The Gulf of Siam


SOUNDS not seldom bring linked with them strange memories. Sitting in a London hansom with a fast trotter between the shafts, an old Siamese air called the 'Trotting Pony' comes back to me with its quick rhythm and sweet, weird monotony. It brings old loved pictures of white sands, blue sea, and green islets; I hear the swaying palm-tops chattering in the breeze, and the tall yellow matted mainsails of the boats rustling as they come head to wind to their anchors. Before my eyes again the white crests hurry off shore to the open sea, and in my ears the monsoon wind roars down across the bending forests from the purple mountains inland.

The sun, up some three hours from his bed, burns fiercely; it licks the water from the shining hulls of the group of trading luggers, and leaves them caked in the salt they threw about themselves when beating in from the stormy offing.

And in the squealing tones of a two-stringed fiddle, somewhere among the fishing-huts behind the beach, the merry jig tune goes ever on; and the boats' crews squatting out on deck, drying their few garments, and cooking their morning rice, form an appreciative audience.

Among these boats are several distinct types of great interest, second to no craft of Eastern waters in strength of build, in sea-going qualities, or in appearance.

Perhaps the most typical craft of the Gulf of Siam is that known as Rua Pet (duck-boat, so called, it is said, from the similarity of its under-water body to that of a duck). This boat is remarkable for its high overhanging spoon-shaped bow and its very graceful standing lug mainsail, which combine at a distance to give her quite a European appearance. The foresail, however, is not of the staysail type, but is a little standing lug set on a small light mast right up in the eyes of the boat. There is no standing rigging to this mast, and it does not add materially to the weight forward; a halyard, sheet, and vangs which lead to cleats on the main rigging are the only ropes. The mainmast, however, is a stout spar stepped a little forward of the midship section, and raked well aft. It has a pair of rattan stays on each side leading to the masthead. There are generally two sheaves aloft for the main and peak halyards, and a rattan traveller holds the long-yard to the mast. A downhaul at the fore end of the yard is generally twisted round and round the mast, thus keeping in the heel at the required angle, and taking the thrust of the lower end of the yard off the luff-rope, which, as usual in native sails, is not stout enough to take a great strain.


The shape of hull is unique, and betrays the fact that the boat is a sailing-boat par excellence, designed for navigating in rough waters. It is thus in direct contrast to the canoe form of the Malay craft, which were in the first place paddling or rowing boats in which sails came rather as an after-thought. The Rua Pet is essentially a deep-hulled sailing-boat. Her broad flaring bows rise high, and are shaped to the overhang form which has been, in the last ten years, so generally adopted for racing-craft of all sizes in European waters. The stern is sharp-pointed; the rudder is shipped on the stern-post, which curves away down to the keel at a considerable angle. The bottom of the boat is rockered, and she is so trimmed that the greatest draught of water is well abaft the midship section, the boat thus turning very smartly. Whichever way it is looked at, the hull presents beautiful curves to the eye; there is not a straight line about it. The result is just such a form as the sea loves, and uses kindly in its wildest moods.


The buoyancy and sea-worthiness of these boats is remarkable, and as long as they are kept with their high bow to the sea they can weather anything. Aft, especially when loaded, the freeboard is often rather low.

The best of these boats are generally built at the various small ports along the eastern side of the Gulf, such as Bang Pra, Rayawng, etc., and the wood used in their construction is that of the wonderful forest tree known to the Siamese as Ton Takien (Burmese: Thingan), which is found in all the forests of Indo-China growing to an enormous size, and in worm-defying power is comparable with teak. It is a heavy wood, and therefore expensive and difficult to bring out of the forest. Wood pegs are used throughout the construction, and the planking is finished flush with the stem and stern posts, as in the Yorkshire coble, and not rabbeted into them.


In common with not a few other Siamese native craft, the Rua Pet is built with flat stem and stern posts, having at the gunwale a width of nearly a foot and tapering downwards to below the water-line. This method of construction seems to have been a result of Chinese influences, coming by way of Anam. In many forms of Chinese sampans, and other small boats, the flat stem and stern post broadening above the water-line to the gunwale is common; and in Anam a boat similar apparently in nearly every particular to the Siamese Rua Pet is known as gaydiang.


