A literary journey through Thailand

The Irish Times September 27 1986

The Bangkok Post February 7 1988

‘Mr Somerset Maugham likes his martini served in a very chilled, long-stemmed glass. The Vermouth should be Noilly Prat, the gin must be Tanqueray. There is also a little secret to Mr Maugham’s martini. You should first pour a small amount of Benedictine into the empty glass and swirl it about, creating a lining. This adds a subtle taste and aroma to Mr Maugham’s liking.’

The above notes are from the bartender – in the 1920s – of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. It is entirely characteristic of Willie Maugham that there should be ‘a little secret’ to his martini. One can imagine him, cross-legged, diminutive and certainly authorial, nudging the poor bartender’s elbow for that smidgin of Benedictine.

Somerset Maugham was one of the many famous and not so famous writers who have visited Bangkok and Thailand over the centuries. However, he was by no means the first. Thailand has a long tradition of welcome for writers, perhaps because it has produced so few of international renown itself. Bangkok, while not a literary port of call which springs immediately to mind, nonetheless has notched up quite a number of references in the annals of Western and, latterly, Asian literatures.

The first of these must be that master traveller himself, Marco Polo. The grandfather of the intrepid trekker, this Italian son of the Venetian merchant class is the first Orientalist writer and professional romancer to take not of Thailand, or, as he then called it, Lokak.

Lokak’s exact location is a subject of debate which may never be accurately solved. It is either Thailand or Malaysia but the description given by Polo, with his merchant’s eye, leads one to suspect the former.

Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254, from where he journeyed to China in 1271. He spent 20 years in the service of Kublai Khan, travelling extensively in the Mongol empire. His Travels, a charming if slightly useless guidebook for the modern traveller, records with much local detail and Eurocentricity the mores, produce, customs and lifestyles of large tracts of Asia as it will never be again.

Here he is, straight out of the 13th century:

‘Another 500 miles towards the S.E. brings us to a large and wealthy province of the mainland whose name is Lokak. The people are idolaters, ruled by a powerful monarch and speaking a language of their own. They pay no tribute to anyone, because their country is so situated that no one can go there to work mischief. If it were accessible, the Great Khan would soon subject it to his empire. This province produces cultivated brazil wood in great abundance. Gold is so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it. There are elephants and wild game in profusion. From this kingdom come all the cowrie shells that are spent in all the provinces of which I have told. There is nothing else worth mentioning except that it is such a savage place that few people ever go there.’

Times certainly have changed: today people are flocking to this gilded kingdom. Marco Polo’s details are telling and for anyone who pretends to know Thailand even a little, they have a resonance down the centuries. A powerful monarch; an independent people; gold; elephants: here we have glimmers of the Kingdom of Siam to come.

A leap forward in time brings us back to the comfortable surroundings of the Oriental Hotel again, late 19th century. Its first literary visitor, in 1887, was less concerned with his Benedictine lining and more with getting across the bar, a difficult feat at times:

‘One morning early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of land, we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.’

The town here is Krung Thep, the City of Angels or, as it is better known, Bangkok. And the traveller who reached it by way of the winding Chao Phya was a Polish-born sailor who would later achieve international fame as Joseph Conrad, author of Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and many more masterpieces of English literature.

Conrad had come to Bangkok to take over as captain on his first ship, the Otago. Here is an extract from a letter to her Majesty’s Consul-General in Bangkok:

‘The person I have engaged is Mr Conrad Korzeniowski. He bears a good character from the several vessels he has sailed out of this port. I have agreed with him that his wages at 14 pounds per month to count from date of arrival in Bangkok, ship to provide him with food and all necessary articles...’

Conrad’s journey from Singapore to Bangkok then took four days. He described the capital as ‘this unhealthy place’. On arrival, he found his ship less than ship-shape and most of the crew ill, so he ended up at the Oriental, then Bangkok’s only good-quality hotel. The luxury of the surroundings somewhat perplexed the wandering, bell-bottomed, literary Pole. With 14 pounds per month we’re not surprised.

He was at sea in the lobby when the owner and manager of those days, Captain Andersen, founder of the East Asiatic Trading Company, and a nautical man himself, sidled up and offered the young Conrad room number 1. Any sailor in his position would have leaped at the offer: which is exactly what Conrad did.

