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THE CITY OF BANGKOK.
ASCENDING the Meinam (or Chow Phya) from the gulf, and passing Paknam, the paltry but picturesque seaport already described, we come next to Pak-lat Beeloo, or "Little Paklat," so styled to distinguish it from Paklat Boon, a considerable town higher up the river, which we shall presently inspect as we steam toward Bangkok. Though, strictly speaking, Paklat Bee-loo is a mere cluster of huts, the humble dwellings of a Colony of farmers and rice-planters, it is nevertheless a place of considerable importance as a depot for the products of the ample fields and gardens which surround it on every side. The rice and vegetables which these supply are shipped for the markets of Bangkok and Ayudia. At Paklat Beeloo that bustle of traffic begins which, more and more as we approach the capital, imparts to the river its characteristic aspect of activity and thrift, an animated procession of boats of various form and size, deeply laden with grain, garden stuffs, and fruits, drifting with the friendly helping tide, and requiring little or no manual labor for their navigation, as they sweep along tranquilly, steadily, from bank to bank, from village to village.
Diverse as are the styles and uses of these boats, the most convenient, and therefore the most common, are the Rua-keng and the Rua-pet. The former resembles in all respects the Venetian gondola, while the Rua-pet has either a square house with windows amidships, or (more commonly) a basket cover, long and round, like the tent-top of some Western wagons. The dimensions of many of these boats are sufficient to accommodate an entire family, with their household goods and merchandise, yet one seldom sees more than a single individual in charge of them. The tide, running strongly up or down, affords the motive-power; "the crew" has but to steer. Often unwieldy, and piled clumsily with cargo, one might reasonably suppose their safe piloting to be a nautical impossibility; yet so perfect is the skill the instinct, rather of these almost amphibious river-folk, that a little child, not uncommonly a girl, shall lead them. Accidents are marvellously rare, considering the thousands of large, heavy, handsome keng boats that ply continually between the gulf and the capital, now lost in a sudden bend of the stream, now emerging from behind a screen of mangroves, and in their swift descent threatening quick destruction to the small and fragile market-boats, freighted with fish and poultry, fruit and vegetables.
From Paklat Beeloo a great canal penetrates to the heart of Bangkok, cutting off thirty Siamese miles, or sots, from the circuitous river route. But the traveller, faithful to the picturesque, will cling to the beautiful Meinam, which will entertain him with scenery more and more charming as he approaches the capital, higher lands, a neater cultivation, hamlets and villages quaintly pretty, fantastic temples and pagodas dotting the plain, fine Oriental effects of form and color, scattered Edens of fruit-trees, the mango, the mangostein, the bread-fruit, the durian, the orange, their dark foliage contrasting boldly with the more lively and lovely green of the betel, the tamarind, and the banana. Every curve of the river is beautiful with an unexpectedness of its own, here the sugar-cane swaying gracefully, there the billow-like lights and shadows of the supple, feathery bamboo, and everywhere ideal paradises of refreshment and repose. As we drift on the flowing thoroughfare toward the golden spires of Bangkok, kaleidoscopic surprises of summer salute us on either hand.
Presently we come to Paklat Boon, a place of detached cottages and orchards, fondly courting the river, the pretty homesteads of husbandmen and gardeners. Here, too, is a dock-yard for the construction of royal barges and war-boats, some of them more than eighty feet long, with less than twelve feet beam.
From Paklat Boon to Bangkok the scene is one of ever-increasing splendor, the glorious river seeming to array itself more and more grandly, as for the admiration of kings, and proudly spreading its waters wide, as a courtier spreads his robes. Its lake-like expanses, without a spiteful rock or shoal, are alive with ships, barks, brigs, junks, proas, sampans, canoes; and the stranger is beset by a flotilla of river pedlers, expertly sculling under the stern of the steamer, and shrilly screaming the praises of their wares; while here and there, in the thick of the bustle and scramble and din, a cunning, quick-handed Chinaman, in a crank canoe, ladles from a steaming caldron his savory chow-chow soup, and serves it out in small white bowls to hungry customers, who hold their peace for a time and loll upon their oars, enraptured by the penetrating brew.
