Kosa Pan – A Siamese Diplomat in France

Among the first Siamese visitors to Europe was an embassy of three ambassadors sent by pro-foreign King Narai (r. 1656-88) to the court of Louis XIV. Among them was the diplomat Kosa Pan who was also a minister and the great grandfather of the first King of the present ruling dynasty of Thailand, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke. Formally, Pan was called by the noble title Chao Phraya Kosathibodi (เจ้าพระยาโกษาธิบดี; “Lord Minister of World Affairs”). In addition, his former title was Ok Phra Wisut Sunthon (“Count of Pure Amity”) which was the title for a skilled diplomat.

Kosa Pan

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Arriving in Brest in June 1686, the ambassadors’ task was to study the language and customs of the French. During their three-week sojourn at the Brittany port, the diplomats took copious notes. Hence, the first ambassador Kosa Pan collected data with relish. He documented every detail he encountered, from the dimensions of navy vessels, flags, lances and crossbeams to those of his bedroom mirror. The main purpose of the Siamese to travel overseas was to record detailed information from the foreign encounter which in turn could be used to the greater good of Siam.

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Therefore, the emphasis of Pan’s account was on monitoring objective truths rather than on conveying subjective impressions. Hence, he also took notes on his visit to Paris and Versailles which are broadly complementary. However, he also mentioned the filthiness of the streets and of French people in general. Thus he pointed out a difference to the Siamese.

Kosa Pan presents King Narai's letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan presents King Narai’s letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

The ambassador’s observations on the poor standards of 17th century French hygiene further forged a national stereotype which has persisted for centuries and which is still present in contemporary Thai popular imagination. This is for instance exemplified by the common epithet given by Thai football commentators to the French national team, as the ‘thim nam-horm’. This is because the French come from a country renowned for its production of perfume which is called ‘nam-horm’ in Thai. In the past, to the Siamese it seemed that the French were always in need for perfume because they were unwilling to take regular baths 😉

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

What is more, in his accounts the Siamese diplomat inverts the modern stereotype of French femininity as the embodiment of farang elegance and beauty. In fact, according to Pan, French women are very unattractive and ugly both in behaviour and in appearance. He seems to be appalled by their large noses, pale skin and wanton behaviour. Similarly, Western travellers to Siam also described local women with equal distaste. In terms of cultural studies this can be interpreted as the foreign visitor shoring up a firm sense of his own identity by an acknowledgement of the difference of the ‘Other’.

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Nonetheless, Pan’s embassy was generally met with a rapturous reception and caused a great sensation in the courts and society of Europe. In particular, the French were so enthralled with the amazing textiles worn by the Thai diplomats that they began to imitate the rich silk brocades calling them “Siamoise”. By the way, there is also a Jim Thompson print named in honour of the ambassador, showing a procession of Siamese nobles elegantly dressed in brocades and silk.

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

However, after returning to Siam, Pan became a strong advocate of Phetracha who was the ruler overthrowing King Narai and eliminating the French influence. This was the time of the Siamese revolution (1688) which led to Siam severing all ties with the West until they were renewed in the 19th century.

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

Under Phetracha’s rule, former diplomat Pan became Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. However, about a decade later in 1700 Pan was disgraced. It is said that King Phetracha cut off Pan’s nose so that the former diplomat committed suicide.

Summing up, we may say that Kosa Pan was a kind of pioneer being one of the first Siamese to visit Europe. Additionally, he was also the direct ancestor of King Rama I who founded the Chakri Dynasty.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok

You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste (Somerset Maugham about Jim Thompson)

When the British playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham visited the Jim Thompson House in 1959 on his final journey through Far East Asia, he was amazed at Thompson’s unique art and antique collection. He was impressed by the fact how well every detail fitted together thus contributing to the overall charm of the house. Indeed, the house is legendary and so is its owner.

Jim Thompson (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

Jim Thompson (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

The American Jim Thompson (1906-1967) became known as the ‘Legendary American of Thailand’ for several merits. First, he was a self-made entrepreneur who founded the renowned Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. Thus, he helped to develop the Thai Silk industry and was awarded the Order of the White Elephant for his exceptional service to Thailand. Hence, he can be considered one of the most famous post war legends of Asia.

The Jim Thompson House

The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok*

The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok*

What is more, Thompson is also renowned for having constructed a charming Thai style house in Bangkok which is a museum today. In fact, the Jim Thompson House is a complex of six traditional Thai houses made from teakwood. Teak was a material for the more affluent; it was more expensive than other kinds of wood because of its durability. Hence, the individual houses were purchased from several owners from different parts of the country. Therefore, the original Thompson house was reconstructed from all or parts of the six separate houses that were hundred or more years old.

Jim Thompson art & antique collection*

Thompson’s art & antique collection*

Hence, the Jim Thompson House reflects what its owner appreciated most about Thailand and in particular about Bangkok. Thompson very much cherished the nostalgia of old Bangkok, including the life along the waterways. What is more, he enjoyed the peace and calm of a tropical jungle landscape that muted the noises of the busy city. Up until today, the house has preserved its unique appeal.

The special feature of old traditional Thai houses is that they were constructed without using nails. Thus, if families wanted to move away, they could simply take their house down and relocate it. In fact, the structure of Thai houses is similar to temples. Hence, Thai houses have steep roofs and walls inclining to the centre. This kind of construction ensures that the house remains cool since the warm air can rise to the top of the roofs. In addition, numerous windows and doors contribute to an uninterrupted air flow.