Falk, The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line are three of Conrad’s works which make use of Bangkok and its impressive river as a backdrop. Falk derives its title from the firm Falk and Beidek, which ran two stores in the upper and lower parts of town at that time.

‘In Bangkok, when I took command, I hardly ever left the ship except to go to my charterers (Messrs. Jucker, Sigg & Co.). The firm still exists in modern-day Bangkok but its name has changed to Berli, Jucker & Co.’

Now, almost 100 years later, there is a Joseph Conrad suite situated above the original wing of the hotel which has been transformed into an authors’ lounge. There is a small book-case where you can peruse at leisure the titles of the rich, famous and literary who have all at one time or another stayed there.

In the late 19th century the Oriental was a one-storey hostelry raised on piles, offering family accommodation, American bar, billiard saloon, newspapers, boats for hire and a table d’hote. Breakfast was at 9.30 a.m., tiffin at 1.00p.m. and dinner at 7.00p.m. There is no record of what Conrad drank. He was probably a straight vodka man, with no holds barred, who likely saved the bartender some elbow work.

William Somerset’s entry onto the scene in 1923 had a somewhat grander note:

‘Mr Somerset Maugham, novelist and playwright, has arrived at Rangoon from Ceylon, with the intention of making a prolonged tour of the Shan States, crossing the Salween River, and eventually making his way via Chiang Mai to Bangkok.’

On January 10th of that year the newspaper announced:

‘We regret to learn that Mr W. Somerset Maugham is down with malaria fever, doubtless contracted when coming overland from Mandalay. His temperature this afternoon was 103.’

Madame Maire, the then manageress, did not relish having a sick author in her hotel and the poor, suffering Willie was nearly turned out, temperature at 103 or not. However, he was allowed to stay, and returned many times to Bangkok and the Oriental. His last sojourn was in 1960, for his 85th birthday. He must have taken quite a shine to the place: one suspects there is more to it than the Benedictine lining. The curious can look up those feverish days in his collection The Gentleman in the Parlour.

Another leap across time and cultures brings us to one of the 20th century’s literary legends. Yukio Mishima, prolific and celebrated Japanese author and subject of a recent award-winning film, has written about a slightly more contemporary Bangkok in his novel The Temple of Dawn. The period is an interesting one from the point of view of history – 1940 – just before the Japanese occupation of Siam. The novel has fine, writerly descriptions of the city under the monsoon weather, and of the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) of the title. But the life of the city is used as a convenient backdrop for working out Mishima’s often contorted theories of reincarnation and Japanese honour. In this he misses much of the real pulse of the city. Sometimes, though, he hits the mark:

‘The roadside trees, once the city’s most beautiful feature, have been felled here and there in the path of highway construction, and some streets have been partially paved. Mimosa trees, intercepting the strong rays of the sun, form pools of deep shade on the roadways, covering them with black veils of mourning. After a thunder squall the leaves, shrivelled in the heat, suddenly revive, and refreshed, raise their heads.’

Our last journey through the literary past brings us to the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu, whose bicentennial was celebrated a couple of years ago. Sunthorn Phu (1786-1856) had a long and picaresque career, spanning three reigns and writing poetry both in and out of prison. He is considered Thailand’s greatest poet, mixing romance, pathos and humour. His translator, Prince Prem Purachatra, a poet of distinction in his own right, has described his verse as ‘touching the heart-strings of the common people.’ No wonder he is known in Thailand as the People’s Poet.

One of his best known narrative poems is Nirat Muang Klaeng, telling of a long journey the poet made from Bangkok to Rayong to see his father in 1807, during the reign of Rama 1.

Here then, years after Marco Polo and a century before Maugham, is the Siamese countryside captured in shimmering verse:

Many of the villagers
Came to give me their welcome affection,
Told me about the theft of buffaloes
And the tyranny of masters who beat them,
Asked the price of knives and scythes I could buy for them.
The conversation was lively and intimate,
With many sweet words of endearment.
I was bored to death with listening.
Next morning I was invited out into the forest
With boastful promises of bountiful game.
By the end of the day,
We came home with hares, alligators,
And deer to grill and curry.

Obviously a poet with that rare gift in Thailand, a sense of irony.

This brief journey has taken us from 13th century Lokak, through old hotels and along new highways, to the simplicity of rural Siam in the early years of the 19th century. The writers and writings were varied and with an individual voice but they had one thing in common: a love of the natural landscape and charming exoticism that is Thailand