If Anam be the birthplace of this type, its admirable sea-going qualities will be explained; for no worse sea can be met with than that running along that coast in the north-east monsoon; and the Anamese, who are considered by their neighbours, not without reason, to be lacking in most good qualities, must have at least one to their credit.

The boats are ballasted with stones, over which a flooring is placed for the accommodation of cargo and crew. A slight decking, which, as is usual among native craft, is not water-tight, is built across the boat from the stem to the mainmast. Abaft this, a coach roof of dried palm-leaves and bamboo laths is built from gunwale to gunwale to within six or eight feet of the stern-post. This cover is varnished over and is perfectly water-tight, and underneath is the hold and cabin, roomy and comfortable, though ill-ventilated and hot in a noonday calm.


The space at the stern has a floor or grating for the helmsman and crew, and under this the water-jars are usually stowed for the voyage.

A pair of sweeps are carried, and are used in the ordinary standing-up position common in the Far East. A couple of anchors, composite wood and iron grapnels weighted with stones, are stowed forward. When paid out the cable is nipped in a very clever way by a small crooked wooden lever, the end of which is pulled over and held by a rattan grommet slipped over it.

The sails are made of rectangular pieces of yellow palm matting, and are very light. They necessarily have a boom laced along the foot like all native sails made of this material, and a vang assists to trim the yard. The sails are always furled aloft along the yard, by rolling the foot of the sail up on the boom, and at the same time hauling it out forward. The heel of the boom is then secured to the foremast, and a line frapped round the sail keeps all snug. The effect is very much that of a furled lateen, and is graceful to the eye.

Reefing is also done by lowering the yard and rolling up the boom to the required height. The man doing this uses a short wooden handle thrust through a grommet in the fore end of the boom as a lever and when lashed in position to the mast this prevents the sail unrolling. So even our latest patent roller reefing-gear is no new thing.

When riding at anchor, in heavy weather, the main-yard is often lowered on deck; but it is a huge unwieldy spar and takes nearly the whole length of the boat. In port, the sail is always smartly unbent, rolled up in a big ball, and stowed away below.

The sails are reckoned to last a twelvemonth, but in their latter days are generally very ragged and full of holes. The Siamese boatman, however, does not object to this greatly, as it saves reefing; in fact, these matted sails are preferred to cotton or duck, for the very reason that the latter are considered to press a boat down more, while the mat sail, unlike the heavier matted sail of the Malays and of many Chinese junks, provides an automatic relief to the boat in a fresh wind, by allowing a large proportion of its strength to pass right through it. At the same time, in light winds this kind of sail seems to hold the lightest air.



I have watched one of these sails being bent to the yard and hoisted up, looking through which one could see the sea and sky on the other side so distinctly that one felt quite incredulous at its ever being able to take one safely to a destination between two and three hundred miles away. Yet we made our passage, our average run in all conditions of wind and weather being a hundred miles a day. Our worst experience was from a sharp 'nor'-wester' at the head of the Gulf; we kept the whole foresail set, but the mainsail was reefed until the yard was halfway down from the sheave-hole. Thus trimmed she carried an easy helm, and sailed very fast and dry; but the light mat sails could not stand flat enough in the wind prevailing to enable the boat to look up very close.

The foresail in these boats is seldom trimmed or reefed, and is merely a steering sail; as soon as the wind freshens so much as to increase greatly the boat's weather helm, the mainsail is reefed.


There are no labour-saving devices whatever, and it takes the whole strength of the crew of two or three men to swig up the mainyard or get in the sheet, the boat being necessarily luffed to the wind for either purpose.

In size these boats vary considerably. The smaller ones, locally built and used for fishing are often not more than 20 feet long; but trading boats run much larger.

The dimensions of a large boat of this type building at Bang Pra were :--

Length over all

. . . 50 feet.


. . . 15 feet.

Depth outside

. . . 7 feet 6 inches.

She was to cost nineteen catties or roughly £95, when finished, and her hull would not require any general overhaul for at least thirty years. The pegs used in construction were all of hard redwood, the planking was of 1-1/2 inch thingan, and very accurately shaped.

When on a propitious day the mainmast was stepped, and the main rigging, consisting of jungle rattans, finally set up, the necessary offerings were made to the various spirits concerned with the boat's welfare, and she was considered to have commenced life.