Inside the Jim Thompson House*

Inside the Jim Thompson House*

What is more, the houses were also elevated for several reasons – to keep wildlife at bay and to facilitate air circulation. If you have been to a traditional Thai house, you will certainly also have noticed the raised thresholds. They mainly served to keep babies and small children from falling into the water. However, Thai belief also says that the raised threshold will keep evil spirits away from the house.

The Drawing Room*

The Drawing Room*

The main house of the complex an early 19th century building from the silk weaving village of Ban Krua located across the klong. This is the drawing room in which an opulent crystal chandelier from a former palace decorates the ceiling.

Traditional Thai house*

Traditional Thai house*

A further element in this complex is the kitchen from the mid 19th century which also came from the weaving village. The remaining structures were brought there from Ayutthaya since Thompson found most of his treasures in the village ‘Pak Hai’ located northwest from the former capital city. The houses could be easily taken down and stacked on barges so that they could be shipped by river directly to Bangkok.

In addition, some pieces of Thompson’s art collection, which can be classified into the categories of sculptures, paintings, porcelain and other collectible items, also came from Ayutthaya. Furthermore, he got his acquisitions from shops in Nakorn Kasem, the Chinese quarter of Bangkok (Chinatown), which was a repository for fine antiques at his time.

Restaurant & fish pond*

Café & fish pond*

Today, the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok also has a nice Café with a beautiful fish pond outside. The sight of the big trees, luscious greens and the colourful huge fishes invites the visitor to pause for a moment and relax 🙂 Have you been to this place?

Yours, Sirinya

*photo credit: The Jim Thompson House




The ‘Khao Chae’ Royal Thai Summer Dish (ข้าวแช่)

The ‘Khao Chae’ (ข้าวแช่) dish was originally a Mon recipe that had been adapted as a royal Thai dish in the palace. It goes back to the times of King Rama II (r. 1809 to 1824). The Thai version of this meal has more side dishes and condiments compared to the original Mon recipe.

‘Khao Chae’, a Royal Thai Dish

Ingredients for preparing Khao Chae at the Jim Thompson Restaurant (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Ingredients for preparing Khao Chae at the Jim Thompson Restaurant in Bangkok*

Khao Chae, which means ‘rice soaked in cool water’, is a special dish because it is meant to be served particularly in the hot summer season. Hence, it is a refreshing Thai summer dish that is also eaten at Songkran, the Thai New Year Festival as a cooling meal. At the time of King Rama II, when people did not yet have the means to freeze water to ice cubes, the water was cooled by storing it in earthen ware pots in shady and dark places.

Preparing Khao Chae at the Jim Thompson Restaurant (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan Instagram @knack66)

Preparing side dishes for Khao Chae at the Jim Thompson Restaurant*

Traditionally, this was a Thai dish only served at the royal court but later, it was also made available for ordinary people. Since this is a special meal for the hot season, it is primarily prepared at this time of the year, from the middle of March to the end of April.

Today, the three main components of this dish are parboiled rice, water scented with jasmine (i.e. water which has jasmine flower floating in it) or Damask rose and crushed ice. The water is placed in a container with lid, it is called ‘Khuat Loh’, and left over night with a scented candle to give it the fragrance – the jasmine is only added when serving. It is also important to take parboiled rice so that the rice does not become too mashy when soaked in water. The side dishes are the components that make this dish tasty. In fact, there is a variety of recipes, nevertheless, the dishes and condiments are mostly the same.

Khao Chae at Jim Thompson Restaurant (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan Instagram @knack66)

A royal Thai meal at the Jim Thompson Restaurant*

There are commonly six different side dishes:

  • Kapi balls (luk kapi, ลูกกะปิ) are made from shrimp paste. This paste consists, apart from shrimps, of shallots, garlic, wild ginger and palm sugar. These ingredients are mixed together, formed into balls and cooked.
  • Stuffed shallots (hom daeng yat sai, หอมแดงยัดไส้), the shallots are stuffed with a mix of ground fish meat, herbs, fish sauce, spices and palm sugar.
  • Stuffed sweet peppers (phrik yuak sot sai, พริกหยวกสอดไส้), this is steamed pepper stuffed with a mix of ground pork, spices and herbs. After cooling down, the pepper is fried and wrapped in a lacy egg coat.
  • Shredded sweet beef or pork (mu foi or nua foi), the respective meat is shredded and seasoned with palm sugar and fish sauce. After it is dried, the meat shreds are deep fried.
  • Stir-fried sweet pickled Chinese turnips with eggs (chai po phat khai, ไชโป๊ผัดไข่)
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables, for example raw mango, cucumber, wild ginger, chillies and onions. They serve to balance the taste of the meal.

Thai dishes at Jim Thompson Restaurant (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan Instagram @knack66)

Royal Thai dish for the hot season at the Jim Thompson Restaurant*

Although ‘Khao Chae’  appears similar to boiled rice soup (khao tom), the taste and the way of eating the ‘soup’ is different. To enjoy this dish, take a small amount of rice and add a suitable amount of scented water with crushed ice. You should not put the condiments into your bowl but rather have small bites of the dishes which are then followed by the icy rice. Sometimes this meal is served with two-toned rice and followed by a sweet treat of mangos in syrup.

Sometimes this dish is served with two-toned rice

Sometimes Khao chae is served with two-toned rice*

For instance, the Jim Thompson Restaurant in Bangkok offers this delicacy until the end of April and there are also workshops to learn preparing this meal.

Summing up, I find that ‘Khao Chae’ seems to be an extraordinary and amazingly delicious looking Thai dish. The combination of rice and ice also appears to be suitable for the hot summer season. Additionally, it is an aesthetically arranged meal that is appealing to the eye. Maybe you have the opportunity to try this meal? I would highly suggest that 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

* photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram: @knack66