Other stuff

Supporting texts, things about me personally, articles on Thai cats in general without focus on any particular type, other lesser-known Thai cats, and other stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else.

Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality

Many years ago, I arrived in Thailand for the first time. In November 1985, the recommended area for tourists on a budget was Khao San Road near the historical centre of Bangkok. It was late at night and our first choice guesthouses in the guidebook were all full. In our quest for rooms, we were guided through the grounds of Wat Chanasongkram, later known to me as an old temple famous for taking in animals of all kinds and founded by monks of Mon ethnicity, and walking past an old banyan tree, I caught sight of a kitten. It was fawn coloured, with seal brown on its face, ears, paws and tail.

Not being any kind of expert then, I still recognized it as what westerners call a Siamese Cat, and I also knew that Siam was the country's former name, so I said to my companion: "Siamese cats really DO come from here!"

Fast forward 10 years, and I am sitting in the National Library's manuscript reading room, after gaining a publishing agreement, endorsements from my old college, and a multitude of other papers about an inch thick, all resulting in one very thin letter from the National Research Council of Thailand, telling the library to authorize my requests for access to century-old concertina books with coloured drawings of cats, including the Siamese, by which time I also knew by its Thai name, Wichienmas.

The Legend of Siamese Cats was finally published in 1998, its content mainly the results of those studies. In the years that followed, I would be meeting Thai breeders and learning about the real, living, breathing, fluffy, and purring Siamese Cats. This resulted in the publication of Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality in 2004.

Laurie Rosenthal of the Nation was kind enough to review it, reproduced below. It remains the only book on Siamese and Thai cats which is predicated an understanding of Thai culture and of the Tamra Maew - which are the earliest writings on major breeds known today as Siamese, Korat and Burmese, themselves the starting point for many more popular cat breeds.

Cats for all seasons

Published in The Nation on Sep 12, 2004 by Laurie Rosenthal

© Nation Multimedia Group

Thai scholar and linguist expands on his previous works about Thailand's felines

Cat lovers and history buffs will be happy to learn that Martin R Clutterbuck's "Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality" takes on a new, much more authoritative voice than his earlier work, "The Legend of Siamese Cats".

Published under the White Lotus imprint in 1998, "Legends" was a landmark in publications on cats, the first time that all the manuscripts of the "Tamra Maew" (cat poems) were compiled in one publication.

Clutterbuck holds a degree in Thai Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. He provided translations, transliterations and a scholarly treatise tracking the writers' intentions of the cat books.

His studies indicate that the age of the "Tamra Maew" is between 100 and 200 years old, making it among the oldest treatises on domestic cat breeding in the world. Clutterbuck nonetheless admits, "Legend" suffered from weaknesses in its coverage of the present-day status of Siamese cats and other Thai breeds.

"I became involved in this project because of my background in Thai literature and my access to the manuscripts - not because of cats," he said in a recent interview. However, since he published Legend, he says has met with major Thai breeders and Western experts, giving him the opportunity to develop themes he only hinted at in the first book. "I wanted to make this edition much more 'cat-friendly'," he said.

As a result, he has changed the focus of his just-published revised edition, renamed "Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality".

In "Siamese Cats", the chapters on the Tamra Maew have been moved to the back. Now called "Part Two", this section remains intact.

Much enlarged, however, is what is now "Part One". Clutterbuck calls it, simply, "The Thai Cats", but the scope is immense, and the result is informative and engrossing.

Here, with photos not found in the first edition, he discusses the relationships between cats and the Court of Siam; cats and Buddhist temples in Thailand; and then very carefully goes through each of the major Siamese breeds - the Wichien-maat (Siamese), Sisawat (Korat), Suphalak (Burmese), Khaomanee and Ninlarat.

Clutterbuck debunks familiar legends (there's no record of the Kings of Siam giving cats as Royal gifts to foreigners, but members of the Palace may have).

At the same time, however, to show the relationships between Thai people and cats, he provides the words to children's songs and describes ancient ceremonies in which cats participated.

