after his flight he was put to death by his favourite friend and general, who then followed the promptings of his ambition and the suggestions of his fellow-noblemen, in assuming the royal robes and crown. He called himself Somdetch Pra Boroma Rahcha Pra Putta Yaut Fah, and became the first king of the present dynasty. It is with the fall of Ayuthia, the rise of these two usurpers, and the founding of Bangkok that the authentic history of Siam commences. A period of about one hundred and forty years comprises the limits within which the chief facts of Siamese history can be substantiated. Bishop Pallegoix, compiled from native annals an account of Siam and its people, extending back to a very remote period; but His Majesty the late King has somewhat lessened one's confidence in these annals by declaring that they are "all full of fable, and are not in satisfaction for believe."

The city which was thus founded by Phya Tak, has ever since remained the chief home of the sovereign, and the seat of government. It is now one of the most interesting of Oriental towns. From the break of day till scorching noon, from scorching noon till the first cool breeze of evening, from sunset until midnight, and from then on through the small hours of the morning, the busy streets of Siam's capital present a never ending procession of curious and picturesque scenes. With the first faint glimmer of light in the east, the life of the city begins. The approach of day is heralded with the sonorous voices of the huge gongs that are being vigorously beaten by the official welcomer of the dawn, in a turret within the walls of the Royal Palace. The cocks, who have crowed the whole night through with troublesome persistency, greet the rising of the sun in notes both long and shrill, as if they were trying to impress upon their hearers the belief that they have but just awakened from the profoundest of slumbers. The bull-frog croaks his surly good morning. The pariah dogs howl or bark with an amount of vigour and determination, that shows that they too are anxious to contribute their share to the combination of discordant sounds, that forms a fitting prelude to the noise and bustle of the coming day.

It is not to be supposed that the wealthier members of Siamese society rise at this early hour. As a matter of fact, they have but recently retired to rest, and will not appear again either for business or pleasure until the sun has crossed the meridian. All the business of the State, and all the pleasures of Society are conducted in the cool hours of evening, night, or early morning, while during the broiling heat that comes and goes with the daylight, officialdom sleeps and rests. It is an excellent arrangement. The lower classes, however, are soon awake and astir. First to arise are the Chinese inhabitants. Here, as everywhere in the East, the subjects of the Celestial Empire have found their way, and, by their untiring energy and their wonderful adaptability to all changes of custom, life, and government, have managed to establish themselves so securely that any attempt to dislodge them would, if successful, be fatal to the best interests of the country. They live and die in the same atmosphere of superstition that surrounded them at their birth. No matter to what country their industry and enterprise may lead them, they never forget during their daily toil to give frequent evidence of their keen faith in the supernatural. Their first act on rising in the morning is to explode a number of noisy fire-crackers in every doorway, to dispel the crowds of evil spirits, who, during the dark hours of the night may have congregated round their thresholds with intent to do them harm. In the swarms of buzzing flies and stinging mosquitoes there are innumerable emissaries of the powers of ill, and these the noise and smoke effectually disperse for a brief interval. So that the daily practice of one superstitious custom is not without its immediate if temporary effect upon the well-being of its devout observers.


The shops and workshops are open in front to the street on account of the intense tropical heat. There is no difficulty whatever in seeing and hearing every native dealer or craftsman as he pursues his daily employment. The foot-lathe of the woodturner, rude but efficient, whirls busily round, scattering its chips into the street; the barber sharpens his razors, sets his pans and chairs at the edge of the roadway in view of every passer-by, and prepares to shave a head or trim a pig-tail; and the idol-maker spreads his gold and silver leaf upon representations of Buddha made in wood or plaster after a strictly orthodox and ancient pattern.

