William and Robert Chambers,
Text on page A-36
juice of rasped cocoa-nuts. The dinner is generally sumptuous, and the etiquette quite ceremonious, but far removed from stiffness and reserve. The waving punka overhead entirely prevents discomfort on account of the heat. So far as my experience goes, English society in India is far more intelligent and agreeable than among the same grade in England, perhaps because they are all travellers ; and travelling not only instructs and polishes, but tends strongly to promote liberal and enlarged feelings. After dinner, music and rational conversation fill up the evening, and all retire in good season. A cup of tea is generally handed round in the course of the evening, but spirituous liquors are sinking into disuse.
Missionaries in Hindustan live in a similar manner, only as much more plainly as ministers in this country live more plain than their wealthy parishioners. The missionaries in Burmah have breakfast and dinner earlier, and omit tea. They do not keep horses, and take their morning and evening exercise on foot. They seldom get any other meat than fowl, or any other vegetables than rice, sweet potatoes, stewed cucumbers, and pumpkins. Plantains are often fried or roasted, and are very fine. At stations where there are English officers, there are always bakers and herdmen, who daily furnish excellent bread, and plenty of butter and milk.
Leaving Singapore on the 24th of May 1837, I arrived off the river of Siam, without accident, in eleven days. We came to anchor on the edge of the bar, amid numerous junks just leaving Siam, but could scarcely discern the low shore, distant fifteen or sixteen miles. The river, called by the natives Meinam, or " mother of waters," is difficult to find, as the coast is a dead level, scarcely above low-water mark. The bar is ten or twelve miles broad, with but one and a half fathom's water at low tide, and extending many miles east and west. Vessels, therefore, can pass and repass with only part of their load. Even thus lightened, they generally ground once or twice, but the bottom being soft mud, except at its outer edge, they sustain no injury. The south-west monsoon, concentrating here as in the end of a funnel, raises a heavy sea, and makes it a wild place for vessels to remain, as they must for several weeks. Formerly, ships trading to the Meinam river anchored in the fine harbour of Ko-ci-chang island, where wood and water are easily procured ; but the great distance renders it inconvenient. A small fleet, however, in possession of that cluster of islands could effectually blockade Bankok, and cut off all its commerce.
Taking a seat with the captain in the pinnace at dawn of day, on the 4th of June, we crossed the bar in about three hours, scarcely discerning the mouth of the river till we were in it. I looked in vain along the beach for the nocto * said to be taller than the ostrich. The mouth of the river is about a mile and a half wide, and presents nothing but gloomy mangroves, the deadly silence of which was only broken by the occasional screams of unseen birds. The region is precisely similar to the Sunderbunds of the Ganges.
We had scarcely ascended a mile, before there came on one of those violent squalls of wind and rain common here at this season. On every side had been seen boats ; but now, in a minute or two, they were either upset, or, being near the shore, had run aground for safety. Being in the mid-channel for the benefit of the tide, we were near being overturned. As we dashed on before it, using every effort to reduce sail, and expecting at least to lose the mast, we passed some of the natives swimming with perfect coolness beside their boats, and preparing to right them. It was difficult to feel that we must not stay to aid them, but the offer would have been matter of ridicule.
Three miles above the mouth of the river, we reached the town of Paknam, where all foreigners are required to stop and report themselves. The first impressions of Siamese towns were by no means exhilarating. Led
* So callcd by the Siamese, from noc, great, and to, a bird.
through rain and mud, along narrow, filthy passages, called streets, and a stinking bazaar, we reached the mean and dirty house of the governor of the province. The hall of audience presented a burlesque on official pomp. It was a large room open in front, with part of the floor raised, as usual, a few feet, destitute of carpet or matting. From the lofty ceiling hung an odd diversity of small chandeliers, apparently never used, and against the very tops of the pillars stood Dutch and Chinese mirrors, leaning forward, in which one sees himself drawn out into more shapes than Proteus ever knew. Chinese paper-hangings and pictures, neither new nor nice, covered most of the rest of the roof and walls ; the whole grim with dust and smoke. His lordship, perfectly naked, except the cloth round his loins, sat on a mat, leaning on a triangular pillow, covered with morocco. The attendants crouched as before thA highest monarch, and we alone dared to assume any position by which the head should be more elevated than his. A multitude of questions were asked, respecting the ship's size, cargo, armament, crew, and c., and my name, office, countries I had seen, objects in coming to Siam, and intended length of stay; all which were carefully written down to be forwarded post haste to Bankok.
Preferring exposure to the rain, in the open pinnace, to our catechetical tedium, we embarked as soon as released, and arrived at Bankok (distant about twenty-five miles) a little after dark. At Paknam, and several places above, are forts on well-selected points, and somewhat in European construction. Most of the way, the shores are uninhabited, and appear to be in process of being redeemed from the sea, the high tide laying them under water. Almost the only growth, at first, is the attap, or dennee, called by Siamese chak (Cocos-nypa)j and of which the best thatch is made ; and the mangrove (Rhizaphora), in several varieties. This latter plant grows over all the east, on the boundary between salt and fresh water, and sometimes in the salt water itself, and is a principal agent in extending the deltas of great rivers. It grows down to low-water mark, its thick strong roots resisting almost any wave. The fruit, club-shaped, and a foot long, bending down the branch to which it hangs, reaches the earth, vegetates, and forms an arch. These arches, roots, branches, and strong stems, obstructing all currents, the quiet water deposits its sediment, and earth gains on ocean.
The latter half of the way presents almost a continued succession of houses, embowered in a dense growth of various palms and other fruit-trees. Behind, as I afterwards found, are rich and extensive paddy-fields. The river at the mouth is, perhaps, two miles wide, but half way up lessens to one, and at Bankok to less than half a mile.
Bankok is about twenty-five miles from the sea ; latitude 13A 58', longitude 100A 34'. It covers a considerable island in the river, and extends along both shores for several miles above and below. Its aspect differs from that of any other city, and but for its novelty, would be rather repulsive. Little is seen on ascending the river but a row of floating houses on each side,
small and mean ; most of them open in front, and containing a little shop. The goods are arranged on asmall and mean ; most of them open in front, and containing a little shop. The goods are arranged on a