The Jewel Robbery that Baffled the Best

It looked the perfect crime. When a box containing a string of 252 specially-made pearls and other valuable pieces of jewellery, ordered by Queen Saovabha Phongsri (the mother of the future King Vajiravudh, Rama VI), from a reputable agent in Britain and insured for £10,000, arrived in Bangkok in the middle of 1909, it was found to be empty. For almost three years the whereabouts of the pearls remained a mystery while police and diamond merchants followed a trail leading from Bangkok to Singapore, Penang, Australia, Batavia (now Jakarta), Colombo, Paris, and London.

When King Chulalongkorn made his second visit to Europe in 1907, among those accompanying him was Queen Saovabha Phongsri. In April 1909, Queen Saovabha arranged for a rope of pearls and other pieces of expensive jewellery to be been made up by the Association of Diamond Merchants, Jewellers, and Silversmiths Limited of Trafalgar Square in London.


Queen Saovabha Phongsri, later known as Queen Sri Bajarindra, with her sons.

After completing their commission, the jewellers carefully packed the items in a strong wooden box secured with four big red seals. According to some accounts, this box was placed aboard a German steamer bound for Bangkok and deposited in its strongroom. In other accounts the box was placed in the strongroom of a steamer bound for Hong Kong. When it arrived at that British colony the box was then taken to Bangkok. Either way, when the Court Chamberlain in Bangkok opened the box it was found to be empty, even though none of the four seals did not appear to have been broken. It was as if the jewels had simply vanished.


Although the pearls were insured, the insurance company refused to pay out until strenuous efforts had been made to recover the jewellery. Representatives of the Association of Diamond Merchants would spend literally thousands of pounds following up leads in the search for the pearls over the next year and a half before finally reaching a definite suspect. Their only hope at recovering the pearls and tracking the thief, or thieves, lay with the chance someone would eventually try and sell some of the distinctive pearls.

For almost 18 months the trail was cold and the jewellers association investigators completely baffled by the seemingly perfect crime. There were early suggestions that close inspection by experts revealed the seals on the strongbox were very cleverly executed copies of the originals. This meant the theft may well have occurred before the pearls even left Britain, but this idea was soon discarded when a second and more plausible explanation came to light.

The thief, or thieves, worked out it was not necessary to disturb the seals in order to get at the jewels. The lid of the strongbox was made in two pieces, tongued and grooved. One piece was 22.5 centimetres (nine inches) wide; the other was 15 centimetres (six inches) wide. By taking out the screws securing the 15cm piece, it was possible to slip it out of the larger piece. After cutting through the zinc lining on the box it was then a simple matter to remove the pearls and other items. After replacing the 22.5cm lid and refastening the screws there was no evidence of tampering. This knowledge simply expanded the number of possible scenarios for the theft: from inside Britain, on the steamer, or at its final destination in Bangkok and anywhere in-between.

The first clue came late in 1910 when it was learned that 33 pearls suspected as having belonged to the original rope had been sold to a dealer in Singapore. This dealer, a man of doubtful character, was traced to Paris in early 1911. When the investigators found him to ask questions, they made sure to keep their pistols within easy reach.

The dealer claimed he had already sold the pearls, but gave investigators the name of the man who had sold the dealer the pearls. He was Paul de Boseck, a former wharfinger (owner), who had been working in Bangkok at the time the box containing the jewellery arrived. The box was in his possession for about five hours before being delivered to the Grand Palace.

Investigators soon learned de Boseck had sold a pair of the distinctive pearls to a bookmaker in Singapore. They travelled to Singapore and interviewed the bookmaker who told them he had already sold the two pearls to another bookmaker, who took them to Australia. This second bookmaker was found and the pearls brought back to Singapore where a director of the Association then purchased the pearls and positively identified them as having belonged to the original rope. He secured an arrest warrant for Paul de Boseck and the hunt was on.

The Association investigators traced de Boseck first to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and then Ceylon, but lost his trail. That was in June 1911. In December a contact in the Straits Settlement (Singapore) government told investigators de Boseck was in England.

He was traced to an address in London and on 4 January 1912 Paul de Boseck was arrested by London police led by Detective Chief Inspector Bower.