Three miles below the capital are the royal dock-yards, where most of the ships composing the Siamese navy and merchant marine are built, under the supervision of English shipwrights. Here, also, craft from Hong-Kong, Canton, Singapore, Rangoon, and other ports, that have been disabled at sea, are repaired more thoroughly and cheaply than in any other port in the East. There are, likewise, several dry-docks, and, in fact, an establishment completely equipped and intelligently managed.
A short distance below the dock-yards is the American Mission, comprising the dwellings of the missionaries and a modest school-house and chapel, the latter having a fair attendance of consuls and their children. Above the dock-yards is the Roman Catholic establishment, a quiet little settlement clustered about a small cross-crowned sanctuary.
Yet one more bend of the tortuous river, and the strange panorama of the floating city unrolls like a great painted canvas before us, piers and rafts- of open shops, with curious wares and fabrics exposed at the very water's edge; and beyond and above these the magnificent "watts" and pagodas with which the capital abounds.
These pagodas, and the p'hra-cha-dees, or minarets, that crown some of the temples, are in many cases true wonders of cunning workmanship and profuse adornment displaying mosaics of fine porcelain, inlaid with ivory, gold, and silver, while the lofty doors and windows are overlaid with sculptures of grotesque figures from the Buddhist and Brahminical mythologies. Near the Grand Palace are three tall pillars of elegant design, everywhere inlaid with variegated stones, and so richly gilt that they are the wonder and the pride of all the country round. These monuments mark the places of deposit of a few charred bones that once were three demigods of Siam, the kings P'hra Rama Thibodi, P'hra Narai, and P'hra Phya Tak, who did doughty deeds of valor and prowess in earlier periods of Siamese history.
The Grand Royal Palace, the semi-castellated residence of the Supreme King of Siam, with its roofs and spires pointed with what seem to be the horns of animals, towers pre-eminent over all the city. It is a great citadel, surrounded by a triplet of walls, fortified with many bastions. Each of the separate buildings it comprises is cruciform; and even the palace lately erected in the style of Windsor Castle forms with the old palace the arms of a cross, as the latter does with the Phrasat, and so on down to an odd little conceit in architecture, in the Chinese style throughout.
In front of the old palace is an ample enclosure, paved, and surrounded with beautiful trees and rare plants. A gateway, guarded by s pair of colossal lions and two gigantic and frightful nondescripts, half demon, half human, leads to the old palace, now almost abandoned. Beyond this, and within the third or innermost wall, is the true heart of the citadel, the quarters of the women of the harem. This is in itself a sort of miniature city, with streets, shops, bazaars, and gardens, all occupied and tended by women only. Outside are the observatory and watch-tower.
Some of the grandest and most beautiful temples and pagodas of Siam are in this part of the city. On one side of the palace are the temples and monasteries dedicated to the huge Sleeping Idol, and on the other the mass of buildings that constitute the palace and harem of the Second King. From these two palaces broad streets extend for several miles, occupied on either side by the principal shops and bazaars of Bangkok.
Leaving the Grand Palace, a short walk to the right brings us to the monuments, already mentioned, of the three warrior kings. From noble pedestals of fine black granite, adorned at top and bottom with cornices and rings of ivory, carved in mythological forms of animals, birds, and flowers, rise conical pillars about fifty feet high. The columns themselves are in mosaic, with diverse material inlaid upon the solid masonry so carefully that the cement can hardly be detected. No two patterns are the same, striking effects of form and color have been studied, and the result is beautiful beyond description. Close beside these a third pillar was lately in process of erection, to the memory of the good King P'hra-Phen-den Klang, father of his late Majesty, Somdetch P'hra-Paramendr Maha Mongkut.