The average size and price of these boats is somewhat lower than that given above. At Rayawng, further down the coast, thirty to forty of them are built and rigged ready to sally out at the end of each onshore monsoon, to race for the Bangkok and up-coast market, and their prices range from ten to fifteen catties (£50 to £80). *1*

The other principal type in the Gulf of Siam is the  Rua Chalom, a name applied to all sailing-craft of the Gulf without distinction of rig, in which there are the high stem and stern posts, into which the planks are rabbeted in the ordinary way. While the Rua Pet is deep-hulled and two-masted, and is always the boat of the Siamese, the Rua Chalom is a long, shallow draught vessel, and is more favoured by the Chinese

*1* They run up to 6 wa (39 feet 6 inches) in length, with 6 sawk kub (18 feet 8 inches) beam, and a draught of 3 feet 4 inches to over 5 feet when loaded, the outside depth being 6 feet to 7 feet.


and Luk-Chin *1* fishing population of the coast. The smaller boats of this type are used entirely for fishing purposes. They row well, the crew always standing up on the gratings to the work, and pushing the oar before them.

*1* The name given to the children of mixed marriages between Chinese immigrants and Siamese women.

Under sail they carry one large standing lugsail, which is reefed in the same manner as that already described, but is seldom furled aloft except in the bigger and deeper boats. As in the Rua Pet, there is no purchase to halyard or sheet, and it often takes every bit of five men to set the great mainsail.


A peculiarity of these boats is the steering gear, which consists of two rudders, slung at the upper end on stout uprights at the quarters, and held in just above the blade by a stout piece of rattan. The lee rudder is that generally used under sail, both because of its deeper immersion, and the greater power it gives to counteract the boat's weather helm. In running before a heavy sea both are used, and when lying at their fishing-stakes it is not unusual to see one unshipped and set up aft to act as a mizen to keep the boat's head to sea. In port they are slung up at the quarters, and, flat side uppermost, they are useful for fish cleaning or cutting bait, or for eating the morning rice off. This method of slinging and using quarter rudders is the oldest used by men in sailing-craft, and is the first development from the simple paddle rudder which has in all ages been the first method of steering boats.

The simple paddle or steering oar may be seen in every stage in Siam. The king's state barge is steered by two men with long steering paddles in precisely the same way as was done in the case of the Egyptian boats of the Third Dynasty, 6300 years before Christ. *1*


The long, fixed steering oar of the up-river cargo carrier of the Lao country is used on the same principle as that of the more developed steering paddle in the Egyptian ships of the Punt Expedition, 1600 B.C., *2* which simply turned on its own axis. The slung quarter-rudders of the Rua Chalom are the same as those used in all the Ottoman and Greek merchantmen

*1* Villiers Stuart's Nile Gleanings

*2* Holmes's Ancient and Modern Ships, and Torr's Ancient Ships, and other works.

and galleys from 500 B.C. downwards, by the Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons a thousand years after Christ, and by mediaeval seamen down, at all events, to the fourteenth century, when the rudder appears to have been first slung on the stern-post, both in the North and in the Mediterranean. *1* It became general in Europe after that date, but prevailed still in the Far East for boats with high stern-posts and shallow under-water body aft, such as the Rua Chalom, for which it was peculiarly fitted.


The smaller Rua Chaloms are manned by three, or preferably four, men. These are exquisite little craft, and to see them carrying on for the Bangkok market in a strong breeze is a goodly sight.

While they handle the boats very smartly under sail, the tall, dark-burned crews are seen to even finer advantage on a hot airless morning, when standing to their great long oars they force their boats with the whole weight of their glistening bodies through the calm, streaked water. At such times, beating the water in long, powerful strokes together, about eighteen to the minute, bending their bodies until almost horizontal at the finish, and springing smartly to an upright position again poised on the back-placed leg, they maintain a speed of six knots or more for a couple of hours without a spell.

The larger sea-going fishing-boats are between 40 and 50 feet long, and at the waist often have an additional strake or two built up for about two-thirds of their length, to keep the water out when heeling, the freeboard when loaded up being rather insufficient at this point. The contrivance reminds one of the canvas screen fitted along the waist of the low-sided Greek boats of the Aegean.

*1* The Poole seal of 1325 first shows this method of slinging the rudder, and Charnock figures a Venetian galley of this century with a similar rudder.

