All the photos on this page are
taken from The Legend of Siamese Cats book and are under strict copyright
In February 1995, I made my second journey to Thailand to study
the Siamese cat in its homeland. My colleague, Martin Clutterbuck, had
been translating the Cat Book Poems of Siam after being granted a research
permit by the Thai Government, now published in our book. An important part of
my second visit was to see the Chiang Mai cattery, world-famous for preserving
the traditional Thai breeds - Siamese included.
Yai (Jakkapat), our photographer, missed the train.
Martin moaned for hours. The train clattered slowly into the night passing
mountains, forests and hills which blended with the black night sky, studded
with the starry lights of distant villages. Sometimes the horizon glowed
neon orange from forest fires and the smoke drifted across the tracks.
We arrived in Chiang Mai as the sun rose through the wispy
morning mists. I liked Chiang Mai immediately: the city's moated walls,
its sense of history and, more important in late February when the rest of
Thailand is stewing in a humid 34°C, it was a little cooler up here in the
North. Jungle clad mountains formed a scenic backdrop to the city which
had once been Lan Na, “The Kingdom of a Thousand Rice Fields” and Siam's
ancient Northern capital. After lunch we made contact with Malee Rose and she
drove us to her famous Chiang Mai Cattery, the home of all cats Thai.
Ed and Malee Rose have a large breeding cattery on the
outskirts of the city, next to their house and set amid beautifully maintained
gardens. Ed, an American, is a lecturer at the Chiang Mai University and
his wife Malee, who is Thai, teaches languages for the American Institute.
Even though Martin speaks Thai like a native, I was much relieved to hear
Malee's excellent English, as Ed was not yet home. But in any case, I
would have been happy to speak to no-one, as immediately I was surrounded by a
pack of cats burning with curiosity to see the visitors.
all corners of the garden cats came running. Around my feet swirled brown,
blue, white, black and colourpointed furry bodies which reached up to pat my
knee or stared in fascination as I, equally fascinated, stared back. I
stood marooned in a sea of cats in the centre of the rich green lawn and watched
delightedly as adults and adolescents alike chased one another up and down the
trees, wrestled and tumbled around everywhere, or galloped about in an excess of
energy. Their coats glistened like satin in the bright sun. Malee
smiled, and left me to play with the cats while she and Martin talked
The Roses have, adjacent to their house, a large permanent
block built cattery with about six good-sized communal pens, mesh sided for
ventilation. Tarpaulin sheets are rolled down over the sides at night, for
even in Thailand's tropical climate, it can get cool in the North at certain
times of the year. In each pen lives around ten or twelve adult females,
entire and neutered, with the studs housed in smaller pens at the other end of
the main cattery. Each group has
its own time of day for total freedom in the garden.
Stray cats are not much of a problem as their home is situated at the end of the
lane and there are fields adjacent. In any case, any strays often end up
as residents, such as the tabby who visits at the same time every day for dinner,
or the old white neuter who has part of one leg missing.
With regard to the other cats, I immediately noticed one
important thing: they all had straight tails. In Thailand, as in most of
Asia, the great majority of cats own shortened, bobbed or kinked tails.
This is the norm, and in case you weren't sure, they are born like that -
not, as a fellow passenger on the plane told me the first time I went to
Thailand, because the Thais cut off their tails at birth out of jealousy for the
cat's beauty, for nothing can be as perfect as the Buddha! Hardly able to
suppress my amusement, I gently told him the real truth...
Although there is not much in the way of a show or breeding
scene in Thailand, there was a brief interest in the 1970's, and cat books were
written in Thai containing the Western standards for Siamese cats. Ed and
Malee, having had a lot of contact with show breeders world-wide, have amassed
an impressive library of cat books from England and the U.S.A. and have exported
their cats to many breeders in the rest of the world. From an early stage
they became aware that straight tails were more acceptable in most of the breeds
and have bred towards that quite successfully. Their greatest success is with
the sending of Thong Daeng (Copper) cats to bring fresh blood into tired Burmese
bloodlines in Europe.
Thong Daeng (pronounced “tong deng”) is an original ancestor of the Burmese.
It is also known as the Copper, or the Suphalak (pronounced “soo-pa-lack”).
The two breeds are so close that when I saw a lovely Thong Daeng queen and
commented on her beauty, Malee informed me that it was a Burmese (half Copper)
imported from Denmark! The Thong Daeng does have slightly differing type -
it has the general Thai cat type - but in all other respects it is very similar
to the European Burmese.
Thai cats on the street seem to fall into two type categories.
Some are like the Traditional Siamese - the Siamese cat which came direct from
Thailand in the 19th century. Others are more like cats in the Asian group of
breeds with larger eyes and slightly snub noses, though it must be stressed that
there appears to be a great difference between the sexes. Females seem to be
smaller with finer, delicate heads and an “Asian” look, while adult males
resemble the photographs of old Siamese from Victorian times (which were mainly
of entire males); a much heavier looking cat with huge jowly heads. Both kinds
can be seen everywhere, town and country, in Thailand and interbreed freely,
like our moggies, as all the breeds of Thai cat are but colour variations of the
same breed. Only in the hands of breeders such as the Roses are the cats bred
with selection and care, with minimal intermixing of colours.