Numerous Buddhist priests in robes of yellow, saffron or orange, pace slowly along with alms-bowls of wood or brass, receiving their daily food from the believers in their ancient faith. Their garments borrow new hues from the lately risen sun, and stand out in vivid and picturesque relief against the more sober tints of the roads and dwellings. The itinerant curry-vendor wastes no time in preparing his unsavoury messes, and is soon busy trying to dispose of them to the passers-by. A pole slung over his shoulder, bears at one end a small earthenware stove with a supply of charcoal and water. At this end he cooks, to order, the various delicacies suspended from the other end of the pole. The water in the pot is drawn from the nearest canal or stagnant pool and is almost a meal in itself. For a farthing you may purchase a bowl of rice, which is warmed in the boiling water while you wait. Another farthing will provide you with a number of attendant luxuries in the form of very fiery pepper or very strong and unhealthy smelling vinegar. The basis of the curry may be frog or chicken, stale meat, fermented fish, decayed prawn, or one of a thousand articles of equally evil taste and pungent odour. Most things are either cooked or re-warmed for the purchaser by the simple plan of suspending them in a sieve inside the pot of boiling water. The same pot and the same water serve for all customers alike, so that the hundredth hungry individual gets for his farthing, not only all that he bargains for, but various tastes of the other delicacies that his predecessors at the counter have elected to buy. No charge is made for the use of the china basin which has not been washed since the last man used it, or for the loan of the leaden or earthenware spoons, or a couple of chopsticks. Neither the proprietor of this strolling restaurant nor the force of public opinion demand that these articles be used, and for many, fingers take the place of either chopsticks or spoons.

"Isa-kee! Isa-kee!" It is a queer sound when you hear it for the first time. A Chinaman comes staggering along the road, carrying two heavy pails at the ends of the usual bamboo pole. He bawls in long, loud, nasal tones, "Isa-kee! Isa-kee!" The man is wet with the perspiration that streams down his bare yellow body and soaks the cloth round his loins, that forms his only clothing. Presently, crowds of little boys, dressed in even less than the noisy vendor, collect round him and purchase with avidity the strange-looking mess denominated "isa-kee." He collects the coppers, and places them in a small leather purse, tied round his waist with a bit of string, there to lie in company with a little rank, black tobacco, or opium, until time will permit him to lose them in the maddening excitement of the gambling dens. "Isa-kee" is the vendor's reproduction of the English word "ice-cream", though there is little resemblance between the commodity he disposes of with such extraordinary rapidity, and the fashionable European delicacy whose name it has borrowed. A more truthful name and description of the article sold in the streets of Bangkok, would be "ice-mud." It is apparently a concoction of dirty water, half-frozen slush, and sugar. Being cold and sweet it is a favourite sweetmeat with the native children, and the ice-cream merchant may generally be found doing a roaring trade outside the different schools during playtime. When ice itself was first introduced to the Siamese by the European residents, they promptly coined for it the short and expressive name of "hard-water." It is amusing to hear the little ones exclaim as they swallow the frozen fluid, "Golly! How it burns !"

As far as the casual observer can judge, in this capital of Siam there are no Siamese engaged in any hard manual labour at all. There are of course, many Siamese employed in various kinds of domestic or official work, but in the streets nearly every workman is Chinese. There are nearly as many Chinese in the country as there are Siamese. They marry Siamese women, and their children make excellent subjects, as they possess both the natural brightness of the mother and the industry of the father. Unless they renounce their own nationality they are subject to a poll-tax of about five or six shillings, payable once every four years. At a date made known by proclamation, each Chinaman must present himself at the police-station and pay the tax. The receipt given is a small piece of bee's-wax about the size of a three-penny piece. This bears a seal, and is worn on the wrist for a certain time, fastened by a piece of string. The police are very busy at this time, as there is nothing the Siamese policeman so much enjoys as leading some unfortunate Chinaman to pay the tax. Should the seal be lost, the alien is bound to buy another as soon as he is requested by some officer of the law.


Carpenters, blacksmiths, butchers, bakers and scavengers are all Chinese. It is a Chinaman who sits all through the heat of the day, under a tent made of an old sheet supported by a central bamboo pole, displaying an array of strange-looking liquids, placed in thick glass tumblers in a long row. Great lumps of vermicelli float in the blue, green, red, or yellow liquids, presenting the appearance of curious anatomical specimens preserved in coloured spirits. It is a Chinaman who hawks about great pails of slimy, black jelly having the consistency and colour of blacking, but said to be extremely palatable with coarse brown sugar. The men who are watering the roads with wooden buckets fitted with long bamboo spouts; the men who sweep the roads, and mend them; the coolies in the wharves; the clerks in the offices; the servants in the hotels and houses: are all subjects of "The Lord of the Vermilion Pencil."

