Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
In this extract the victor of a mighty battle, Siamese King Boromma Trailokanat, shows his devotion to Buddha by entering a monastery.
Here told: To cancel sin and see full merit.
He quit the throne, resigned the royal wealth,
ordained as monk, and looked as beautiful
as Buddha bringing bliss unto the realm.
Here told. He was bright with merit’s strength,
humanity rejoiced by strewing flowers.
Yuan Phai is possibly the oldest work of literature from Siam. It tells of the defeat of Chiang Mai, the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom in Thailand’s north, at the hands of the Siames captital (now Bangkok). Before looking at this extraordinary epic, it is worth taking in a bit of the historical background to the story.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by a local prince called Mengrai. The city became the centre of an empire he had newly conquered and consolidated, containing the ancient Northern cities of Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen. Chiang Mai owes its existence to the River Ping that facilitated trade as far as Burma, China and the Gulf of Siam. Situated in a wide, lush valley at the base of a mountain, it could support many thousands of people.
Prince Mengrai constructed a moat and fortifications around the city, and called his new empire La-Na-Thai, which has been simplified to Lanna and translates as ‘Thai Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.’ The King wanted Buddhism to become an essential part of the state, and the city quickly became an important centre for Theravadan Buddhism as well as trade. Buddhism became a way of life for the people and many of the customs developed at that time that continue today.
The 15th century heralded a ‘Golden Age’ for Chiang Mai under King Tilokaraj, who consolidated Chiang Mai’s political power. He erected temples, supported the arts, and established the city as a centre for learning. This is when the distinctive ‘Lanna Style’ of the arts emerged, influencing dance, weaving, textiles, laquerware, woodcarving, architecture and cuisine. In a measure of the city’s power and influence, the World Buddhist Council was held there in 1455. But after the King’s death Chiang Mai’s position was weakened by a series of wars between Burma and the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya to the south.
This is where Yuan Phai takes up the story. India has the Mahabharata, Greece the Iliad, Persia its Book of Kings, England its Arthurian legends and France the Chanson de Roland. For Thailand, it is Yuan Phai – the Defeat of Lanna. This military epic describes a great battle between the armies of Siam’s Ayutthaya, led by King Boromma Trailokanat, and Chiang Mai, led by Tilok, over the domination of the northern cities. The battle is thought to have taken place around 1475, and the poem written shortly after, either by a monk, or possibly the son of the Siamese King. It contains many details of events in fifteenth century Thailand that are nowhere else to be found.
The story begins with an elaborate eulogy to the victor of the war, Siam’s King Boromma Trailokanat. It compares him to gods and heroes, praising his divine origin, his mission, knowledge, qualities and talents. Apart from the competencies to be expected in all matters military and religious, the eulogy lists his skills in debating, recitation, verse composition, history, magic and astrology.
After the eulogy a strange apology appears. The author asks his peers to assist him with the work:
If wrong, amend or scrub, I humbly beg,
If right, buff up the phrasing, could you please,
And he asks for a blessing to ensure he has the health and strength to complete it.
The main narrative focuses on the conflict with the Lanna. Like other military epics, it romanticises war. The army’s preparation and march to battle comes to life with rich description, sound and colour. The King issues commands to mobilise and he ‘plans for pillage, siege, assault’. The troops are ‘brave and strange and shining shields in hand’ and the air rings out with the sound of gongs, and victory drums, pipes and conch and flute.
Umbrellas, pennants, flags conceal the sky,
and peacock-tails allure the heavens high.
Tuskers (elephants) are loaded with guns and pikes, spears and javelins. The use of elephants in battle heralded a bloodier type of warfare and according to Yuan Phai, the Siamese army possessed a thousand mounts. Sixty elephants are individually described in the poem, each being named in the sacred language of Pali, praising their unique qualities, from fearsomeness, beauty to courage.
Kaeo Jakarat is skilled, adept, and strong,
a killer famed, immune to pike and gun.
A gorgeous sight is Jamrat Jakarphan.
His tusks are curved like waxing crescent moons.
They ‘fill the forest’ and ‘trumpet lustily’, ‘agleam with ornaments’ and golden silks.
Parts of the battle scene have been lost but the Lanna are defeated resoundingly in a gory massacre. Necks are sliced, heads lopped, bodies trampled beneath the feet of tuskers, or
caught and slashed down dead
Like row on row of felled banana trees.
