BANGKOK — The recently translated journal of a Russian explorer detailing his visits to Siam in the late 19th century bears surprising parallels with modern travel experiences.
“He wrote sincerely, without the political correctness we know today,” Kirill Kuznetsov, a lecturer for the Russian Geographical Society, said. “What he saw, he wrote it straight, as it was.”
Kuznetsov presented a lecture on the journeys to Siam of Grigory de Vollan and Nikolai Mikloukho-Maclay, two 19th century Russian explorers, on Aug. 1 at the Siam Society. de Vollan’s travel journals were recently translated into English for the first time in an academic journal.
Grigory de Vollan’s (1847–1961) observations in “In White Light,” written during his travels to Siam between 1890 and 1894, are certainly blunt to some modern sensitivities.
Kuznetsov live-translated some of de Vollan’s statements on farang expats in the Kingdom: “Siam was never a colony of England, but Englishmen are here and they built some buildings. Englishmen, as anywhere in the world, waste their money when constructing overseas. They want to impress the local population with their grandeur, so that they can show they are rich and can afford it.”
“Diplomats behave the same as the buildings: arrogant,” de Vollan continued.
Like modern day travellers to Thailand, de Vollan made sure to check out local fruit and goods at markets, accompanied by a Russian expat.
“I cannot understand how they can allow this fruit with such a bad smell,” de Vollan wrote on durians. “But it has a nice taste, and exciting properties.”
Possibly referring to kapi, de Vollan also noted the strong smell of fermented prawns. He and his friend also “bought silver and gold for cheap” while perusing the bazaar, before concluding, “There are a lot of Chinese here. And the items are not so different from a market in China.”
Kuznetsov also described Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846 –1888), who recorded his observations on Bangkok during a nine-day trip from Feb. 17 to 26, 1875. He would go on to conduct pioneering anthropology in New Guinea.
“The city is not old by Asian standards, but has its own character,” Kuznetsov translated Miklouho-Maclay’s text. “There’s too little time for such an interesting city.”
Miklouho-Maclay came with Singapore governor Andrew Clarke’s company on the Pluto ship in an attempt to recover from a fever. Like many farangs today, he visited tourist spots like Wat Pho, Wat Saket, and the Grand Palace.
The then 23-year-old Russian even saw the then 22-year-old King Rama V from afar but did not get a chance to greet the King. Later on, Miklouho-Maclay requested an elephant to dissect and study anatomy. The King granted him the elephant.
“Some faces are similar to the Malay, and some are similar to the Chinese. Others are neither, and the young prince falls in this category,” Kuznetsov said, live-translating Miklouho-Maclay’s records.
Mikhoulo-Maclay regarded polygamy negatively, Kuznetsov said. And like many farang travellers, he had much to say on Thai women as well.
“The women work a lot, and they wear clothes for working. One could mistake a woman for a man, but upon closer look, the forms are different. Some of them are pretty,” Kuznetsov read.
Nattanop Palahan, a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Journalism from St. Petersburg University, said that the records provide a refreshing perspective on Thai-Russian history.
“In Thailand’s Russia studies, people don’t often talk of ordinary Russians, or Russian explorers, who visited Thailand. Mainstream history just talks about Nikolai II’s visit in 1891 or Chulalongkorn’s visit to Russia in 1897,” Nattanop said.
There are Thai records that mention Russian visitors prior to Nikolai’s visit – for example, the Rama III-era tablets, “Poems and Images of Foreigners,” which were later converted into a book describing foreigners from 32 countries. The 15th and 16th poems are titled “Rus Petersberg” and “Rus,” and describe Russians from St. Petersburg and Tartars.
“Rus Petersberg of the western lands / many people of their city, we hear / are in freezing cold seasons,” reads the first poem, with mentions of “strong-smelling” meat and dairy.
de Vollan and Miklouho-Maclay were explorers from the Russian Geographical Society, founded by Tsar Nicholas I in 1845 to send expeditions into Siberia, Central Asia and beyond. The society’s activities were largely halted after the 1917 Revolution. Revived today as an NGO, the society focuses on giving lectures, promoting tourism, and hosting photography contests.
The first recorded contact between Russian and Siam was in Feb. 19, 1863, when the ships Gaydamak and the Novik set anchors at Bangkok. Another little-known fact is that the Thai Royal Anthem, “Sansoen Phra Barami,” was composed by Pyotr Shchurovsky in 1888.
Close relations between Thailand’s aristocratic class and the empire continued, with a well-documented friendship between Rama V and Nikolai II. Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, the 40th child of Rama V, also married Ekaterina Desnitskaya, whom he met while studying in the Russian Empire.