Formally identified as Jules Paul de Boseck, alias Paul de Boseck (but also spelled Bosach and Debusick in some accounts), the alleged thief was a tall, slim 31-year-old (although other accounts stated he was 32) journalist. He had lived and worked in Bangkok as well as Singapore, but it would later be revealed he had led a something of a double life.

De Boseck was remanded under the Fugitive Offenders Act and charged with receiving jewellery which had been stolen at Bangkok. He submitted a written statement to the court noting he was known in Bangkok as lending money on goods and jewellery.

At his first hearing before a magistrate at the Bow Street courts in London, de Boseck was not represented by legal counsel. Inspector Bower, in the witness box, was asked by de Boseck, “Are you speaking of the two pearls I gave a bookmaker named Cohan or Cowan at Singapore in settlement of a debt?”

The police officer replied that he was, at which point de Boseck claimed he didn’t know the pearls were stolen.

Bower replied, “It is alleged you gave a bookmaker at Singapore one or more of those stolen pearls. One of those pearls has been identified as a portion of some valuable jewellery which was handed to you when you were at Windsor’s Wharf, at Bangkok, to forward to the Queen of Siam.”

De Boseck countered by saying a large number of cases of jewellery went through his hands while he was in Bangkok. Bower then asked, “…do you wish to tell me whom you got them from?” The defendant said he needed to talk with his solicitor first.

De Boseck then attempted to regain the initiative by adding that when he lived at one of his three known addresses in England he went by the name of Charles Chilsworth. He claimed he adopted this name “when making enquiries respecting a political offence in Java [then part of the Dutch East Indies] and I retained it in all correspondence in connection with that case. I placed the result of my enquiries before the Chinese Minister at The Hague, and corresponded with him always in that name.” The use of a pseudonym and reference to a clandestine inquiry reaching to the highest levels seemed intended to cast de Boseck in a Sherlock Holmes-style light.

He ended his defence by saying, “I parted with the pearls quite openly at Singapore, and had a receipt for them, but I think I destroyed it when I left Singapore with all other papers relating to my racing there. The receipt contained the weight and description of the pearls.”

Despite his defence, de Boseck was committed to be extradited to the Straits Settlement for trial and left Britain in April 1912. Arriving in Singapore he duly went to court.

Between that first hearing in February 1912 in London and his trial in Singapore, de Boseck refined his story. He claimed a steamer’s clerk who had lost heavily at gambling applied for a loan of 2,000 ticals, using a small box of pearls as security. De Boseck claimed he loaned the Chinese man just 920 ticals and received a receipt for 1,000 ticals. The following day the Chinese man told de Boseck he had lost all this money and asked him if he would buy the pearls. De Boseck claimed he asked the Chinese man where the pearls had come from, and he admitted they had been stolen, but did not say who the rightful owner was.

In his statement to the court de Boseck wrote, ‘I understood [the pearls were] part of a cargo. I gave him another 500 ticals, and the pearls became mine by purchase. My object in not informing the police of the occurrence was threefold – (1) I feared the worry and annoyance the matter would cause me, as I was in a very bad state of health. I was suffering from facial paralysis and brain trouble, due to the climate, opium, and other causes; (2) it was only a little while back that I had made a continued attack in the press on the police and the rottenness of the system. This caused a radical change to be made, one of the Royal princes who was then in charge being transferred to another department; (3) it was a notorious matter that stolen property was dealt with with immunity, the native police usually retaining it, when seized, for their own private benefit, and rarely restoring it to the rightful owners.’

With what was essentially a very weak defence, it was no surprise de Boseck was found guilty at the end of May 1912 and sentenced to two years in prison for possession of stolen property. It was only with the conviction of de Boseck that the £10,000 insurance money was paid to the Association of Diamond Merchants, almost three years following the theft.

In the end, only the two pearls sold by de Boseck in Singapore were ever recovered from the original necklace of 252. The remaining 250 are now scattered all over the world.


The Paknam Incident and its ramifications, 1893


Auguste Pavie, looking more like an Impressionist painter than a scheming diplomat.