Included in the discussion on Korat cats, for instance, is the hae nang maew ritual, in which villagers would parade a cat from house to house, and families would pour water over its head to call for rain. The ceremony has died out with the advent of modern agricultural methods, Clutterbuck notes.

Also in this part, Clutterbuck briefly describes the history of each breed after its arrival in the West and the ways in which the appearance of each breed has been changed in the hands of Western breeders.

For "Siamese Cats", Clutterbuck also includes a chapter by Dr Cristy Bird, a research scientist who breeds Siamese cats in the US. In her chapter, "Thailand: A Cat Superpower", she takes Clutterbuck's themes a step further, describing the impact of the Siamese breeds on Western breeds. The Wichien-maat and the Suphalak, she says, "have altered forever the world of pedigreed cats", and have "provided the genetic material for a long list of new breeds".

In an approach that is sometimes complex, sometimes charming but always enlightening, both Clutterbuck and Bird go out of their way to show how unique and important the cats of Thailand are.

Their efforts are echoed by Somkiat Onwimon in his Foreword to the Second Edition, where he stresses the importance of the cats - and the book.

"We Thais never really appreciate our cats which have become a legend of the world. I hope this book will some day be translated into Thai so that Thai people today will learn to love their cats like in old times," Somkiat says.

Perhaps Clutterbuck will consider a third edition - a Thai version of "The Legend of Siamese Cats".

Making Cats 101: Thai Cats

Animal Planet had contacted me before, a lady called Arestia Rosenberg, and the end result was the article here called SEA Games Presentation. Then a number of people contacted me about a researcher Kim Rideout, she passed me onto Heather Scudellari and finally I was talking to John Neely about making plans for his shoot.

We whittled to some core locations and made all the arrangements - he was picked up after a transglobal marathon involving Boston and France, and delivered directly to the Dusit Princess Korat Hotel. The next morning, we plunged him straight into deepest rural Thailand to film the rain ceremony.

We being he, myself, cameraman Marc Laban and his crew. The filming went well and after interviews with Chuchai at his cattery, we were headed back to Bangkok.

The next day we visited Kamnan Preecha in Ampawa and he went through each Thai breed. In the afternoon, we went to SCAD in Bangkok but any further filming was precluded by a ferocious rainstorm.

On the final day, we filmed the mural and cats at Wat Thong Noppakhun, completed our mission at SCAD with the street cats and headed up to Khun Somkiat's house for the final phase, an interview with Somkiat, and wrapping up with interviewing me in Somkiat's green and luscious garden. I understood this would be intercut with the footage we had in the can.

The final programme was premiered for US viewers on Discovery Channel's Animal Planet's Cats 101 on May 5, 2012.

Despite apprehensions, I think most of our plan made it to the finished movie. Enjoy. .

Dr Somkiat Ornwimon

Dr Somkiat is a champion for the cause of mass education in Thailand, through bringing educational documentaries to Thai TV and sitting on the board of Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, a university of the air that has benefitted many thousands. He has represented his home province of Suphanburi in the Senate, Thailand's upper house. He has never been anything less than totally kind to my requests. He used to have a number of Thai cats including some very nice Coppers, but the survivors are old now. His foreword for my book recounted an interesting encounter he had with Indira Gandhi, when he asked her about her Siamese cat*. Here he is interviewing in the Cats 101 programme at his house.

Saem Sawet cat

Back in May 2005, Khun Aree Yoobamrung contacted me about his "Saem Sawet" cat. Laurie Rosenthal wrote up the ensuing story much better and funnier than I would have, so here it is:

Here are the detailed photos.

Here is "Saem Sawet" in the Samut Khoi. Only the Khlong* manuscripts have this cat. Its place in the list in the Kaap* metres is taken by a dark phase dilute called Parort (Mercury) and the very old Klon* manuscript has Khao Plort (all white).

Epilogue: Laurie and I attempted to collect cheek swabs, but this turned out to be very challenging. It's not known whether they were tested.

