Thailand and its women have long proved seductive to travelers
The journal of a 17th-century Austrian merchant offers a lopsided view of Siam’s lewd ladies
By Subhatra Bhumiprabhas
There are few things that raise Thai hackles more than hearing their beloved country branded by foreigners as a sex paradise.
Yet this reputation does not date back, as one might imagine, to the Vietnam War, when American serviceman flooded into Bangkok and Pattaya for rest and recreation and the sex trade thrived.
In fact, the image can be traced back to the 17th century when junk merchants regularly passed through the kingdom. Christoph Carl Fernberger von Egenberg, for example, described Siamese women as “excessively lewd”.
“They are always approaching the men and urging them to go with them into their houses and have sex with them,” he wrote in his diary, which was discovered in 1972.
Fernberger arrived in the harbour of Ayutthaya in November 1624 during the reign of King Songtham. He was 26 at the time. His accounts of his travels in the region, which include Siam and Pattani, are almost unknown to foreign scholars but many Austrian historians believe Fernberger was the first of their countrymen to set foot in the two Southeast Asian harbour cities.
The first Austrian in Ayutthaya was impressed by the wealth of the kingdom and the wise rule of the Siamese king as well as his “open door policy” and strict law enforcement, says associate professor Helmut Lukas who recently talked about Fernberger’s diary at a Siam Society lecture organised in cooperation with Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for European Studies.
Lukas, however, doesn’t agree with Fernberger’s perspective of the women in Ayutthaya.
“Like any big port, Ayutthaya had a well-established prostitution ring catering to foreign seamen. But it would be wrong to assume that their behaviour was indicative of Thai women of that era,” says Lukas, an academic with the Social Anthropology Research Unit, Centre for Studies in Asian Cultures, Austrian Academy of Science.
As an independent observer with no obligations to a trading company, Fernberger’s diary may offer an alternative perspective to the often one-sided Dutch sources, the Austrian anthropologist adds.
“But his pages on the women in Ayutthaya were based on his impressions of a very limited area, which he wrongly extrapolated to the entire country,” Lukas points out.
Unfortunately, many Dutch merchants held similar views of the woman they took as their “wives” in Ayutthaya, according to professor Barbara Watsan Andaya, author of the paper “From Temporary Wife to Prostitute: Sexuality and Economic Change in Early Modern Southeast Asia” published in the Journal of Women’s History in 1998.
“VOC employees in Ayutthaya even referred to their ‘wives’ as whores, sluts and trollops and the like,” writes the professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii.
While researching her paper, Andaya discovered that other than several works covering prostitution, no historical investigation has been carried out into the changing attitudes toward sexuality in Southeast Asia, despite the fact that the “high status” of women is often cited as characteristic of the region.
Siamese women in the 17th century are also mentioned in the diary of French ambassador Simon de La Loub?re, who arrived in Ayutthaya some 30 years after Fernberger.
The ambassador writes in his memoirs about a brothel in the capital of Ayutthaya, which was home to some 600 women from different levels of society, including the daughters and wives of the court’s noblemen.
La Loub?re, who was in Siam during the reign of King Narai, also relates how prostitution tax, collected from those with permission to run brothels, was first imposed in this reign and that the largest brothel was run by one of the king’s noblemen.
Prostitution in the port city of Pattani is also mentioned in the journals of several 17th-century foreign traders.
The Dutch merchant Van Neck, who arrived in Pattani in the early 1600s, describes the women at the harbour and their services.
“When foreigners come from other lands to do their business.men come and ask them whether they desire a woman. The young women and girls also come and present themselves, from whom they may choose the one most agreeable to them, provided they agree what he shall pay for certain months. Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to much for so great a convenience), she comes to his house, and serves him by day as his maidservant and by night as his wedded wife.”
For his part, the foreign trader had to agree not to consort with other women while the temporary wife was similarly forbidden to converse with other men. The “marriage” was deemed to last for as long as the man kept up his residence, “in good peace and unity”.
Fernberger, who arrived in Pattani in December 1624, wasn’t interested in hooking up with a woman at the harbour. His attention was on the female ruler with whom he had been granted an audience.
Pattani was under the rule of Raja Ungu, the third of four successive queens to take the throne. Fernberger describes her as an absolutist ruler who did not listen to any council.
In his diary he describes the royal entourage of 200 women. As a sign of royal power, she kept about 50 elephants and possessed some 50 men who she used for her sexual pleasure.
Lukas says the women of Pattani, and especially the queen, enjoyed many liberties.
“This proves that being a Muslim doesn’t mean being “macho” or a misogynist. The gender equality in the old Pattani kingdom sets an example for modern times,” he says.
But some of Fernberger’s accounts about the queen are much less credible.
Lukas smiles as he recounts Fernberger’s reason for leaving Pattani.
He writes that after being granted an audience with Raja Ungu, she provided him with a house and 10 slaves. He later helped her fight the Siam invasion in January 1625 in which Pattani won the battle. The young Austrian describes how the queen expressed her gratitude by sending him a present and passing on a message that she would visit him at night.
“Fernberger says a Malay colonel gave him to understand that the queen intended to make love with him. As he’d heard that men who had failed to meet her high expectations were ordered to be killed, Fernberger clandestinely sneaked down to the shore, boarded a small sailboat and went back to Ayutthaya. His stay in Pattani lasted 71 days,” says the professor, laughing.