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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)




Baan Bat – Bangkok’s Monk Bowl Village

Baan Bat (‘Home of the Bat’) is a temple supply neighbourhood loacted near Wat Saket on Soi Baan Bat alley in Bangkok. In this community, craftsmen have created alms bowls for monks, which are called ‘bat’ (บาตร) in Thai, since the 1700s. Baan Bat is probably the last village established in the 18th century by King Rama I to create these kinds of bowls. It is said that the community originally fled from war in Ayutthaya to find harbour in Bangkok.

Baan Bat

Monk's bowl village in Bangkok*

Monk’s bowl village in Bangkok*

In a daily rituals, Buddhist monks walk along the Sois to collect donations of food (alms). Hence, they carry large bowls, the ‘bat’, with them so that the faithful can give them food and other items sustaining their life in the monasteries. The monk’s bowl village is considered to be the last community of this kind in Thailand. Today, the bowls are almost solely produced in factories. Hence, the majority of communities producing these alms bowls are already extinct.

Materials used for producing alms bowls*

Materials used for producing alms bowls*

The handcrafted bowls are amazing and it takes fine skills and craftsmanship to produce them. Hence, using traditional methods, it takes approximately two days to create a bat. Each bowl is assembled from eight strips of metal which are supposed to represent Buddha’s Eightfold Path which should lead to cessation of suffering and eventually to self-awakening.

Craftsman at work in Baan Bat*

Craftsman at work in Baan Bat*

In a first step to produce a bowl, the eight metal strips are fired for six hours and then hammered into a curve. They are then overlaid like spokes and soldered together.

A craftsman hammering a metal stripe into a curve*

A craftsman hammering a metal stripe into a curve*

In the final step, the surface of the bowl is polished and lacquered until it shines. Each step takes place at a different house along the small alleyway where the few remaining families live. Making an alms bowl requires muscular strength and it is a hard job. A new bowl may weight up to two kilos.

Creating a bowl by hand*

Creating a bowl by hand*

The Baan Bat community creates around 50 bowls per month and they also produce small souvenir bowls for tourists. Hence, their offer ranges from three-inch souvenir sizes to nine-inch stainless steel bowls. There are three common shapes which are called ‘look jaan’ (a Thai fruit), manao (lime), and hua sara (Tiger’s Head).

Different shapes of bowls*

Different shapes of handmade bowls*

It seems that the Tiger’s Head bowl is the most popular style and the most expensive. Hence, a stainless steel one sells for about 3,000 Baht. This kind of bowl is also the most robust since its inside is protected with clear gloss varnish. In comparison, the ‘look jaan’ bowl is made of a thinner white metal. Hence, it is more lightweight and the form seems to be more squat than tall. What is more, it does not have the thick protective top rim. For this reason, a bowl of this style is cheaper than the Tiger’s Head. The price for a ‘look jaan’ is about 1,400 Baht.

The finished products, fine handcrafted bowls*

The finished products, fine handcrafted bowls*

The standard monk’s bowl is eight-and-a-half inches across the top. It is made of white metal and the seams are joined with copper. The bowl may be blackened to protect it from rusting. Hence, the bowl can be put in fire for several hours. Usually, the monks take an unfinished bowl and blacken it in the temple’s fire.

Blackening the bowls*

Lacquering  the bowls*

The place is open from Monday to Friday (10.00-20.00) daily and the admission is free. For all those interested in the production process and for more detailed information, it is possible to arrange a viewing in advance.

The working process*

The working process*

Summing up, we may claim that Baan Bat offers an important insight into Thailand’s history and cultural tradition. Nonethelss, the village is probably the last of its kind in Thailand. However, the bowls they produce there are very durable and supply all Thai monks. Hence, for all those interested in traditional Thai craftsmanship, this is the place for you 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

*photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66