Auguste Pavie, the French Charge d’Affaires in Bangkok, was a man with a mission. As he saw it, France’s growing empire in Indochina, currently centred on Vietnam, would be greatly enhanced if Siam were somehow incorporated.

As those charged with administering the Indochinese empire looked westward they saw an opportunity to take Laos out from under Siamese overlordship and, at the same time, precipitate a confrontation which might allow Siam itself to fall into French hands. Their only concern was the stance which might be taken by Britain.

The pretext for the ensuing crisis came when France claimed the eastern boundary of their occupied state of Annam (Vietnam) was marked by the Mekong River. Siam countered and said their eastern border was a ‘chain of mountains parallel to the seaboard.’

On 14 March, Auguste Pavie was instructed to demand Siam’s immediate withdrawal from the left bank of the Mekong and seek compensation for French subjects whom France claimed had suffered damages. At the time, the French gunboat Le Lutin was anchored in Bangkok, as a visible threat.


French gunboat Le Lutin, anchored in Bangkok.

To reach the Bangkok roadstead it is necessary for vessels to sail into the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, and as early as the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) strategists were aware of the importance of the seaport of Samut Prakan, situated at the entrance to the river on the Gulf of Thailand.

In 1819, the king, in conflict with Vietnam and worried about a possible seaborne attack, ordered the construction of six forts in the area around Paknam. Three of the forts were completed over the next three years; the remainder were finished during the reign of King Rama III.

To further strengthen the seaward defences, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was constructed on the west side of the Chao Phraya River at the entrance to the estuary, and designed to command the river mouth and for a distance of two kilometres upriver. Commanded by a Danish captain, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was only completed in April 1893.

On 3 April a French military column reached Stung Treng, on the Cambodian side of the Mekong. The 14-man Siamese post at Stung Treng retreated without firing a shot. Two days later the French took possession of nearby Kong island.

At the same time, King Chulalongkorn made a decision to fight rather than meekly submit to the French and issued orders for three new forts to be built on the Chao Phraya. He also hoped to purchase three warships and expand the army, sending forces to bolster the garrison at the gulf port of Chantaburi (Chantaboon).

Pavie, alarmed by these preparations, advised an immediate resolution of the crisis by way of military action. The French Foreign Minister, Jules Develle, ordered Admiral Edgar Humann, the commander of the French Far Eastern Naval Division, to concentrate his nine warships off Saigon. Pavie considered this presented the ideal moment to turn Siam into a French protectorate. As he noted, if Siam resisted, ‘A protectorate over Siam will be our compensation. If we neglect such an opportunity now, will we ever be offered another to round off our Indochinese empire?’

The stakes increased when the Thais regained Kong island, capturing a French captain. Then, the French Inspector of the Civil Guard was ambushed and killed. France claimed he had been murdered.

In June, the French sent a special envoy to Bangkok with instructions to withdraw their entire diplomatic mission and, with the help of the governor-general of Indochina, send warships to blockade the mouth of the Chao Phraya if Siam refused to recognise the French claim to the left bank of the Mekong and pay compensation for a series of incidents stretching back to 1891.

At the same time, British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery sent two gunboats to Bangkok, ostensibly to provide protection to British citizens. In reality, as Lord Kimberley, the Secretary of State for India, wrote privately to Rosebery, sending gunboats was ‘the natural mode of demonstrating…’

On 10 July, France informed the Siamese Foreign Minister, Prince Devawongse, the French gunboats Inconstant and Comete would, in accordance with Article 15 of the Franco-Thai Treaty of 1856, cross the bar and anchor at Paknam before proceeding to Bangkok. Prince Devawongse issued a protest at this and asked that further negotiations take place.

Although Pavie ostensibly agreed he sent Admiral Humann orders for the warships to proceed to Bangkok. The gunboats, with the Jean Baptiste Say, a small French merchant ship as a pilot, sailed towards the entrance of the Chao Phraya on 13 July.

Over the preceding years King Chulalongkorn had spent some time strengthening his navy, bringing in foreign expertise. At least 25 Danish officers were then serving in the Siamese navy and the commander at Paknam was Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu. He later became the commander-in-chief of the Royal Siamese Navy.


