“Usually they trouble themselves with nothing that concerns anyone but themselves, and the indolence in which they are born leads them to prefer the obscurity of an easy and quiet life to all the pleasures, honours and wealth they could acquire if they did any work”.
Pierre Poivre, an 18th Century French visitor to the peninsular west coast, noted: “the land is good and would produce a lot if the less lazy individuals among the inhabitants would make an effort to cultivate it. But the land still lies fallow, there is nothing any where but forest. I do not know whether the land has ever been cultivated since the biblical flood. No one either clears or cultivates it except in proportion to and the extent of what is needed.
“No one foresees in one year the mishaps that may occur in another … the year I was there, the country was threatened with famine and rice had begun to be quite scarce”.
The French Bishop Pallegoix was more admiring.
“The Thai receive foreigners with kindness … the Thai have a gentle, light, unthinking, timid and gay character. They do not like quarrels or anything that feels like anger or impatience.
“They have a charitable nature and never let a poor person leave without giving some rice or fruit … Old age is very much honoured by them. This nation is remarkable for its gentleness and humanity”
This view was shared by De Bourges, who felt that for most Siamese, “a gentle poverty is better than an abundance of goods accompanied by worries”.
One 19th Century British traveller also notes the laid-back character of the local Malays.
“On the whole the Malays do as little work as possible. They some own small gardens with fruit trees, others are sailors and have seagoing prahus, raise large families and wait lazily for such subsistence as the bounty of nature may provide. The male Malay in his own country is a sort of gentleman who keeps aloof from trade whose pride is in his ever ready Kriss.”
Hans Morgenthaler, the Austrian geologist who worked in southern Siam, defends this languid ease, believing it made for a better life than the poor had in early industrialising Europe.
“In the west it seems to me all achievement is the result of a grim and sullen despair arising from the impossibility of escaping from frenzied work … here in Asia things are different. Life gives everyone all that is most essential for living, a loincloth, a stomach full of rice and fruit, a wife and his betel quid. They are not tortured by any consuming and unattainable desires.”
In his palace in Bangkok in 1855 with the British envoy Sir John Bowring, King Mongkut attempted to explain the laid-back character of the Siamese.
“We have no wants, we have a hot sun. A gentlemen here only requires a waistcoat or so, but with you, [the British] how many wants?”
To this Sir John Bowring motioned around the king’s fancy palace, whose elegant walls were festooned with many new-fangled western contraptions, clocks, telescopes and other imported ornaments and replied, “But you do have wants, or why all these clocks, looking glasses, ornaments and a hundred things?”
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com