No Siamese pulls a rickshaw, though he frequently rides in one. The Chinese are the beasts of burden as far as the Bangkok rickshaw is concerned. This vehicle, as seen in Siam is a very sorry-looking object, bearing only a distant resemblance to those met with in every Eastern port from Colombo to Yokohama. Nowhere do you ever find such dilapidated rickety structures as those that the coolies pull through the streets of this city. A new one would be a veritable curiosity. When the rickshaws of Singapore and Hong-kong have reached a condition of extreme old age, and are so broken down that the authorities in those ports refuse to grant them licences any longer, they are sent on to Bangkok, where no licences are required. There the poorer classes use them freely, and there too are they as often used for the removal of household furniture, or the transportation of pigs, as they are for the carriage of passengers. The coolies tear through the streets, regardless of anyone's comfort or safety except their own; though, be it said, that they never resent the cut of a driver's whip when some coachman thus forcibly reminds them which is the right side of the road.

Pigs are not always allowed the luxury of riding in rickshaws. They are more usually transported in a far less comfortable fashion. Their two front feet are tied together, and then their hind feet are similarly fastened. A stout piece of wood is passed under the two loops thus formed, and the pig is carried by two men, each bearing one end of the pole. The animals generally object very strongly to this form of motion, and signify their disgust, and perhaps their pain, by the most heart-rending, ear-piercing shrieks. Thus another set of discordant sounds is added to the medley that roars from morning to night.

The rickshaw was borrowed from Japan; the "gharry" has been imported from India. It is a square box-like structure, the upper half being fitted with sliding windows similar to those in the door of a London four-wheeler. These windows, when open, admit of a free circulation of air, and they can easily be closed to keep out either rain, dust, or sun, at the will of the passenger. The sliding window-frames are always badly fitted, and they rattle and shake with such a terribly deafening noise, that two people sitting side by side, are compelled to shout when they wish to address each other. Riding in these coaches gives one the sensation of being a kind of marble inside a gigantic rattle-box that is being vigorously shaken for the driver's amusement. The majority of the gharries are not in a very much better condition than the rickshaws. The harness is generally made of rope or string, instead of leather, and even if a leather strap or trace is visible, it is nearly always in two or three pieces temporarily connected with string. At very short intervals of time and space, the driver is compelled to descend and repair as best he can the broken connections. These drivers are chiefly Siamese or Malays, and so many of them have adopted the red Turkish fez as a head-dress, that it can safely be taken as the badge of coachmen. In fine weather both Malay and Siamese drivers wear their own national costumes, but should it rain, they promptly divest themselves of every stitch of clothing except a cloth round the loins. They place their garments in a box under the seat, and drive about in a state of almost perfect nudity until the sun reappears and dries them with his rays, when they once more clothe themselves in their native apparel.

The "omnibus" is a variation of the English one, with extensive and important modifications. It is of local construction, and without springs. It consists of a long shallow box on four wheels. A rickety roof is supported by equally rickety pillars, and serves to keep out the sun and rain. Omnibuses are very popular amongst the poor, on account of their exceedingly low fares, several miles being travelled for a few cents. Every kind of vehicle is crowded to its fullest capacity. A rickshaw will ordinarily hold two; you may often see four or five in one. A gharry should carry four, but by crowding inside and piling one person on top of the other, with the addition of a couple hanging on behind, one on each door-step, and one on each hub of the wheels, a whole family manages to get conveyed to its destination by means of a single conveyance. Omnibuses are similarly crowded and packed, to an extent which is only possible on account, first, of the absence of any law to prevent it, and secondly, of the genial good-temper of the natives themselves.

Klings and Tamils from Southern India have introduced the bullock cart as a convenient method of carrying heavy goods. These Indian settlers are the bullock drivers, the dairymen, and the owners of cattle. They export a large number of lean bullocks to Singapore and the Malay Archipelago, where they are subsequently fattened to feed the residents. The value of the animals thus exported, is about two hundred and forty thousand Mexican dollars annually.

An electric tramway, and bicycles of the most modern construction, tell their own tale of the way in which European influences are making themselves felt in this land. The only real Siamese land carriage is a curious buffalo cart. It is rarely seen in the streets of the capital, as its peculiar form and construction fit it more particularly for traffic through the jungle.