On the outer skirt of the walled town stands the temple Watt Brahmanee Waid, dedicated to the divinity to whom the control of the universe has been ascribed from the most ancient times. His temple is the only shrine of a Brahminical deity that the followers of Buddha have not dared to abolish. Intelligent Buddhists hold that he exists in the latent forces of nature, that his only attribute is benevolence, though he is capable of a just indignation, and that within the scope of his mental vision are myriads of worlds yet to come. But he is said to have no form, no voice, no odor, no color, no active creative power, a subtile, fundamental principle of nature, pervading all things, influencing all things. This belief in Brahma is so closely interwoven with all that is best in the morals and customs of the people, that it would seem as though Buddha himself had been careful to leave unchallenged this one idea in the mythology of the Hindoos. The temple includes a royal monastery, which only the sons of kings can enter.
Opposite the Brahmanee Watt, at the distance of about a mile, are the extensive grounds and buildings of Watt Sah Kβte, the great national burning-place of the dead. Within these mysterious precincts the Buddhist rite of cremation is performed, with circumstances more or less horrible, according to the condition or the superstition of the deceased. A broad canal surrounds the temple and yards, and here, night and day, priests watch and pray for the regeneration of mankind. Not alone the dead, but the living likewise, are given to be burned in secret here; and into this canal, at dead of night, are flung the rash wretches who have madly dared to oppose with speech or act the powers that rule in Siam. None but the initiated will approach these grounds after sunset, so universal and profound is the horror the place inspires, a place the most frightful and offensive known to mortal eyes; for here the vows of dead men, howsoever ghoulish and monstrous, are consummated. The walls are hung with human skeletons and the ground is strewed with human skulls. Here also are scraped together the horrid fragments of those who have bequeathed their carcasses to the hungry dogs and vultures, that hover, and prowl, and swoop, and pounce, and snarl, and scream, and tear. The half-picked bones are gathered and burned by the outcast keepers of the temple (not priests), who receive from the nearest relative of the infatuated testator a small fee for that final service; and so a Buddhist vow is fulfilled, and a Buddhist "deed of merit" accomplished.
Bangkok, the modern seat of government of Siam, has (according to the best authorities) two hundred thousand floating dwellings and shops, to each house an average of five souls, making the population of the city about one million; of which number more than eighty thousand are Chinese, twenty thousand Birmese, fifteen thousand Arabs and Indians, and the remainder Siamese. These figures are from the latest census, which, however, must not be accepted as perfectly accurate.
The situation of the city is unique and picturesque. When Ayudia was "extinguished," and the capital established at Bangkok, the houses were at first built on the banks of the river. But so frequent were the invasions of cholera, that one of the kings happily commanded the people to build on the river itself, that they might have greater cleanliness and better ventilation. The result quickly proved the wisdom of the measure. The privilege of building on the banks is now confined to members of the royal family, the nobility, and residents of acknowledged influence, political or commercial.
At night the city is hung with thousands of covered lights, that illuminate the wide river from shore to shore. Lamps and lanterns of all imaginable shapes, colors, and sizes combine to form a fairy spectacle of enchanting brilliancy and beauty. The floating tenements and shops, the masts of vessels, the tall, fantastic pagodas and minarets, and, crowning all, the walls and towers of the Grand Palace, flash with countless charming tricks of light, and compose a scene of more than magic novelty and beauty. So oriental fancy and profusion deal with things of use, and make a wonder of a commonplace.
A double, and in some parts a triple, row of floating houses extends for miles along the banks of the river. These are wooden structures, tastefully designed and painted, raised on substantial rafts of bamboo linked together with chains, which, in turn, are made fast to great piles planted in the bed of the stream. The Meinam itself forms the main avenue, and the floating shops on either side constitute the great bazaar of the city, where all imaginable and unimaginable articles from India, China, Malacca, Birmah, Paris, Liverpool, and New York are displayed in stalls.
Naturally, boats and canoes are indispensable appendages to such houses; the nobility possess a fleet of them, and to every little water-cottage a canoe is tethered, for errands and visits. At all hours of the day and night processions of boats pass to and from the palace, and everywhere bustling traders and agents ply their dingy little craft, and proclaim their several callings in a Babel of cries.
Daily, at sunrise, a flotilla of canoes, filled with shaven men in yellow garments, visits every house along the banks. These are the priests gathering their various provender, the free gift of every inhabitant of the city. Twenty thousand of them are supported by the alms of the city of Bangkok alone.