"Red Eyed" cat

At the same time as the Saem Sawet in May 2005, Khun Aree showed me a white cat that was presumably an albino, with very faint blue irises and unusual red pupils. There is a reference in the Khlong* manuscript to a white cat with red eyes called "Tupphalaphet" which is supposed to be unlucky, rather than lucky.

Cabinet Magazine

Cabinet magazine, "a quarterly of art and culture" based in New York City, asked me for a little featurette on the Thai Cat poems under their “Inventory” category, which appeared in their issue number 30. Much appreciated the invites to artistic events in New York which followed, even if it is difficult for me to make them!


Each letter of the Thai alphabet has an associated word containing it, mainly to distinguish letters with the same sound. The "M" sound is usually associated with "Maa" – "horse" so the letter is called "Mor Maa". However, it was not always so. This reproduction of a pre-war matchbox shows that "Mor Maew" (cat) was in some kind of use (with the couplet, mor maew jap nuu - "c for cat catches mice"), but didn’t become the standard word for Mor.

Thai books on Thai Cats

Most bookstores in Thailand have a title like one of these on their shelves, usually in the animal and plant husbandry section. Seuksaphan Panich, a government chain of school supply shops, stocks the bottom right title, "Maew Thai" by Suthilak Amphanwong, in a "Ladybird Book" format. This makes it the one in longest continuous print, and it is easily the most authoritative*, although they are all slender volumes, usually containing a cat poem text with illustrations. The others tend to not last beyond their initial print runs before being replaced with something similar, and their authors often use pen-names.
Clockwise from left:
Khuu Meuu Liang Maew Thai ("Thai Cats Care Manual") - Nareumon Manippan
Maew Thai ("Thai Cats") - Wichit Singthong
Maew Thai ("Thai Cats") - Suthilak Amphanwong
Maew Mongkhon ("Lucky Cats") - "Wilareudee"
Maew Siam ("Siamese Cats") - "Araya"

Maew Thai activity book

This was discovered at CU Books of Chulalongkorn University, and is obviously superior in presentation and content to the normal books on Thai bookstore shelves. Although there is no author attribution, K Preecha and K Aree are cited as sources and my own “Legend” seems to be hovering in the background. At the very least, this book, which is explicitly put together as an educational resource for children, is giving correct information, is beautifully illustrated with colour photos and cartoons, and even has some cool games!

Cats I used to own: part 1

Everyone I meet assumes that with all this devotion to the cause of Thai cats, I must have a forest of cats in my home, whereas in fact I’m currently shamefully catless! However, I’ve owned cats before in Thailand of various Thai types.

Here is a Siamese and Copper pair, called Reuangdet and Mongkon respectively, that were apparently feral among the fruit orchards of Taling Chan circa 1996. At this date I was processing the mass of data freshly culled from manuscripts in the National Library reading room.

Mongkon, the Copper, is "lucky" or "auspicious"

Reuangdet, the Siamese, is named after this couplet in the klon manuscript*:

Nam nan prakot reuang det, cheuu maew kaew wiset an sopa

- "the name appearing in power, named Jewel Cat of beauty*"

I had to guess they were siblings - as well as arriving together very much the package of two, and besides the similar pattern (albeit Siamese and Copper in each), they each had an identical docked tail about 4 inches long.

We had full “ownership” of them for about a year or two, after which they both melted back into the jungle, Reuangdet making one memorable farewell appearance.

Cats I used to own: part 2

Khun Vichit Samantrakul was for a time a prime mover and shaker in Thai cat circles, and around 2002 he gave me a bluepoint Siamese kitten who was named Mongkon after his illustrious predecessor. Bluepoints don't appear in the Tamra Maew despite being simply a cross of Korat and Siamese, so he would not have been eligible for any shows.

Cats I used to own: part 3

A variety of cats none which lasted for long except “Khao Phong” at the bottom.

Cats I used to own: part 4

The last "Mongkon", a neutered Korat given to me by Khun Aree Yoobamrung,a breeder no longer active.

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A selection from the maewthai.com stand at the Suan Amporn show.

Buy Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality

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All text and photos © Martin Clutterbuck 2012-3, unless otherwise indicated.

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