Chulalongkorn, King Rama V

Siam’s not-so-secret weapon were seven British-made Armstrong six-inch ‘disappearing’ guns at the Chulachomklao Fort. These were state-of-the-art cannons loaded while hidden behind bunkers but popped up hydraulically to fire. The guns in both Phra Chulachomklao Fort and Phissuasamut Fort opened fire on the French. Siamese gunboats also joined the assault.

The Jean Baptiste Say was run aground and her crew made prisoner while the Siamese steel cruiser Makut Rajah Kumar suffered damage.

The Inconstant and Comete made it through the gauntlet, suffering some damage and casualties, with three sailors killed.

They sailed up to anchor opposite the French Legation where they allegedly trained their guns on the Royal Palace. The Siamese lost between 15 and 25 dead in the battle.

The delightfully-named Walter Christmas, who held the rank of captain, later described the action, saying it was ‘just a hodgepodge of hopeless ships, useless guns, and incompetent crews, commanded by men who, however stout and resourceful in other fields, for the most part were without knowledge in military skills.’ Christmas claimed he fired his cannon four times, but when he tried to fire a fifth time, ‘it collapsed’.

On 20 July, France issued an ultimatum – with a 48-hour deadline – demanding Siam formally recognise the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong and the islands in the Mekong; withdraw Siamese troops from the left bank within one month; pay compensation for damage inflicted on French troops and warships; punish Siamese offenders and pay compensation to the families of French subjects adversely affected; pay an indemnity of two million francs to French subjects for various claims and deposit the sum of three million francs as a guarantee Siam would abide by these demands.

The French had also occupied Koh Si Chang, opposite Sri Racha, and on 22 July Admiral Humann arrived to oversee future operations.

Siam was forced to accept the French ultimatum but asked that the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong be limited to the 18th Parallel. Siam also sought the joint use of the islands in the Mekong. The French rejected the Siamese proposals, withdrew their consular officers from Bangkok, and blockaded the Gulf of Thailand, using Koh Si Chang as their headquarters.

The incident caused relations between France and Britain to grow tense, although the British were unwilling to risk a war over the independence of Siam, despite the tacit support of Germany. Instead, the British advised Siam to accede to French demands to avoid an all-out conflict. Siam conceded and on 3 August the French lifted their blockade.

Siam subsequently signed a treaty with France on 3 October 1893. Siam renounced her claim to the left bank of the Mekong as well as the islands in the river; agreed not to construct any fortifications or military establishment within a 40-kilometre radius of the right bank of the Mekong and gave the French the right to establish consulates wherever it deemed appropriate, (such as Khorat and Nan). The French also demanded the right to occupy Chantaburi until Siam complied with all the terms of the treaty.

The compensation demanded by France amounted to three million francs and paid for out of Siam’s foreign reserves as well as a contribution by King Chulalongkorn and some of his relatives. The silver was delivered to the Le Lutin.

On 4 December, an Anglo-French agreement was signed which ostensibly guaranteed Siamese independence. France and Britain agreed to maintain the region as a neutral zone using the Mekong as a boundary line. In a subsequent declaration, the British and French agreed not to send troops to the region between the Mekong and the Tenasserim Mountains without the prior consent of the other party and stated French and British nationals residing in the region would not receive special privileges or benefits which nationals of the other party did not receive.

The agreement, reached without the involvement of Siam, basically meant neither Britain nor France would impinge upon Siamese sovereignty without the prior consent of the other party. It in no way guaranteed Siamese independence, merely indicating the British and French were not prepared to go to war over Siam.

In January 1896, a second Anglo-French agreement regarding Siam was signed. The British abandoned their claims to any territory east of the Mekong, thereby making the river the official border between Laos and Burma. In return, the French agreed to accept the independence of Siam.

Cementing relations further with the British, Siam signed a secret agreement with Britain in April 1897 whereby Siam agreed not to cede any territory or rights south of the 11th Parallel on the Malay Peninsula without prior British consent. In return, Britain promised to support Siam against any attempts by a third power to assume control in the Malay Peninsula.

The French continued to occupy Chantaburi until 7 October 1902 when an agreement was signed with Siam ceding two southern Lao provinces. The agreement was not ratified by the French parliament and French troops occupied Trat.