At noon, all the clamor of the city is suddenly stilled, and perfect silence reigns. Men, women, and children are hushed in their afternoon nap. From the stifling heat of a tropical midday the still cattle seek shelter and repose under shady boughs, and even the crows cease their obstreperous clanging. The only sound that breaks the drowsy stillness of the hour is the rippling of the glaring river as it ebbs or flows under the steaming banks.
About three in the afternoon the sea-breeze sets in, bringing refreshment to the fevered, thirsty land, and reviving animal and vegetable life with its compassionate breath. Then once more the floating city awakes and stirs, and an animation rivalling that of the morning is prolonged far into the night, the busy, gay, delightful night of Bangkok
The streets are few compared with the number of canals that intersect the city in all directions. The most remarkable of the former is one that runs parallel with the Grand Palace, and terminates in what is now known as "Sanon Mai," or the New Road, which extends from Bangkok to Paknam, about forty miles, and crosses the canals on movable iron bridges. Almost every other house along this road is a shop, and at the' close of the wet season Bangkok has no rival in the abundance of vegetables and fruits with which its markets are stocked.
I could wish for a special dispensation to pass without mention the public prisons of Bangkok, for their condition and the treatment of the unhappy wretches confined in them are the foulest blots on the character of the government. Some of these grated abominations are hung like bird-cages over the water; and those on land, with their gangs of living corpses chained together like wild beasts, are too horrible to be pictured here. How European officials, representatives of Christian ideas of humanity and decency, can continue to countenance the apathy or wilful brutality of the prime minister, who, as the executive officer of the government in this department, is mainly responsible for the cruelties and outrages I may not even name, I cannot conceive.
The American Protestant missionaries have as yet made no remarkable impression on the religious mind of the Siamese. Devoted, persevering, and patient laborers, the field they have so faithfully tilled has rewarded them with but scanty fruits. Nor will the fact, thankless though it be, appear surprising to those whose privilege it has been to observe the Buddhist and the Roman Catholic side by side in the East, and to note how, even on the score of doctrine, they meet without a jar at many points. The average Siamese citizen, entering a Roman Catholic chapel in Bangkok, finds nothing there to shock his prejudices. He is introduced to certain forms and ceremonies, almost the counterpart of which he piously reveres in his own temple, genuflections, prostration, decorated shrines, lighted candles, smoking incense, holy water; while the prayers he hears are at least not less intelligible to him than those he hears mumbled in Pali by his own priests. He beholds familiar images too, and pictures of a Saviour in whom he charitably recognizes the stranger's Buddha. And if he happen to be a philosophic inquirer, how surprised and pleased is he to learn that the priests of this faith (like his own) are vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience, and, like his own, devoted to the doing of good works, penance, and alms. There are many thousands of native converts to Catholicism in Siam; even the priests of Buddhism do not always turn a deaf ear to the persuasions of teachers bound with them in the bonds of celibacy, penance, and deeds of merit. And those teachers are quick to meet them half-way, happily recommending themselves by the alacrity with which they adopt, and make their own, usages which they may with propriety practise in common, whereby the Buddhist is flattered while the Christian is not offended. Such, for example, is the monastic custom of the uncovered head. As it is deemed sacrilege to touch the head of royalty, so the head of the priest may not without dishonor pass under anything less hallowed than the canopy of heaven; and in this Buddhist and Roman Catholic accord.
The residences of the British, French, American, and Portuguese Consuls are pleasantly situated in a bend of the river, where a flight of wooden steps in good repair leads directly to the houses of the officials and European merchants of that quarter. Most influential among the latter is the managing firm of the Borneo Company, whose factories and warehouses for rice, sugar, and cotton are extensive and prosperous.
The more opulent of the native merchants are grossly addicted to gambling and opium-smoking. Though the legal penalties prescribed for all who indulge in these destructive vices are severe, they do not avail to deter even respectable officers of the government from staking heavy sums on the turn of a card; and long before the game is ended the opium-pipe is introduced. One of the king's secretaries, who was a confirmed opium-smoker, assured me he would rather die at once than be excluded from the region of raptures his pipe opened to him.