The varied colours of the different costumes worn by the members of many nationalities, form a strikingly bright and cheerful picture. Blue being the colour of every Chinaman's work-a-day clothing, is at once a conspicuous and pleasant tint. It is only during the three days' festivities that usher in the Celestial New Year, that the wearers of the pig-tail disport themselves in any other colour. During those three days, however, they are adorned with the richest of heliotrope, lavender, pale blue, green or yellow silks. In the intervals between successive New Years these gorgeous garments are safely deposited in the pawnshops. The various shades of yellow and brown that predominate in every crowd, are not the result of the dyer's art, but the effect of the hot bright sunlight upon the bare bodies of those who go uncovered. The same bright light intensifies the whiteness of the European linen jackets, now adopted by so many Siamese in lieu of the gaily coloured scarf that formerly was the only clothing worn on the upper part of the body. Even now most of the women wind a long sash of some vivid hue round the breast, thus forming a cheerful band of colour against the whiteness of the jacket. In every crowd may be seen not only Siamese and Chinese, but Sikhs in scarlet turbans, Burmese in yellow and pink, Malays in gaudy sarongs, Laos in dark striped petticoats; as well as Annamese, Klings, Tamils and Japanese, each of whom is ever dressed in the garb that centuries of custom have defined as his own particular method of clothing his nakedness. When to the effect of all these pleasing colours, is added the happy merriment of thousands of faces that have never yet experienced the fierce struggle for existence that characterises the life of the poor of the West, a scene is realised which is nowhere to be met with except in the sun-kissed lands of the East.

In the licensed gambling-houses there is always a little crowd of excited men and women, who, when they have lost their trifling earnings, speedily proceed to the pawnshops with any article of clothing or furniture that is not absolutely indispensable to their existence. When their own property has all been squandered they take that belonging to other people, thus producing an endless succession of daily thefts. The city is full of pawnshops, some streets containing scarcely any other form of business. It is in these places that the Europeans hunt for their frequently stolen property, or search for the curios that are afterwards presented to friends or sold to museums at home.

The numbers of civil, genial postmen in their yellow kharki uniforms faced with red, and carrying big Japanese umbrellas under their arms, are sufficiently numerous and busy to testify to the efficiency of this branch of the Civil Service. Most of the policemen are Siamese, but their appearance is always a decided contrast to that of the neatly clad postmen. Their uniforms, made of blue cloth, are intended to be reproductions of those worn by their London brethren. But as they are made of a cloth that rapidly shrinks and fades, a caricature rather than an imitation is the result. They are partial to umbrellas, roll their trousers above their knees, wear no shoes, and seem to revel in the possession of battered helmets. There is nothing whatever in their bearing that is characteristic of authority, neither are they men of great stature or commanding strength. Yet they seldom meet with any resistance in the exercise of their duties, and it is a common sight to see a puny-looking policeman leading three or four natives to the police-station, each prisoner being merely fastened by the arm to the one behind, with his own scarf or pocket-handkerchief.

So many of the native houses with their quaint gables and double or triple roofs have been pulled down, and brick ones of European pattern erected instead, that scarcely any purely native street remains. The one truly native quarter is a long narrow bazaar known as Sampeng. It is about a mile and a quarter in length, and contains a very mixed population of Indians, Siamese, and Chinese. It resembles somewhat a street in Canton, but lacks the wealth of elaborately carved and gilded sign-boards, that gives such a decidedly local atmosphere to a purely Chinese street. Stretched overhead, from side to side, are pieces of torn cloth and matting, that act quite as effectively in keeping out the sun as in imprisoning that awful combination of foul odours that seems to be the possession of all Oriental thoroughfares. The small gutter which runs in front of each house is full of stagnant water or of the accumulated domestic rubbish of the people who dwell by its side. This long narrow bazaar, however, is not without its own attractions. Here are gathered together specimens of all the native produce, and here too work a few exponents of each of the native crafts. Blacksmiths and weavers are plying their several trades; workers in gold and silver are fashioning boxes and ornaments for the rich, and the lapidaries are polishing stones for the jewellers to set. Peep-shows and open-air theatres tempt the idle to linger, and numbers of busy toilers jostle each other as they make their way to and fro over the uneven, roughly paved foot-path. At night, the shops are closed, but the gambling-houses, opium dens, and brothels are thronged by the lowest of the low. At one end of the bazaar is the chief idol manufactory of the country. The thousands of temples that are scattered all over Siam, require a large stock of images; and the devout are frequent donors of representations of Buddha, of values proportionate to their means. Most of the idols are made according to one or other of the following methods.