The seven Armstrong guns that participated in the action against the French in 1893 were still in working order 105 years later when they fired a seven-gun salute to celebrate the fort’s anniversary. Since the Paknam Incident, they have never fired a shot in anger.

The truth about Siam’s offer of elephants to fight for Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

When President James Buchanan of the United States penned a letter to King Mongkut (Rama IV) in May 1859 and included 192 books of US government publications in the accompanying package, the resultant reply from the Siamese monarch has led to some misconceptions which continue to this day.

The May 1856 Harris Treaty was ratified by the United States Senate and as a way of further cementing their relations, President Buchanan sent King Mongkut a gift comprising 192 books of US government publications. These arrived in 1860, a presidential election year.

Mongkut responded by sending a sword in a gold scabbard inlaid with silver, a daguerreotype portrait of himself with the future King Chulalongkorn, and a pair of elephant tusks as presents for the American president.

Included in this selection of gifts was a letter, dated 14 February 1861. Mongkut realised the length of time taken by a voyage between Bangkok and Washington DC, and was aware presidential elections had taken place the previous November, so his letter, while addressed to James Buchanan, took account of the fact the latter may no longer have been in office.

Mongkut notes his receipt of an official letter from President Buchanan and goes on to make the point the reply is made to Buchanan ‘or to whomsoever the people have elected anew as Chief ruler in [his] place …’

The letter and the gifts were entrusted to Captain Berrien of the USS John Adams, which had paid a courtesy call on Bangkok on behalf of the US government.

Mongkut notes, ‘During the interview in reply from Captain Berrien to our enquiries of various particulars relating to America, he stated that on that continent there are no elephants. Elephants are regarded as the most remarkable of the large quadrupeds…so that if any one has an elephants’ tusk of large size, and will deposit it in any public place, people come by thousands crowding to see it…

‘Having heard this it has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests where there was abundance of water and grass in any region under the Sun’s declinations both North and South called by the English the Torrid Zone- and all were forbidden to molest them; to attempt to raise them would be well and if the climate there should prove favourable to elephants, we are of opinion that after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are on the Continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them benefit to the country.’

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

The letter extolled the benefits of elephants to the construction of roads and stated Mongkut would be happy to send the animals to the United States if they so desired, but Siam did not have the means to be able to convey the beasts. He therefore asked that if ‘the President… and Congress who conjointly with him rule the country see fit to approve let them provide a large vessel loaded with hay and other food suitable for elephants on the voyage, with tanks holding a sufficiency of fresh water, and arranged with stalls so that the elephants can both stand & lie down in the ship- and send it to receive them. We on our part will procure young male and female elephants and forward them one or two pairs at a time.’

By the time the gifts and letter arrived in the United States, Abraham Lincoln was president. His reply to King Mongkut was a masterpiece of diplomatic tact and courtesy. ‘Your majesty’s letters show an understanding that our laws forbid the President from receiving these rich presents as personal treasures. They are therefore accepted in accordance with Your Majesty’s desire as tokens of your good will and friendship for the American People…’

Lincoln addressed the offer of elephants, diplomatically stating, ‘I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of…a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

‘Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant, and steam…has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.’ Basically, thanks, but no thanks.

For some reason, the contents of the original letter have been distorted to the extent there has arisen a belief King Mongkut did indeed send a herd of elephants which were received and kept by James Buchanan as pets, while others are under the impression Mongkut’s offer was made direct to Abraham Lincoln, suggesting elephants could be used to help the Union in its struggle with the Confederacy following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

In fact, no elephants ever left the shores of Siam for a life of free ranging in the forests of the United States, and most assuredly the offer was initially made to President Buchanan with the reply coming from his successor President Lincoln. King Mongkut’s offer was made prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War and the letter therefore contains no suggestion of any elephants being used for the purposes of war. An intriguing story, but a myth nonetheless.

Raising the Standard: Thailand’s national flags

thai-flag-1855-1916In 1916, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) introduced a new ensign for Siam. According to some sources, the king was on a boat trip up the Chao Phraya River when he noticed the national flag, at the time a white elephant on a red background, being flown upside down over a hut. It wasn’t a good look.