They carry a crew of seven men, and are engaged principally in the Pla-tu fishery, which takes place on the east and west coast of the Gulf in turn, as each shore gives shelter to the fish from the prevailing monsoon. Elaborate fishing-traps are built each season at great cost and trouble, as soon as the onshore winds begin to give way to the offshore monsoon. Converging lines of stakes half a mile long worked into the mud and sand of the bottom, lead to the central trap, a large strongly built enclosure of interwoven stakes. So solidly are these built that sailing at night necessitates a very sharp look-out, when in shallow soundings, among them, as collision will mean loss of a bowsprit at least, if nothing worse.

A good deal of seining is also done by these boats, one or two of the smaller three-men boats being in attendance. The results of the catch are dumped into big tubs or pits, where in the course of a few months they mature into that popular delicacy called 'bala-chong' or 'kapi,' dear to the heart of every properly educated native of the Indo-Chinese peninsula. It has other uses besides tickling the palate of the epicure, and stimulating the olfactory nerves of the European traveller; for it is said that the number of depots along the Coast have saved the Siamese Government large sums annually which would otherwise have had to be expended on lighthouses, the odour even on foggy nights carrying further than the brightest light, and warning the mariner off the coast far more effectually.

One peculiarity of these boats remains to be noted. Their rounded shallow form of hull makes them sail well over the wide mud expanses exposed along some portions of the Gulf at low water. Coming in with a fair wind, each boat takes its own well-worn track leading to the long fishing stages built out from the land, and with a man or two out over the stern on their broad wooden mud-skates to steer, they sail gaily in to their mooring, half a mile or more as may be necessary.

The largest form of Rua Chalom used for trading is two-masted, and a much deeper vessel than the fishing-boats. Sometimes the double rudders also are discarded, and a single rudder is shipped in the ordinary way upon the stern-post. The boats then become much more allied to the small Chinese two-masted trading junk, and often have the China sail instead of the Siamese form of sharp-peaked lugsail.


The strong coach-roof abaft the mainmast is retained, and, in addition, the helmsman is often accommodated with a peculiar little shelter right aft, the floor of which is built out considerably on the after-side. This is the embryo of the more commodious stern galleries of the true junk.

One other peculiar craft is met with on the Gulf, called simply Rua Ta, from its enormous cod-like eye. It is apparently Cambodian in origin, and comes from various small ports down the east side. It cannot claim to be very graceful, and is a lumbering hull, with grotesquely painted fore and stern galleries. It generally is rigged with the form of lug common in the Gulf, only with less peak, and has a mizen. But the China lug is adopted in some instances, with advantage in the set but the disadvantage of greater weight aloft. They run up to 60 feet in length and have large carrying capacity, but are neither fast nor weatherly, nor as taking to the eye as the other craft of the Gulf, or the true junks of Southern China.


Just as on the mainland of Indo-China the Chinese have played a very prominent part for centuries, so on all the seas that wash the coast of the great peninsula their ships and their seamen have maintained regular navigation. The junk rig, described elsewhere, is as common as any other in the Gulf of Siam, although the great increase in steam tonnage has given the deathblow to the great junk trade of thirty years ago; and the five-masters, like the square-rigged ships which used to be seen beating out in crowds over the Me Yam bar in the old days, have now almost disappeared.



Besides the large three-masted junks of several hundred tons, which still come round in considerable numbers from southern ports in the China Sea in the north-east, and return with the south-west monsoon, many small junks survive, and indeed show no sign of disappearing from the Gulf. They are nice, handy little craft, from 30 to 50 feet long, generally two-masted, and manned by what is for Chinese a small crew of four or five men. They are genial, pleasant fellows to sail in company with, these Chinese sea-coast settlers, and are full of fun and good humour. Beating down under the lee of the Malay Peninsula, in the south-west monsoon, in company with half a dozen of these little traders, one may have opportunities of seeing some very fine seamanship exhibited by these men in the terrific squalls which break at that season. At night, cross-tacking with these boats is rendered picturesque by the flares which they light each time they go about, to appease the devils of the sea. In my own boat, a thirty-six footer, while engaged on duty in this locality, I have followed these boats in the dark, warping against the current into the river harbours along the coast.


