Review of ‘Ayutthaya – Venice of the East’ by Derek Garnier

51cpEfBjxCLThe Portuguese writer, Pinto, described the former capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, as “the Venice of the East”. It is this statement that is the title of this interesting book by Derick Garnier. The author is extremely knowledgeable about the history of Ayutthaya, telling us about its several hundred year tenure as a trading capital of Asia through its interactions with the western nations – Portugal, Britain, Spain, England, France. His opening chapters are fascinating, dealing with the rise of Ayutthaya and then a trip up the mighty Chao Phraya river to let the reader understand why it was so important to Siam.
I found myself following the course of the river the author describes with Google Earth open because it was fascinating to see how the existing course has changed over the centuries; to pick out the Wats that once lay on its route but now are kilometers away; to see on a map the orchards, spices and other goods that lay along its banks; to follow the mosquitoes that plagued the early western traders; to see the toll houses, klong, and great buildings of the nation – all built, as Garnier tells is, because “traditionally it was regarded as one of the duties of the Siamese king to make canals and improve water navigation for his people.”
Chapters three and four deal directly with Ayutthaya, its rise, its power, the seeds behind its fall. Chapters five to eight then give us a view of this city though the ages split by the prevailing influences of the European powers of the 16th to 19th centuries. We learn of Kosa Pan, the first Siamese ambassador to the Court of Versailles; read of its perception as a semi-paradise by the likes of Gervaise; learn about Van Vliet’s descriptions of how people worked for the state; have vast lists from the Dutch East India Company that give staggering numbers of exotic animals, spices, woods, metals traded in and out of the region; have a history of Siam and its interactions with Myanmar as seen through the eyes of European traders; learn about the first westerners being the Portuguese and how that culture has had an impact on words and foods even today; understand how weapons followed swiftly on the heels of trading goods; of Samuel White and the English East India Company; of France’s first missionary to the region – Monseigneur Lambert de la Motte; and so much more….
It is a book full of facts, full of descriptions, with an aim of showing us a history of Siam through the focal lens of Ayutthaya. From earliest times to its fall in 1767, the author takes us on a trip that requires time. This is not a book you can sit and just read. It feels that every paragraph can make you stop, want to look up more information, cross reference maps, divert down an alleyway of a snippet of information to find a whole new topic of fascination. It is a slim volume, 130 pages, but contains reproductions of many old pictures, an entire section at the rear of glossy colour photos, lineages, and, most importantly, a map of the region. For anyone interested in traveling to Thailand, Ayutthaya is listed as a venue to go and see. This book, if you give it a week’s decent time of reading, will teach you much about the history of a city and a people that most Westerners will never learn in schools, but will find fascinating if given the chance.
By turns, the author is thoughtful, erudite, dry and colourful in equal measure; he is patient with his geography, deft in piquing curiosity and, above all, immensely readable.

Categories: Ayutthaya, Book Reviews, Derek Garnier

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