A wooden model of the desired image is first made. It is next covered with very thin silver-leaf, after which the wooden model is removed and the interior filled up with pitch. This is perhaps the most common method of making small cheap idols. The larger ones are first modelled in wax, and then covered with a cement made of fine sand and clay. This is dried in the sun and finally heated in a furnace, when the wax melts and is collected for use another time. Melted brass is then poured over the image and evenly spread until the whole surface is covered with a thin coating of metal. A great many gilded images are made, the gold-leaf being laid over a covering of black pitch. Until the outer layer of gold, silver, or brass has been deposited on the carved or moulded figure, and until the eyes have been placed therein, it is not considered in any way sacred. The two last operations are frequently attended with great ceremony at the home of the owner, in the presence of many priests.

In every temple there are "printed gods". These are very small idols, about an inch or two in length, made of clay and having a flat surface at the back. They are stuck in rows, on a piece of board painted with some bright colour, and are then gilded and placed in the temple.

In the remotest alley, the most secluded corner, the broadest highway, or the most open of public spaces, roam the most disreputable and degraded members of the canine family—the pariah dogs. Black, brown, white, and spotted dogs with skeleton frames and sunken eyes, many of them in the last stages of disease and decay, snap at the dirtiest bone, or feast upon the filthiest rubbish they can find. They own no master, and no man owns them. They may be counted till one is weary of counting, and yet the eye will still discover many that remain unnumbered. Often it would be a kindness to the poor starved and crippled creatures to put them speedily out of pain, but the Buddhist law, "Thou shalt not kill", is all powerful here, and so the pariahs breed and multiply, giving in return for the permission to live, their effective services as vigilant and industrious scavengers.

In the markets, the natives squat cross-legged upon their stalls, offering for sale vegetables and fruit, betel nut and cigars, salted fish and queer-looking sweetmeats; or busying themselves, in the absence of customers, by vigorously waving a big palm or banana leaf to drive away the clouds of flies that would otherwise immediately settle upon their perishable wares. The dealers are chiefly Siamese women, and are amongst the most polite and obliging saleswomen in the world.

The original city of Bangkok is surrounded by a high thick wall pierced with many gates that are never closed. The principal entrance is the one known as "The Three-Headed Gate", so called on account of the three tapering spires that surmount the three openings. By far the larger portion of the population lives outside the wall, but as the Royal Palace and nearly all the Government buildings are within its circumference, it encloses everything that is of importance to the native as far as government is concerned. The roads in the city are excellent, and in the neighbourhood of the palace itself there are a number of wide open green spaces that would not discredit any city of Europe. The palace is enclosed by several rows of departmental offices, outside of which is a high white wall.

Day closes with a rapidity equal to that with which it dawns, there being no long spell of twilight either in the morning or the evening. In the principal streets, the electric light has displaced the small old oil lamps that at one time formed the only evening illumination known to the people, but on the outskirts of the city the lamplighter still wends his evening round, carrying the small ladder, boxes of matches, and bottles of oil, that mark the nature of his occupation. The oil lamps are placed at more or less irregular intervals, and are soon blown out by any wind of moderate strength. Little cholera lamps swung aloft at the ends of long slender poles, sway backwards and forwards, telling where the grim fiend has entered in his work of destruction. The Chinese light their smoky tallow candles and place them in large quaint lanterns bearing mystic signs and symbols; while round the city wall itself, the cocoa-nut oil lamps burn with a lurid glare, sending forth at the same time dense clouds of yellow pungent smoke.


In the absence of drunken men and women and the scarcity of women of ill-fame, the streets of Bangkok might well serve as a model for some of the wealthier and more handsome towns of Europe. There is one thing to be regretted in connection with the improvements that are daily being made in the capital, and that is the gradual effacement of all traces of native design or workmanship. Bridges, houses and railway stations are mostly of a distinctly European type, and that type one of uncompromising ugliness. The new streets of Bangkok, if cleaner and sweeter than the old, have nothing of the curious charm of those they have replaced, and are merely excellent examples of unadulterated brick and mortar unrelieved by the faintest trace of anything that could possibly be described as artistic.