They have the aid of three or four crews from neighbouring boats, and their illuminations on the poop, their splashing oars and quants, and the pandemonium of yelling, chorus-singing, and gong beating, awake the whole jungle neighbourhood for miles; though, as our exhausted crew found to their cost, it all seems to do but little towards appeasing that devil of a current. The absence during part of each month of one of the two usual semi-diurnal tides, a phenomenon also observable in the Gulf of Tonkin, makes getting in and out of these badly marked and ever-shifting channels a matter often of danger and always of difficulty. For the live tide, like the owl, invariably chooses the night-time for its walks abroad, being apparently shy of observation.





Reference must be made also to a very distinctive craft used in Bangkok, the Lorcha, or sailing lighter. These craft run to two hundred or more tons, and are used to carry rice out over the bar of the river to ocean ships completing loading in the roadsteads at Kaw Si Chang or Anghin. The hull is built in Bangkok, of the good teak wood of the country, on European lines; but the rig is that of the usual Chinese three-master, for facility of management by their Chinese crews. They are fine, powerful vessels, and some sixty or more are owned in Bangkok by the various more important exporting firms. Canvas was introduced for the sails by my old friend the late Captain Hicks, in place of the red-brown matting, but it is doubtful if its greater durability is sufficient to make it cheaper in the long-run. The matting sails only last a year, and sometimes get so full of big holes as to be dangerously near carrying away completely in a hard blow after eleven months' wear; but they are certainly more picturesque and, it is said, lighter for handling.



On one occasion, when going on duty for the Siamese Government, I sailed a boat thus rigged, but without the mizen, from Bangkok to Singora in the Malay Peninsula and back, a distance of some twelve hundred miles. She was an old teak steam launch built for the Me Yam river, and was about 36 feet long over all, but leaky, and narrow and crank for her size. I had a young Siamese officer, my assistant Surveyor, with whom I had been many journeys, who shared the cabin with me, and the crew consisted of my Siamese servant and boat-boys. Every Siamese is used to a boat, but only two of them had been to sea with me before. They turned out splendid sailors, and endured the discomfort of a beat of six hundred miles against the monsoon with that cheerfulness which is characteristic of the Eastern, and makes him the best fellow-traveller in the world.



We put the handiness of the Chinese lugsail to a very practical test in the squally weather of the rainy season. The monsoon wind is ever varying in force and direction in the Gulf of Siam, broken as it is in its passage from the Indian Ocean across the high ranges of the Peninsula. At night a very sharp watch had to be kept for squalls, and simplicity and quickness in reefing and 'making' sail proved to be of the utmost value. Unless the night was unusually fine we never carried the jib, a rare sail in these waters and our special pride, but had one batten of the mainsail down in the topping lifts, and whole foresail.



The boat was then quite easy for one hand to manage, and as we were all suffering from malarial fever, it was important not to have more than were absolutely necessary in the deck-watch. Black squalls would threaten and batter us, or would pass away to leeward some miles ahead or astern, always, however, increasing the wind and the sea. When one of these was approaching, all that had to be done was to take a turn of the tiller rope, go forward to the main halyard, and lower away until so many battens were lying snugly in the topping lifts; then similarly with the foresail. Both the sheets would need shortening in a bit, and the thing was done. The watch could return to the cockpit, take a cast of the lead and a look at the chart, wrap up in his oilskins again, take a last look round through the night-glasses, then bow his head to the stinging, blinding onslaught.

As an instance of the kind of weather experienced, I give an extract from the log, the day after we started back from Singora, when I had finished my duties :--


August 21-8 A.M. - Westerly gale all day. Posted letters. Getting ready for sea; awnings and boat-boom in; running rigging rove; Berthon dinghy and gear stowed; unmoored ship, etc.

4 P.M. - Got under way. Squalls off the hill, very strong; set three-reef main and two-reef fores'ls, and reached up the harbour to clear fishing-stakes; turned and went bowling out; awkward back-squalls under the Head. Cleared stakes and went out down the channel. Wind outside N.W. 4, and a short tumble of sea breaking; flood making up against it. Very dirty-looking to windward.

6 P.M. - Tacked inshore and kept her going easy till supper cooked (rice and salt fish curry, rice and sugar pudding, and tea). Wind went to W.N.W. 3; set all sail along the coast on port tack against head sea; this and head winds seem to be our fortune.

Midnight. - Turned out, called by Yen. Very dark to Nor'ard spreading out our way. Wind N.W. 3. Took in jib; tacked ship, four-reefed main and foresail. Sent boys below. Came on to blow heavy with tremendous rain for 1.5 hours. By which time fairly under lee of the land. Everything soaked. Very cold.

August 22-1.30 A.M. - Wind W. Tacked ship and shook out two reefs in both sails.

4 A. M. - Moon setting; very dark but fine, and water smoother. Shook out whole foresail.

6 A.M. - Turned out the rest. Wind W. 2-3 ; set whole sail, and got breakfast as soon as possible. A Malay penjajap astern, and a big Malay (with China sails) outside. Dull-grey cloudy sky, but finer-looking. Only damage last night was breakage of big thermometer. As we tacked in, lots of seining parties along the shore, with their long canoes, shouting and hauling; small temporary fishing cottages under the Casuarinas; at the back, low jungle.

9 A.M. - Aneroid 30.09; wind W. by 2, sunshine. Singora hill still just visible astern.

10 A.M. -Freshening. W. 3-4, going grandly.

11 A.M. - Took in foresail, passing big villages. Clouding up and rainy-looking.

Noon. - Aneroid 30.02; thermometer 80F off Tung Ranawt, thirty miles from Singora Island. Freshening. Took in jib; set three-reef fores'l and four-reefed mainsail. Wind hauling N.W. 6.

1.30 P.M. - Close-reefed Plunging into it, blowing hard, squalls to south'ard.

2.30 P.M. - Shook out two reefs. Wind W. 5.

3.30 P.M. - Took down two reefs again. Wind W. 6, squalls to Nor'ard. Going fairly dry.

4 P. M. - Close-reefed: blowing harder than ever, W.N.W.

5 P.M. - -Shook out two reefs, Wind W. 5, dull blank wall of blue cloud over Lakawn mountains, showing their 6000 feet peaks far to the north-west. Everything same cold steel-blue colour.

6 P.M. - Got supper, and very glad of it, as all very chilled.

6.30 P.M. - Had all sail on her. Weather finer.

We reached Lakawn Roads next morning, meeting only one heavy squall during the night, which lasted some hours.

On only one occasion, in the upper part of the Gulf, were we reduced to less than four reefs. A very bad squall struck us before sunset, and although all sail was off her, and we had only the bare masts and the bunched-up sails lying in the topping lifts to hold the wind. We were nearly on our beam ends for an hour. We all but lost the Berthon stowed on deck; but were able by degrees to hoist up one batten of the mainsail to keep her head to sea. During the rest of the night we beat to windward under four reefs.


With a raw crew such as we had no other sail could have possibly been so easily handled on all these occasions as the China lugsail, and for those seas there is nothing, in my opinion, to equal it.


Another experience when on a pleasure cruise in a 40-ton lorcha on the eastern side of the Gulf was equally favourable to the China lug. It was also during the south-west monsoon from which we had sought shelter for the night among the islands inside Cape Liant. As the weather did not moderate, and a heavy sea and strong wind continued next morning to drive in on the coast, it came to beating out off the lee shore through a very threatening line of breakers which thundered along the edge of the four-fathom line.

•  •  •

The crew consisted of two Malays and my faithful Siamese 'boys.' We hoisted every inch of sail that we dared show, as it was a case of pressing her, and a single miss stays was going to be a serious thing. But nothing could have been more manful than the way that little ship swung up to the breakers, the mizen well in bringing her head to wind, and the foresail paying her head off on the fresh tack. Once she gathered rapid sternway, helped by the steep breaking sea, which was roaring over black rocks not fifty fathoms to leeward. Every one stood silent on deck at his station, watching. Only an exclamation from Yen, the coxswain, as a sea toppled over forward and carried him off his feet, caused a general laugh for a single moment.



It was the last ledge we had to clear. We slowly gathered way and were soon in the long regular sea outside, then lowering another batten in the mainsail, we could breathe again. The customary chatter of the Siamese was speedily renewed with not a few jests at the expense of the mermaids known to inhabit the locality, and speculation as to their feelings at seeing us fetch out in safety.

It is impossible to leave the craft of the Gulf of Siam without a word about the hardy, cheery fellows who build and man them. Whether it was the gentlemanly, pure-blooded Siamese crew of a Rua Pet, or the rough Luk Chins or Chinamen sailing the Rua Chaloms, they were the same; in all weathers and under all conditions cheerful, willing, and astonishingly friendly.