Back in his Bangkok palace, the monarch designed a simpler and more modern-looking ensign, replacing the one which had been Siam’s national symbol for the previous 61 years.

Considering the flags of most European powers were based on stripes, representing their national colours, Vajiravudh came up with a new emblem consisting of five horizontal stripes of red, white, red, white, and red. It flew for about one year before the centre red stripe was changed to blue.

thai-flag-1916That three-coloured version has been the official national flag since 28 September 1917 and is known as the ‘Trairanga’ or ‘Trairong’, meaning tricolour. The prevailing- although unofficial- view of the meaning of the five stripes is: red represents the land and the people; white for Theravada Buddhism, the state religion; and the central blue stripe symbolises the monarchy. It has also been stated that blue was the official colour of King Vajiravudh.

Yet another account claims the blue was inserted as a show of solidarity following Thailand’s entry into the First World War (in July 1917) as an ally of Britain and France. You would think it couldn’t be that hard to work out why the blue stripe replaced the red, but maybe no one bothered writing down the precise reason, thus allowing some variation and confusion to reign. It wouldn’t be the first time something of this nature was allowed to create confusion.

Vexillologists are not in complete agreement with regard to the various flags of Thailand and their dates of introduction, although most sources seem to agree the first national ensign was a plain red colour with no other markings or features.

Just when the first Thai flag flew from a flagpole has never been established.

The first account to mention any sort of national flag symbol occurred during the reign of King Narai (1656-1688). According to some sources, a plain red banner was displayed by Ayutthayan merchant ships trading with foreign countries.

It is generally believed the first official Thai national flag was unfurled in 1680 when a French warship arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River on a goodwill visit. The local governor was asked by the French commander if it would be allowed to fire a salute as it entered the mouth of the river. Permission was given and the Siamese manning the fort at the entrance returned the salute.

As it was customary to raise the national flag before a gun salute was fired, the governor found a suitable piece of red cloth, attached it to a rope and raised it to accept the French salute. Thai practicality at its best.

Research by Prince Damrong, a brother of King Chulalongkorn, showed the use of the red ensign could certainly be traced to the reign of King Borommakot (1733-1758) and a mission by 18 Buddhist monks who travelled to Sri Lanka in 1752 in an attempt to restore Sinhalese Buddhism. A journal, written at the time, mentions only red flags were used on the Thai sailing vessels.

Some time between 1752 and 1800, the Thai flag may have had a white chakra -a Buddhist wheel, shaped like a fan- added to the plain red.

Then, in 1817, during the reign of King Rama II, a white elephant was added to the centre of the chakra. This was apparently done because the King had taken delivery of a very rare white elephant, the third of his reign.

thai-flag-1817-1855It is also suggested that the British-run port authority in Singapore claimed they couldn’t differentiate between private and government Thai merchant vessels and asked if it was possible for the Thais to issue an official flag.

This could only have happened some time after 1819, as Singapore was a virtually uninhabited island until that time. It was a different story by the early 1820s.

An American publication entitled The Flags of the Principal Nations of the World (published in 1837) shows the flag of Thailand as red with a white disk in the centre. On the white disk is a drawing of a sun with a face on it. This same drawing appears in renditions of the flags of both Uruguay and Peru.

The flag of Burma (only a part of which was under British control) is rendered as a red field with a white elephant facing the flagpole. This would seem to be more representative of Siam than Burma and almost certainly indicates a mistake made by the editors of the publication.

In 1855, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), the white chakra was dropped and the vexillum was a red field with a white elephant in the centre. This remained the national symbol for the next 61 years, until that fateful day in 1916 when Vajiravudh saw it being flown upside down.

Colourful adjectives give this Lao museum a certain character

Army Museum entranceThe Lao People’s Army Museum in Vientiane is a shining example of how to use adjectives to make a point. That the point they are trying to make is almost as anachronistic as the government it represents just adds to the entertaining reading.

Begun in 2004 with Chinese aid money, the museum is spread over two floors. The ground floor has the big loud bits: a row of Bofors anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces, a tank, a half-track, and a few trucks, complete with bullet holes and front-end damage, probably from a vehicle accident.