And there follows the celebration of victory.
The text has been translated and edited in English by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Their introduction mentions how rarely the poem has been studied in its native country, despite its admission to the official canon of Thai literature. This is largely because its now archaic language remains a mystery to most. The translators have annotated this remarkable work to explain its concepts and obscure words. Blank verse was chosen for the translation due to its affinities with Thai meter, and in keeping with translations of other heroic poetry into English.
The Siamese capital Ayutthaya never managed to impose its authority on Chiang Mai, despite further skirmishes between them. But Chiang Mai’s influence over the Northern Cities was lost. Wars continued to break out between neighbouring Burma and Ayutthaya and over the next two centuries, Chiang Mai became the vassal of one or the other power. In 1767, after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, a depleted Chiang Mai was abandoned, and its people fled to the countryside. The city became hidden beneath dense vegetation, roamed by bears and tigers.
But in 1804, when military leaders finally managed to push the Burmese out of Thailand a local leader began to resettle the city, forcibly relocating whole villages from Burma’s Shan State. These people were a mixture of sub-groups: the Tai Koen, Tai Lue and Shan, all distantly related to the Lanna Tai, and many other ethnic groups besides. They brought their own traditions, languages and culture to the city and surrounding countryside, resulting in the melting pot that is Chiang Mai today.
This piece from the recording Rhythm of Lanna is played at many of the markets and never fails to take me back there.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and is busy and vibrant. But step through Thapae Gate to its historic centre, and you enter a calm and relaxed space. Networks of streets and laneways are laced with temples, homes, food stalls and small businesses. Cafes serve very good coffee and freshly squeezed tropical juices and vendors with conical hats and baskets sell everything from feather dusters, mangoes and quail eggs. And, as if the jungle is still trying to take over, wild figs, longon trees, frangipanis and bushes with extravagant blossoms flourish amidst the ancient terracotta-coloured walls that contain the ancient city.
Many small shrines are set aside for Buddhist offerings in shops and businesses, private gardens or by the wayside. They are constructed lovingly like miniature still life compositions, with combinations of flowers, fruit, rice, incense, and pictures or statues of Buddha.
Peeping out from the lush greenery are occasional dark teak buildings, remnants of the old Lanna style architecture of the past. Early in the mornings monks are busy sweeping the temple compounds, but other people are slow to start their day as Chiang Mai is lively and bustling well into the night.
Among the big range of markets probably the best is the Sunday Walking Street Market. It starts at the Thapae Gate and wends its way down the length of Ratchadamnoen Road for more than a kilometre, spilling into various intersections along the way. Towards evening on Sundays, the road is closed to traffic and packed with entertainers, massage vendors and all types of clothing, trinket and food stalls. The street food is fresh, plentiful and absolutely delicious. Stir fries and curries are served from enormous vats, and crepes and tropical smoothies are whipped up on the spot.
It is well worth travelling to the nearby mountain just outside the city, Doi Suthep, and climbing the three hundred odd steps to the 700 year-old holy temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is one of the most historically and spiritually significant sites in Thailand. On a clear day the temple commands views of the city from the northwest. When I was there, a couple of older monks sweeping the statue-dotted terrace were romping playfully with the many dogs they feed and so obviously adore.
From there you can take a trip to one of the villages. And you must see the elephants. I found my visit to them unexpectedly and deeply moving.
Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community is the sanctuary I visited. They seemed like very genuine people and the elephants were clearly well looked after. These had been ex working elephants brought across the border from Laos by people who had found work in Chiang Mai city.
An article about ethical elephant sanctuaries.
‘Death by Vlog‘ visit the Sunday Walking Market down Ratchadamnoen Road
This site has details about ‘Monk Chats’, an informal program offered at many temples in Chiang Mai, where you can chat to Buddhist Monks who are keen to develop their English.
Cooking Love, a restaurant in the old city offers the best and freshest curries I’ve ever tasted.
Angel’s Secret Cafe, again in the back streets of the old city, has the most delicious breakfasts.
I had just missed the Yi Peng (Sky Lantern Festival) which is celebrated in Northern Thailand on the evening of the full moon in November.
Hargreave, Oliver. Exploring Chiang Mai: City, Valley and Mountains, 5th Ed. Within Books, 2017
Yuan Phai: The Defeat of Lanna, A Fifteenth-Century Thai Epic Poem. Translated by Chris Baker and Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, Silkworm Books, 2017