Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Thai ‘Silk Road’ — a work in progress.

The 'Thai Silk Road’

This blog entry is an introduction to the "Thai Silk Road". A road, which was a route across what is now the southern Thailand peninsular, approximately latitude 9-10 degrees north, covering parts of the contemporary Thai provinces of northern Phang-nga, Ranong, and Surat Thani. The route largely follows the Takuapa ("Dark-gwar-PAR") River, which provided a convenient and easy journey across the peninsular.

This Thai crossing was a small, but vital, link in the long journey of goods and people between the far west and the far east, between Rome and China, Europe and Asia.

Between two and one thousand years ago, this small peninsular was filled with busy commerce, with voices and peoples from all corners of the civilised world. Each vying for profit and trade, but, I am sure, each also in some small, or larger way, aware of the magnitude of their venture. Silks from China, were carried south around Vietnam, across the South China Sea, to what is now Thailand, unloaded and carried to the vibrant small town of Thung Tuk, on the west coast of Thailnad, facing out into the Indian ocean.

Here traders from India, eager to make a trade and return home rich with gold and wealth, bartered and haggled with skilled Chinese merchants. This peninsular, a millennium ago, was one of the melting pots of the world. 

Over the months March and April 2011, I plan to visit as much of this route across the Thai peninsular as I can and see what archaeological sites are extant in this area. 

I had long known of the ‘Silk Road’, a series of routes between the world of the Mediterranean and the ‘far east’, China, upon which silk and other precious goods travelled. Roman writers such as Pliny the younger wrote of this trade route, usually with disdain, as there was, apparently, a net drain of Roman gold eastwards to pay for these expensive, feminine fripperies. 
This trade path generally took two different routes. The most well known stretched from the eastern Roman Empire, across the Parthian/Persian empire to China, with numerous variations as to the exact route taken. The second was by sea, from southern Egypt, to India. A little known variation on this latter route stretched across the narrow isthmus of what is now southern Thailand. This route allowed traders to bypass the long trip south, around the Straits of Malaka. This route is known as the ‘Thai Silk Road’.
I was first informed of this with discussion by a friend of mine who is a Thai student of archaeology. Intrigued, I investigated further and found that there was a fair amount of information about this trade route. The first major English language article I stumbled across was The Thai Silk Road, an article In the English language, Thai newspaper ‘The Bangkok Post’, June 21, 2009. This article described the route across the peninsular, and gave me the name of a Thai archaeologist who had worked, and is working, on this project, Capt. Boonyarit Chaisuwan, of the 15th Regional Office of Fine Arts, Phuket.
I met and spoke with Capt. Chaisuwan for two hours or so (the Regional Office is immediately adjacent to the Thalang Museum—the provincial museum of Phuket). He kindly gave me a copy of a book produced by the Fine Arts Dept Thung Tuk: A Settlement Linking Together the Maritime Silk Route. This book, bilingual in Thai and English, describes the Thung Tuk site in detail, and the associated locations across the peninsular.
One wonders, almost certainly expat Romans lived, worked and most likely died on the Indian section of this trade route, but did a few, adventurous or driven citizens of the Republic travel further east to find themselves in ancient Thailand? Did these lonely Romans live in these small towns, far from home, and if so, why?  By the time of the empire, Rome was a conservative place, however, I cannot help but think a few citizens with a wonder lust travelled further east than India, in search of adventure, or maybe simply avoiding money/legal problems back home, or, I am sure, because of a woman. 

No comments: