Carl Bock’s frustrating odyssey in North Thailand, 1881-82

On the back of an elephant

Traveling on the back of an elephant, as did Carl Bock in northern Thailand. Illustration from P. Neis, Travels in Upper Laos and Siam (1884)

Welcome to Lampang and the North of Thailand
Carl Bock’s frustrating odyssey, 1881-2

So, you think the people here in the North are friendly, helpful, and charming? Over a century ago, the young Norwegian adventurer Carl Bock held a rather different opinion. ‘They are mean to a degree,’ he wrote in his travelogue. ‘Liberality and generosity are words they do not understand; they are devoid of ordinary human sympathy … They are extremely untruthful, and wonderfully apt at making excuses; and think no more of being discovered in a lie than of being seen smoking … They are naturally lazy.’
More precisely, with such harsh words Bock was depicting the character of Northern Thai people living in Fang, Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen, in the extreme North. However, the population of the more southern parts, he had a scarcely higher regard for.
From Raheng (Tak) in Upper Siam, Bock headed for the North on the back of an elephant. For five days he crossed the thin forests full of granite boulders and an abundance of young teak — similar to the present landscape — without seeing any habitation or a single soul. After a short stop in Thoen (‘well within the semi-independent Lao State’, as Bock refers to the North) he continued to Lakon (Lampang), the first major town, surrounded by ramparts.
When he arrived there on 27th December 1881, both the Chief Prince and the Siamese Commissioner were out of town. The old Phya (aristocrat) who acted as chargé d’affaires refused to offer Bock better accommodation than a dilapidated rest-house. The old man even turned a deaf ear when Bock showed him an official letter from a Siamese minister calling upon all chiefs to assist him. The Norwegian thereupon ordered his men to deposit his luggage in a more comfortable building in the centre of town, which seemed to be unoccupied. The old Phya reacted with more threatening remarks, so Bock spoke again to the man — but the latter at once became dumb. ‘His behaviour so irritated me that, losing all patience, I gave him two strokes on the back with my stick. The effect was magical (…). I fully expected the bystanders to retaliate. Instead of this, however, the Phya’s demeanour completely changed, not for the worse, but for the better.’ Bock then hoisted the “white elephant” Siamese flag on a pole in front of the building where he had taken up his lodging — still unaware it was the law court.

A portret of Carl Bock.

Carl Bock (1849-1932).

Thus Carl Bock, one of the first western visitors, entered the North of Thailand. The troubles in Lampang were the first of many conflicts and problems during his five-month stay. When he finally descended the river Ping and returned to Tak, he must have felt a sense of deep relief.

In 1884, Bock’s Temples and Elephants, a travelogue of over 400 pages — most of them about the North of Thailand — was published in London. This was followed by translations in Norwegian, German, Swedish, and Dutch. A century later it was reprinted by White Orchid Press in Bangkok. Thanks to the latter, and other Thai publishers, such as White Lotus and Silkworm Books, many of the early travel accounts of the region have since been reprinted, or translated into English, and are now available in Thai bookshops.

Of the few dozen I have read, Bock’s is still one of my favourites, notwithstanding the author’s character — ‘a not altogether sympathetic character by the standards of our time’ — as was diplomatically noted in the preface to the 1985 edition. Bock was a tireless observer and was able to gather a respectable amount of facts about the country and its peoples in only five months. What’s more, he had an keen eye for interesting details, and his account is written in an entertaining style.

While most of Bock’s conflicts arose from his inflexible character, it should be mentioned that the Northern administration was in transition — Bangkok gradually reducing the power of the northern princes. Whole areas had been depopulated — some of them just recently repopulated — and the threat of war and colonization still loomed. This lasted until well into the twentieth century. ‘Whom should we obey?’ as local ruler put it a few years later to stress the ambiguity of a situation similar to the one in Lampang during Bock’s visit.

Carl Bock (1849-1932) had studied zoology and science before he left for the East in 1879. From Java, he soon headed for Borneo to explore its interior. His account, The Head-Hunters of Borneo, established his reputation as an adventurer and travel writer. At the embassy of Norway in Bangkok, I was informed that Bock is still considered as one of the great Norwegians of his epoch — alongside the composer Edvard Grieg.

