These fables describe the region as comprising “densely wooded lands… where ships arrived daily from different quarters of the world carrying aloes, sandal, camphor, pepper and ginger.”
The fables tell us that in these ambrosial lands ambergris flowed in the rivers, itinerant pepper-gatherers sailed between the islands, people consumed madness-inducing local herbs and “frightful savages” practiced piracy and cannibalism on passing traders.
The ominous interiors of these islands held lost jungle valleys where rhinoceroses roamed and gigantic man-eating pythons “as long as palm-trees” and other sinister creatures prowled with “eyes like coals of fire”.
Such fabulous seafarer tales told of the Malay Peninsula were often actually based on facts. An ancient Chinese account noted that the peninsula was home to a large bird which has the claws of an eagle and speaks in the human tongue.
This awesome-sounding bird, on closer inspection, turned out to be none other than the most commonplace mynah bird which does have talons almost like those of an eagle, though much smaller, and which – when captive – can be taught, parrot-like, to repeat a few human words.
Greek writers also recorded earnestly that real Satyrs lived in the forests in the Malay Peninsula. Satyrs are the shy half-men, half-animal gods with tails who prance around in Greek theatre playing flutes, etc. This yarn no doubt came from tales told by returning sailors of the “Orang-utans”, or “Men-of the jungle”, shy and with long tails, which lived in the interior jungles.
In The Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad is an Arab sailor from Basra in Iraq, then part of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258). In one tale he arrives on one island in the East that produced – just as Phuket did at the time – “tin from its mines, Indian canes (rattan) and excellent Camphor.”
There, Sinbad frequented the society of the learned Indians who had gathered as courtiers and traders around the local rajah. The rajah of Thalang, as we have seen, would probably have had such Indian Brahmin courtiers at the time.
Sinbad was so enchanted with this Elysian isle he decided to forsake the stress and travails of his busy life back home in Basra and remain on the island where, like many other visitors to Phuket over the millennia, and still today, he recounts how he “married a beautiful lady… bought slaves and fine lands and built me a great house. And thus settled myself… to enjoy the pleasures of life… and employed myself wholly in enjoying the society of my friends and making merry with them”.
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