In their language, their ways. and the nameless something which is bred in seamen, they are quite distinct from the shore-going population; and their smartness and pluck in handling their little vessels makes them a seafaring class of which any coast might be proud. They eat little, and know few luxuries; clad often in nothing but a pair of short, loose, white and blue trousers coming halfway down the thigh, they face rain and sun, cold and tropic calm. Their hard brown skins glisten like oilskin coats, and seem as hard and impervious to weather. Finer built men it is impossible to meet. and with a handkerchief round their thick black hair, and a coloured scarf thrown across their great brown shoulders, they make fine figures of men. And beneath a weather-beaten, and even an uncouth, exterior there lies an honest, gentle heart that finds expression in a quiet voice and ready smile.


I had a fairly long and varied experience, and have lived at close quarters with these men within the narrow confines of a 35-footer, and at the end can only say that they have a large share of that direct simplicity of mind and heart which is in the gift of the sea. Remarkable as is the seafaring nature for kindliness of heart and contentment of mind, these characteristics are nowhere more pronounced than in the sea-going classes of the Gulf.

Religion and climate, and temperament resulting from these, have gone far to make the Burmese and Shan, the Siamese and Malay, the excellent comrades that they are to any man whom fortune may lead into their jungle tracks. But if the thoughts of the jungle man are worth exploring, and the sights of his surroundings are worth seeing, those of his brother sailing the monsoon-whipped seas of the tropics have always seemed more so.


For into his life has entered not only the voice of the jungle, which admits all the sons of Nature to secrets that lighted cities cannot do, but to him has called that deep song of the sea which adds a peculiar temper to the most unpromising material, and turns the true stuff into glowing metal. With a certain wistfulness which is alike in young children and in sailormen, there is especially among these people a patient contentedness of mind which, if it will never go far to build up a rigorous people in the Western sense, yet holds a very real charm, and has surely a merit of its own in contrast to the feverish unrest of much of Western society.


If the divine discontent which is the heritage of the British race is one of the sources of its power, there are yet many aspects of it, which are to be met too frequently in society, which certainly appear to hold but little of good for the future of any race, and which cannot but compare curiously with the state of mind which one has left dwelling by those long stretches of palm-fringed shore, with the deep jungle sounds behind and the blue, wind-flecked waters before-shimmering sleepily in the noonday sun, or roaring with their many voices in the thunderous night-squalls.

I have said nothing about the river craft of Siam, for, like most river boats, they only use the sail as an auxiliary in fair winds. But of their kind they are the handiest, best-finished vessels to be anywhere met with for inland navigation.


They are almost invariably teak-built, or with teak topsides over a thingan keel and bilge-piece. The beautiful teak colour is preserved and heightened by several coats of chunam or dammar oil. Complete coach-roofing of beautifully worked reed matting keeps off the fierceness of the sun and the torrential rains. The fore-deck is open for the use of the crew when working the sweeps or quants, and on the lofty platform of the high stern the steersman stands, steering with his toe while he greatly helps his boat forward with a long oar slung in the usual grommet on a stout crutch at the gunwale.

The Rua Pet is the usual Siamese type while the larger Rua Chao or rice-boat is of Chinese build.

The Rua Nua, as its name implies, is the boat of the Lao country northward and is seldom sailed. The peculiar long-nosed and long-tailed variety is the boat of the west or Chiengmai River, while a snub-nosed, short-sterned type of larger burden is used in the Eastern main river.


Not infrequently in the big rice-boats the rudder is slung on the quarter, as in the Rua Chalom and ships of the ancients, a pair of them being often used one upon each quarter *1*

A tall bamboo mast setting a high-peaked cotton lugsail laced to a boom at its foot is the usual inland sail, and is fitted alike to the rice-boat of 12 feet beam and the tiny dug-out of the monastery novice scarcely 10 inches in width.

And these craft, of infinite variety of shape and finish, are the homes of a population numbering in all probability several hundred thousand who spend their lives on board navigating the intricate and beautiful waterways of what to them is more truly than to most the Land of the Free.

*1* For a further description of these river boats and the life of their people, the reader may be referred to the author's  Five Years in Siam.





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