"Steve Van Beek is the River guy…The text is both lyrical and magisterial,… Into these sumptuously illustrated pages Van Beek has poured his copious knowledge of Thai history and geology, flora and fauna, river boats and royal barges, rice farmers and teak wallahs, dams and fish traps, river spirits and water rites, waterborne communities and modern river pilots.
James Eckardt, The Nation
Life as a river
March 27, 2004
A look at the Chao Phraya's vital role in the Kingdom's evolution
THAILAND REFLECTED IN A RIVER : By Steve Van Beek Wind & Water, 264 pp, hard cover, 1,995 baht, available at Asia Books and other leading bookstores
You would have to be really crazy about the Chao Phraya River to do what Steve Van Beek has done: Tracing the lengths of the mighty river's tributaries - the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan rivers - from their sources on a paddle boat, rowing through forests, gorges, mountain passes, and past valleys, plains and farmlands on solo journeys that lasted months.
From the Ping in Northern Thailand he paddled down to Nakhon Sawan in the Central Plain, where the four rivers merge to form the Chao Phraya, and from there followed the River of Kings, as the Chao Phraya is known, to where it empties into the Gulf of Thailand at Paknam in Samut Prakan. Rowing a total of 1,152 kilometres, he was visibly lighter when he finished his long adventurous journey, but he lived to tell the tale in Slithering South, one of several books he has written about Thailand's best known river.
Van Beek's observations of life along the Chao Phraya while he was slithering south from the river's sources has led to another book, this time looking at the river as a mirror that reflects the evolution of the Kingdom. In Thailand Reflected in a River the author follows the route of the Chao Phraya, taking readers back in time to the ancient kingdoms of Lanna, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya before exploring the development of Bangkok as seen from the river.
"Water is the true home of the Siamese, and it is on this, their native element, that their real character and genius are best exhibited," Ernest Young observed in The Kingdom of the Yellow Robe (1898). To this Van Beek adds that from the beginning, Thais have sited their cities near rivers, a trait which distinguishes them from most other Asian cultures.
"Thai monarchs in north and central Thailand built their principal towns beside rivers in the belief that they were integral components of urban design, providing sustenance, mobility, and protection," he writes. "In so doing, the Thais melded two worlds, the liquid and the solid, into a cohesive whole, making island fortresses of their cities."
However, there is one notable exception: Sukhothai. Wondering why Thailand's first capital was the only royal city not built on the banks of a river - and how a city as small as Sukhothai could have produced superb temples, a grand palace and a multitude of beautiful monuments in only 150 years of active existence - the author goes on to unravel the mystery, citing accounts by archaeologists, historians, architects and other scholars.
Although Sukhothai eschewed rivers, it had an excellent irrigation system and its satellite cities were located on riverbanks: Si Satchanalai, Chalieng and Sawankhalok on the banks of the Yom, and Kamphaeng Phet on the Ping. But like the Lanna Kingdom in Chiang Mai before it and Ayutthaya which succeeded it as the Siamese capital, water played an important role in the rise of Sukhothai, but it also contributed to its downfall.
Thailand Reflected in a River highlights the importance of the Chao Phraya, and water, not only as a dependable provider of the Thai staple foods of rice and fish, and nourisher of crops, but also as the highway for commerce, transporter of logs for the timber industry and link to the outer world; as the medium for major festivals such as Songkran and Loy Krathong and for such favourite pastimes as longboat races; as the element of rites and rituals for both royalty and laymen; and as the heart of Thai religious beliefs and superstitions, culture and literature, and more.
It gives readers a glimpse of boats which the Siamese have used through the ages, from the humble bamboo raft to the royal barges, and describes how ingenious Siamese engineers modified the Chao Phraya by digging canals to serve different purposes: as protective moats, to link one river with another, or to reduce travel distances.
It looks at waterborne communities, and reminds us of a bygone era when boats served as homes for countless families moored on the riverside. As British envoy John Crawfurd observed on first arriving in Bangkok in 1825: "On each side of the river there was a row of floating habitations, resting on rafts of bamboos, moored to the shore. The number of these struck us as very great at the time, for we were not aware that there are few or no roads at Bangkok, and that the river and canals form the common highways, not only for goods, but for passengers of every description. Many of the boats were shops containing earthenware, blachang (fish sauce), dried fish and fresh pork. Vendors of these several commodities were hawking and crying them as in an European town."
The fascination of the foreign community in the floating towns prompted King Mongkut to comment in a letter to his ambassador in London in 1857: "A great number of Englishmen have been and are now residing in this country. They seem to have an accurate knowledge of everything that is to be known here, but it is rather regrettable that they still retain a fixed idea ... (that) three-quarters of the houses in Bangkok are built in the water, only one quarter being built on dry land."
With the construction of dams and roads, and with the advent of the motor car, those days are now long gone, preserved only in pictures such as the 590 that illustrate Thailand Reflected in a River.
Steve Van Beek has a way of writing about this subject closest to his heart that makes readers feel as if they are actually there with the author during his explorations, and watching events as they unfold. Reading his book is like watching a movie: Each individual scene gives just a glimpse, but put together they tell a story. By the time I finished reading it, I felt I've come to know Thailand more intimately and began to look at things I used to take for granted in full perspective.
The result of 15 years of river studies and research work, Thailand Reflected in a River is a real heavyweight, not just in texture but also in its contents, which include accounts by early historians reproduced in sepia as clippings from the pages of old books. Weighing two kilogrammes and 9.5 inches by 13.5 inches in size, it is not the kind of book you would take to read on the beach or while waiting for a flight somewhere.
But for those who want to know how the Kingdom evolved, and for Thais who want to understand their history as a people - as well as the economic, cultural and social development of their country - Steve Van Beek has produced yet another book that deserves a place of honour in any library.