In 1881, Bock arrived in Bangkok to prepare his second expedition. King Chulalongkorn and the Siamese princes he met were all very cooperative — Bock dedicated Temples and Elephants to His Majesty the King. After sightseeing trips in Bangkok, he made an excursion to Phetburi. Crossing the countryside by pony and bullock-cart, he passed through some villages of former Lao prisoners of war and visited a Karen village. In the latter Bock’s abruptness immediately ignited a conflict. While sketching the Karen chief’s wife, Bock touched her face to bring it in the right position — considered as extremely ill-mannered. The sketch itself caused consternation, as the Karen believed it to be an evil spirit. ‘My son will be ill,’ cried the woman, while a large crowd gathered around the hut. Bock, however, succeeded in calming down the situation. As Karen men used to cover their forehead, Bock, who was never inclined to suppress his dislike, was of the opinion that they looked ‘rather idiotic’.

In Lampang, Bock again met some Karen people, as his problems with the old Phya forced him to stay there for ten days. After the incident, Bock was visited by two princes whose attitudes were rather obliging. Yet he could not abstain from ridiculing the way they responded to his custom of shaking hands — in return they held up their left palm with the fingers wide open, ‘an awkward concession to foreign custom.’ And their well-meaning ‘h’m! h’m!,’ reminded him of ‘the sounds of contentment which emanate from a pig when wallowing in a more than usually unsavoury batch of filth.’ He was invited to the house of one of the princes, where he declined the offer of a betel nut quid, instead preferring to smoke a ‘buree’ (cheroot).


A Yunnan trader leading a mule caravan. Drawing by Carl Bock, in Temples and Elephants (1884).

'Lao' tattoos

Tattoos of the 'Black Belly Laos'. An illustration from Carl Bock's Temples and Elephants (1884).

However, the old Phya did not forgive Bock the strokes with the stick and ordered him to pay a fine of fifteen rupees. Bock refused to submit to this penalty, so the chiefs declined to furnish him with elephants, and placed the visitor under strict surveillance. While waiting for the Chao Luang (Chief Prince) to settle the dispute, Bock made the best of his enforced detention. He visited Buddhist temples, observed how the betel quid was prepared, how an instrument to measure time worked, and the ways silverware and lacquerware were produced. He also witnessed the tattooing of of a man — after all he was in the country of  the ‘Black Belly Laosians’, where the men were tattooed from the knees up to the waist. In front of his lodging Bock witnessed the punishment of a prisoner with 45 lashes, and a few days later he was the guest at a wedding party and ceremony. Of all these things, he gives rather detailed and interesting accounts. He even elaborates upon the revenue system, slave debtors, and the way the ruling class ‘squeezed out’ the common people. ‘Thus the natural inclination of the people to miserly and secretive habits is intensified, and the country is kept poor and undeveloped.’ About the position of the women Bock remarked that they ‘exercise a good deal of authority’ — as they still do nowadays.
At last, the Chief Prince returned, and the moment of truth would arrive when the Phya read the Siamese minister’s letter to the Chief Prince in the company of Bock. During the reading, the room became full of ‘pungent smoke caused by the women in the open space below roasting chilies’, and because of the irritating, almost suffocating, sensation the meeting broke up. Bock, whose suspicion sometimes took the character of sheer paranoia, believed that the revengeful Phya was behind the incident. The Chief Prince was certainly not pleased, but whatever his opinion, a few days later Bock was allowed to leave. The Norwegian arranged for elephants and a guide, and headed for Lamphun, but not before ‘entering a formal protest against his prolonged detention, in the shape of a claim for damages against the chiefs and people of Lakon.’
Bock crossed the Khun Tan mountain range ‘amid magnificent scenery’, while admiring the climbing skills of his elephants, and subsequently descended to the Lamphun Plain. Following a visit to Lamphun’s Wat Phra That (Hariphunchai), he elaborated about chedis, Buddhist cosmology, Lao priesthood and ordination, and offerings to temples, but the reader also has to digest one of his many diatribes against the people’s fear of ‘phees’ (spirits). ‘With “phees” to right of him, to left of him, in front of him, behind him, all around him, his mind is haunted with a perpetual desire to make terms with them, and to ensure the assistance of the great Buddha, so that he may preserve both body and soul from the hands of the spirits.’
In Chiang Mai, he was the guest of the missionary Dr Cheek, who had lived there for sixteen years, and was probably one of Bock’s major informants about the country. His stay in Chiang Mai was relatively free of incidents, but after he left for Chiang Rai, in the company only of a guide, interpreter and porters, hardly a day passed without some annoyances.