Inside the Rose's comfortable home we saw a litter of young
Coppers, around three or four weeks old, just beginning to toddle.
Pregnant queens are brought into the kitten room, which has a large glass window
opening into the hall, where they may be safely observed during the critical
weeks. "We had a Copper queen, once," laughed Malee, "who had the
run of the house and learned to use the lavatory!" A remarkable feat, I
thought, until I saw that the well-appointed bathroom contains not only a modern
flush toilet but also a traditional Thai floor-level convenience. Martin also
reports that his two Siamese- and Tonkinese-coloured pet Bangkok alley cats
would use his Thai appliance during the night, or at least, get as close to it
as they could. Clearly, natural Thai cats are nothing if not resourceful, and as
intelligent as Siamese in the West have always been.
I spent two full days with the Chiang Mai cats, and enjoyed
every minute. Much of the time I made quite a fool of myself running about like
a typical mad dog in the midday sun, dragging a tree branch with a pack of
exuberant cats following, or waving a twig in the air while Yai the photographer
captured the enigmatic expression of one cat or another.
The gorgeous young male Wichien Maas cat in the top photo was
my especial favourite. We had quite an affair, he and I; I carried him about
cradled in my arms like a baby, and like any other holiday romeo, he swore
undying love. But it was true love: of that I am sure. Tears came to my
eyes when I felt I had to explain about quarantine, and the fact that I would
leave, and he would never see me again.
I tried to capture the perfect photo of him, but he led me a
real dance to punish me for my impending desertion. For almost the whole two
days (he did pose for Yai, but not for me) I chased him up and down trees,
ambushed him at every oasis, pleaded, desperately, as the light faded on the
last afternoon, for just one photograph to take home and cherish forever.
as the light changed from searing white noonday heat, through all shades of
lemon to yellow, and finally to a rich, long-shadowed amber, he acquiesced. In
those last precious minutes of available light on the last day, I lay down on my
stomach in the dust while he posed on a step and stared sultrily through lowered
lashes into the camera, and I finally got my longed-for pictures. He allowed me
two, and no more. Then he was up, running, tail askew, to join the queue of cats
waiting in the pre-sunset moments for their evening meal and forgot all about
I stayed one more day in Chiang Mai. It truly is a lovely
city, nestled among the mountains, and on the final day, Yai and I took a
hair-raising songthaew [converted pick-up truck] ride into the peaks to
visit a hill-tribe village.
The most depressing sight I have ever encountered was here.
No fewer than six dried, polythene-wrapped tiger's penises were on sale. Yai,
who had worked for a Thai wildlife rescue organisation in the past, was as
shocked as I was. These pitiful items were coming from Burma, smuggled across
the border, and for me the worst aspect was that, although the penis is the most
prized part of the tiger, the price was less than £20. Who can put a
price on the life of a tiger? But to see the main reason for the creature's loss
of life reduced to such a small sum was devastating.
Back to Thai cats, though the smaller kind seemed less
significant while I contemplated the terrible fate of the larger. In modern
times, the average Thai prefers dogs, as testified by the huge number of puppies
of all breeds on sale at the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, including the
beautiful Si-Sawaat ridgeback, a striking silver-blue native Thai breed now
being exported to other countries across the world. Persian kittens are
regularly on sale, the breed of choice for wealthy Thais, and an exotic novelty.
Long-hair is absent from the native gene pool and most Thai people have never
seen a fluffy cat of any sort. Sadly, most
of the pets sold at the market are destined to succumb to serious disease before
While the Thai Ridgeback dog has an assured future, only a
few cat lovers are willing to perpetuate the traditional Thai cat breeds. With
no registration body or show organisations to look after the interests of native
Thai cats, for how long will this continue? The Roses admit they would like to
retire from cat breeding, and when they do, a important bridge between Eastern
and Western cat culture will be lost.
Just as the little blue Korat has found a place in the cat
world, could there also be room for the other natural Thai breeds, bred to a
standard which preserves their "original" features and beauty? If so,
ready waiting, are black Ninlarats (Dark Sapphires), odd-eyed white Khaao Maniis,
harlequin patterned Gao Taems, sleek Coppers both light and dark, and of course
the truly traditional,
original Siamese, the Wichien Maas [Moon Diamond] of the Cat-Book Poems. A host
of ancient, beautiful cat breeds, all with the people-loving Thai-cat
temperament and moderate, graceful type, willing to bring centuries of their own
history to a cat world with a penchant for fancifully-named man-made breeds.
Thailand, a country which prides itself on its unique culture
and heritage as an uncolonised nation, has yet to fully acknowledge its most
famous cultural export: the individual, irrepressible Siamese Cat. It
might be down to us to ensure that none of Thailand's cat heritage is lost to
© Sue Brown/Martin Clutterbuck/Jakkapat Kangwan 1999