Consul in Paradise:
Sixty-eight Years in Siam
Book Review by
, Chiang Mai (26.02.2010)
The brilliantly written autobiographical work by the late former British Consul-General W. A. R. Wood (1878-1970) called “Consul in Paradise” appeared in a new handy paperback edition published by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai in 2003 and will be still sought after in the next couple of years. Due to the outmost distinguished personality of the former British Consul and resident in Chiang Mai, who had spent sixty-eight years of his life in Siam, the reprinted book has an added “After-word” by British author and former honorary editor of the Siam Society Journal (JSS) Michael Smithies.
The original text of the book was published in 1935 with the refreshing title “Land of Smiles”—an epithet under which Siam, now Thailand is well known up into modern times. As most of the copies of the book then in stock and all the blocks for the illustration were lost during World War II, Wood re-published his work in 1965 with the new title “Consul in Paradise” and added four chapters not previously published. The book was then published in London as well as in Toronto in Canada and had a completely new set of illustrations. A second reprint appeared in 1968.
The new book was principally based on Wood’s own autobiographical notes, which was written without information, which is likely to be of practical use to anybody. In his preface, Wood stated that he prefers to use the geographical name “Siam” to the more modern name Thailand. Wood made it very clear that the Siamese are all members of the Tai or Thai “race” to which the people of Laos, Shan States in Burma, and of a great part of Southern China also belong to. The people of today’s Northern Thailand he referred to as Lao people. Most important is that all the Tai or Thai peoples owing allegiance to one King! All these facts sound familiar even today and should be understood accordingly. Actually, Wood had already written “A History of Siam” published in 1924 (London 1926?) and reprinted in Bangkok 1959.
The book’s contents are divided into the Preface, 15 chapters, and the After-word. There follows a short list of 25 black and white illustrations, which are facing pages in-between, but not on the pages 132 and 133 as indicated. Chapter One starts with an excellent review of the old days in Bangkok, when William Alfred Rae Wood arrived as an 18 years young Consular Officer in July 1896 during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to take care of “Distressed British Subjects.”
Chapter Two to Six shows him as Registrar of the British Bangkok Court from 1903 to 1905 and sitting at International Courts at Chiang Mai and Nan in 1905, 1906 and 1907, as well as running a Consular Court of his own in Singora (now Songkhla) in 1908 and 1909. Furthermore, Wood sat at International Courts at Singora in 1910 and 1911 and in Chiang Mai and Lampang from 1912 to 1925.
During these times of consular work, Wood had the opportunity to observe some typical amusements (see Chapter Seven) and oddities (see Chapter Eight) of the people in Siam. Amusements were Siamese and Lao boxing, bull, fish, cock and beetle fighting, foot and sack races, and the performance of classical dramas and cinema shows. Oddities described by Wood were Siamese medicine, massage, “love” potions, black magic, protective charms, and most of all some spirit possessions and man-woman transgender phenomena. Chapters 9 and 10 give some interesting “ghost” stories, while Chapters 11 and 12 highlight some history and elephants respectively.
Under the heading of “Some Exotics” (Chapter 13) the reader will find some early information about the mountain tribes such as the Meo, Yao, Lawa, Khamu, Karen, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, and the elusive Mrabri, who live as “Phi Tong Luang” (Spirits of the Yellow Leaves) in the forest of Nan. Wood took this information from the work of Gordon Young and Kraisri Nimmanhaeminda, while the Siam Society in Bangkok owns the copyright of the accompanied photographs between the pages 60 and 61. With “Miscellaneous” (Chapter 14) and the sad story of the “Bamboo House” concludes the happy end of this masterly book.
Last not least, some more detailed facts of Wood’s life is described in the already mentioned After-word. Born at Blundell Sands near Liverpool, he started to see the world since coming to Bangkok in 1896. He mostly stayed in Chiang Mai until his retirement in 1931 as British Consular-General and stayed on as resident in his estate at Nong Hoi with his wife Boon (Panya Chitpreecha). The couple had two daughters.
Wood died on 21 January 1970 actually just two days before his 92nd birthday, while his wife, who in 1979 had left Chiang Mai for England, followed him on 3 November 1982. Both of their ashes are now interred within the family’s chapel in the Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery.
Worth to mention is the fate of the old teakwood building of the former British Consulate, who stood at the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai. In a dubious transaction, the dilapidated building was sold under the aegis of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom (1979&–1990). Nowadays, the restored building functions as an Indian Restaurant of the luxurious Chedi Chiang Mai Hotel.
Alternatively, there is now only an Honorary British Consul left in Chiang Mai, who has the same status than the Honorary Consuls of Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Peru, South Korea and Sweden. Other countries, such as China, Bangladesh, India, Japan and the United States of America are operating fully-fledged consulates in Chiang Mai. May W. A. R. Wood’s book inspire other countries to follow suite in the future!
For further information, please contact GMS Media Travel Consultant Reinhard Hohler by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org