A wide, sweeping staircase -think Gone With the Wind meets industrial quantities of concrete- leads to the far more interesting collection on the second floor.

This houses all kinds of military and assorted memorabilia with many captions rendered into the kind of English one might expect to have come straight out of a 1930s Charlie Chan movie. ‘When closs (sic) people they congratulate that good when left they thing of us,’ is just one example of a completely unintelligible photographic caption.

The new museum replaced an older one that had a collection of rusting pieces of military hardware in the front yard, some of which were moved to the new construction.

The old museum had bare concrete floors and walls painted in varying patinas of faded yellow, light blue and understated pink, which gave the place a faintly surrealistic air. I wasn’t permitted to take any photos inside it, probably for reasons of national security, so I can only describe ‘The army cow farm at Nakai’: a faded black and white still taken in about 1970 of a few hundred cows of various hues, all looking very bovine.

As with the old museum, the captions in the new version are just as entertaining. The alleged political leanings of each country or military force to come into conflict with the Lao are noted on each photograph. The French are ‘colonialists’, the Japanese are ‘fascist’, the Americans ‘imperialist’, the Thai’s are labelled as ‘extremely rightists’ while the eventually overthrown US-backed government were known as the ‘Vientiane puppet soldiers’.

The eventually victorious Pathet Lao troops are referred to as ‘patriotic soldiers’.

In a picture featuring a ‘Lao people’s army art performance movement’ I’m almost certain at least one of the males in battle fatigues is sporting bright red lipstick.

There’s a wonderful photo of the economic damage inflicted by aerial bombing. Beneath a picture of two dead buffalos the caption reads: ‘US booms (sic) destroled (sic) many cows and buffalos of Laos people. We can’t count how many.’ Well, there were at least two, judging by the picture.

The exhibits on a couple of border wars in the 1980s between Laos and Thailand include captured uniforms and weapons as well as maps, dioramas and photographs.

One photo, showing the results of a leaflet airdrop, bears the delightfully quaint caption, ‘Thai soldiers wrote a letter to a Lao village to bamboozle Lao people.’

The first conflict, in 1984, involved Thai claims to three small villages nestling in high country in Paklay province. On the wall was a map drawn by the French in 1907 demarcating the border. Beneath it was a 1965 American-drawn map relocating the border and placing the three villages inside Thailand. The area was so small it hardly seemed worth going to war over.

Army Museum Thai spy planeThere’s a Thai unmanned spy plane, complete with camera, that was shot down on 15 February 1988 during the 1987-88 border war, which took place over a few more bits of mountains and trees in Botain district (also spelled Botene, Botard and Botend in the same museum).

The town is in Xayyabouly province, also rendered Xayyabuly, Xaignabouri, or Xayhhabuly province depending on which picture you happen to be looking at. If you think the place is spelt in the manner of a standard eye-test chart you’d be on the right track.

A visitor is left to wonder at the enormity of the achievement of the Lao patriotic soldiers who alternatively overcame the Japanese fascists, French colonialists, American imperialists, Thai extremely rightists, and their own Vientiane puppets before finally running out of opponents, and colourful adjectives.

Unsolved marine mystery probably down to pirates

In a past life I used to write columns and articles for the Pattaya Mail newspaper.

In late 2001 I took a trip to the southern town of Satun. The story I wrote about this gateway to the Malaysian island of Langkawi and the nearby Thai national park islands of Tarutao and Lipe, among others, appeared soon after.

Among the photos included in my story was one of a wrecked Indonesian fishing boat.

As I wrote at the time: ‘The port area is the place that most foreign visitors to Satun first see, the majority coming from, rather than heading too, Malaysia and the one ferry I saw disgorged a horde of Malay and Thai passengers and only one Westerner.

Left of the berth for the Langkawi-Satun Ferry lies the Anjas Moro.

Listing heavily to starboard it serves as a salient reminder that these waters are home to smugglers and the odd Thai version of Long John Silver.

A senior Customs officer told me the Anjas Moro was a wooden-hulled Indonesian fishing boat caught a number of years ago smuggling a large quantity of heroin.

A naval patrol boat was tied to a jetty while further down, at another pier, were three Customs vessels: two speedboats and a launch.