Teak logs on the Mekong

A train of teak logs. Picture from P. Neis, Travels in Upper Laos and Siam (1884).


Chiang Saen in 2005 with kampans from Laos moored along the bank of the Mekong.

When he finally arrived at Chiang Saen, displaying the Siamese royal standard from a pole in the stern of his boat, he was impressed by the ‘most charming’ scenery. The local ruler, however, was not cooperative at all, while the people were ‘altogether about as churlish a community, as a whole, as I have ever come across.’ These people actually were nearly all exiles from Chiang Mai and Lamphun, banished from their homes on suspicion of being possessed by phi ka — a kind of very dangerous evil spirit — and who had settled there just a few years before. Chiang Saen had been one of the most important towns in the North for centuries, but as a result of continual warfare the town and its surroundings had been deserted for decades until the arrival of the exiles.

Bock wished to cross into the Burmese Shan State, but rumours about one of their armies in the mountains nearby, ready to recapture Chiang Saen, made him decide to return to Chiang Mai. Before leaving the settlement, Bock removed a Buddha statue from a ruined pagoda to take it with him to Europe. This caused him much trouble again, as the locals believed that such an act would attract evil spirits. It was, as Bock believed, another illustration of the superstitions of the people, making it very difficult to associate with them. Bock had commented rather hypocritically upon these troubles to come in an earlier chapter. ‘The majority of the ancient relic-shrines … have undoubtedly been rifled of everything valuable that they ever possessed. This has been done by the Laosians themselves…and yet, … they raised the cry of “desecrating our sacred places,” when I searched some of the old neglected ruins, because it suited them to find a special cause of complaint against me.’

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang in the centre of the old ruined city of Chiang Saen, where Bock removed a number of Buddha statues.

In Chiang Rai, Bock was not allowed to carry the Buddha image indoors as the prince feared that it might attract evil spirits. Returning to Fang, Bock’s reputation was already tarnished. The troublesome farang (‘white man’) was unable to produce a proper document, and the chief refused to assist him in any way. When a letter arrived from Chiang Mai without the seal of the Chief Prince, the chief spat on it.
Rice was scarce and an atmosphere of hostility in Bock’s camp could turn worse any moment. Yet Bock succeeded in bribing the leader of his men to carry the image to Mueang Ngai. Bock’s guide feared that they might be massacred after a tiger had killed a dog and bullock of the owner of the house where Bock spent the nights, and, of course, the visitors were blamed for it. Finally, after seventeen days of waiting, an official order from Chiang Mai arrived and brought relieve. Bock was supplied with elephants and men, and the Norwegian had ‘the satisfaction of shaking the dust of Muang Fang off [his] feet.’

Yet, instead of heading directly for Chiang Mai, Bock still had the energy to cross the mountains to the west in search of the source of the Ping. Near present-day Arunothai he came across a stream, and descending it, he reached the village Shandau (Chiang Dao) in two days.
Back in Chiang Mai, another unpleasant surprise awaited him, when his luggage arrived from Fang. ‘I found that the coolies, in order to lighten their burden, had emptied out all the spirit from the tins containing my natural history specimens, which were completely dried up and spoiled.’
Both the Chief Prince of Chiang Mai and King Chulalongkorn were informed about the many ‘obstacles placed in his way by the natives’ of the North. It was Bock’s last ‘adventure’, as a few years later he joined the Swedish-Norwegian diplomatic service. Some of his trophies are kept in the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo.
Two years later, Frenchman P. Neis traveled in more or less the same circumstances in the North. On hearing about Bock’s troubles following the appropriating of a Buddha statue, he commented: ‘Since his arrival in Europe, Mr. Carl Bock had taken revenge by saying the worst things about these poor Black Bellies.’ In contrast to Bock, Neis retained only pleasant impressions of the country.

©SJON HAUSER: text and pictures