The Customs officer told me he sometimes spent up to three weeks off the coast engaged in surveillance operations.’

Not long after the article appeared I was given a hand-written letter that had been delivered to the offices of the Pattaya Mail.

Written by a man named Bob McDonald, it told a sad story of a father’s desperate hunt for his missing son.

McDonald was staying at a central Pattaya hotel and it was my piece on Satun, and especially the Indonesian boat, which prompted him to write to me.

I was reminded of his letter recently after coming across the picture of the aforementioned vessel while looking through some of my old photos.

I have reproduced the bulk of that letter, unedited, below.

‘I lost my son in the Indian Ocean in 1977-78. He and 5 others were sailing from Sri Lanka to Phuket on a 51 foot Canadian yacht called ‘Crusader’. November 11 1977 they talked by radio to Bangkok and Colombo- “heavy seas, heading back.”

Never heard from since.

My searches of Sri Lanka, Andaman and Nicobar islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand proved futile with the exception of an Indonesian fishing boat operator (now a member of Parliament) who says the boat called in to his home port of Sabang on Pulau Weh. It was damaged, no radio and they were heading for Phuket. He gave them water, bananas. They moved off quickly rather than go through Customs etc,

He thinks pirates got them. Piracy was a weekly occurrence then and I personally witnessed one whilst flying overhead.

I went to Satun as all roads led there and arranged a 5am boat to visit Koh Adang group.

I had posted ‘wanted’ signs and a reward of 30,000 baht which I knew could be dangerous.

At 1am the fisherman woke me and said I must get out of Satun ‘now’. He wouldn’t take me on his boat. I went.

3 days later I flew over Adang group and there was a yacht there!

My flight was illegal so authorities couldn’t help me any further.

I know one day someone will find a piece of wreckage and my problem is solved.

You could not mistake Canadian maple with the Asian fishing boat construction. Also Crusader was sheathed in fibreglasss.

If pirates got her, the mast would be removed and cabin structure replaced. She was 9 ft beam, had a keel, a large 6-cylinder motor diesel/petrol?…[the letter continued for a couple more paragraphs not relevant to this story] Don’t worry to reply if no news. Every enquiry is worth a try even after 23 years.’

A very matter-of-fact letter. Yet there is no doubting the heartache within its terse sentences. Here is a father who knows beyond doubt his son is gone forever. The hollow pit that would have formed in his stomach when he first realised his son was missing all those years ago would have gnawed away every day thereafter.

I didn’t reply as, indeed, I had no news or information I could impart.

I do not know if Bob McDonald is still alive. I suspect he was in his late sixties or early seventies when he penned that letter.

I can only hope that by putting this story out into a forum as wide and pervasive as the Internet it might just jog a memory of something seen but not understood so many years ago.

©Duncan Stearn

Thailand’s Recent History Captured in Timely Timeline

THAILAND- Chronological History 1500-2015Bangkok, Thailand – June 23, 2016: Thailand ranks as the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia and consistently ranks as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Despite this, its colourful history is rarely chronicled in a simple and easy-to-digest format, but this oversight has well and truly been rectified with the publication of Thailand Timeline 1500-2015.

The book is a chronological history of events in Thailand covering the years between 1500 and the end of 2015, making it the most up-to-date publication to cover the recent tumultuous events of Thailand’s history.

Author Duncan Stearn, whose Chronological History of Southeast Asia 1400-1996 was picked up by libraries worldwide after it was published in 1997, and has lived in Thailand since 1999, has now written a country-specific book which will be of interest across the reading spectrum, from academics to lay people.

Thailand Timeline 1500-2015 runs to more than 180,000 words and around 7,000 entries, covering everything from the monarchy, religion, politics and both internal and external conflict to sport, cinema, architecture and the arts, and almost everything in-between.

It is the first major work to cover the all-important decade since the 2006 coup and its aftermath, detailing the important events which have shaped the nation in all facets of daily life in a simple and easy-to-read, factual format.

It is available both as an e-book through Smashwords and Amazon as well as a print-on-demand paperback (392 pages) via Amazon’s Create Space


Daniel Speight

Proglen Trading

54/465 M5 Pattanakan Rd,

Prawes, Bangkok 10250