The Unhappy Observer: Rachel Wheatcroft and the Westernisation of Siam

By Tam Kuan Ho*

In the previous post, I explored how female writers were influenced by popular ideas of the Orient and how they repeated these ideas of the exotic Orient in their travelogues. However, authors could be critical of what they perceived as the erosion of the exotic and medieval East by the modern West. Rachel Wheatcroft visited Siam in 1925-26, and having travelled through the region poor, was teaching art in a Siamese school. She was exasperated at what she saw as the unnecessary and unsightly adoption of Western products and arts into Siam. Quoting her description of the Grand Palace:

“Disillusions lurks within the main gate, however. Here, unfortunately, are various Ministries erected a century or more ago under Western influence. They are still run to a great extent on Western lines with, in some cases, European advisers to help the Siamese ministers in their dealings with foreign powers. The intrusion of the European nineteenth century into Fairyland is distressing.” [1]

During a festival visit to the Royal Pantheon (Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn) within Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wheatcroft again bemoans the fusion of East and West: 

“The interior of the Pantheon was disappointing, not at all as purely Siamese or even Eastern as the exterior. There were interesting groups of Siamese soldiers in khaki uniforms prostrated in worship side by side with their fellow citizens in panung and pasin of gay colours, but in art the daily more inevitable trespass of West on East shocks always. Here lack of fusion is fatal… Offerings which least commend themselves to European eyes are those brought from the West, such as vases of Sevres porcelain or Bohemian glass, and, as in all wealthy temples, a multitude of clocks of every description.” [2]

Figure 1: Rachel Wheatcroft, The Blue Roof of Wat Phra Keo, With Kinoran and Yak,
in Siam and Cambodia in Pen and Pastel, 108.

Much of her displeasure was directed towards the display of Western products brought to Siam by imperial commerce, which ruined the exotic image of the Orient: 

“There is a most pleasant and rather melancholy quiet about Wat Boh…In the inner temple monks’ mattins are impressive, both the rhythmic chant as they sit upright on the floor, bowing together with an occasional prostration towards the Lord Buddha high on his altar, and more impressive still the sudden silences…a delightful and spacious picture, spoilt only, to European eyes, by the false note of the very handsome rose red Western pile carpet.” [3]

Figure 2: Rachel Wheatcroft, Wat Phra Keo Enclosure from the Outer Precincts, Old Palace, in Siam and Cambodia in Pen and Pastel, 94.

“From the point of view of the sightseer the quantities of Manchester goods on sale, encouraging though they may be as to the prospects of British commerce, seem out of place.” [4]

Describing Western products as “out of place” showed that they had ruined what, in her opinion, should have been a perfectly preserved exotic Oriental picture. In another sense, Wheatcroft is herself “out of place” in Siam, being a symbol of the West in Siam which she bemoaned. Attempting to enter the Pantheon festival, she was informed that the festival was not open to foreigners without permission and that “You [Wheatcroft] do not appear to be Siamese” [5].

Female travel writers were an intrusion into Southeast Asia, just as much as European khakis, porcelain, and carpets were an intrusion into the Occident’s imagination of a purely Oriental scene. By arguing against this fusion of East and West in favour of the exotic Orient, female travel writers such as Wheatcroft reinforced the hegemonic discourse of the difference between the Orient and the Occident. 

Figure 3: Rachel Wheatcroft, Amarindra Hall, in Siam and Cambodia in Pen and Pastel, 120.

My two posts have explored how female writers were influenced by the ideas of the Orient in contemporary popular culture and how they reproduced and reinforced the image of the exotic Orient in their works. Although most of the writers and books discussed in this article are minor figures, their contributions nonetheless add to the corpus of travel books about Southeast Asia [6].

More colonial-era travelogues by women authors available at ISEAS Library include:


[1] Rachel Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia in Pen and Pastel: with excursions in China and Burmah (Geography: The London Geographical Institute, 1929; Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1986), 107. Citations refer to the Gian Publishing House edition.
[2] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 115-116.
[3] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 132.
[4] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 91.
[5] Wheatcroft, Siam and Cambodia, 113.
[6] Christine Doran, “Popular Orientalism: Somerset Maugham in Mainland Southeast Asia,” Humanities 5, no. 1 (2016): 13,

*Tam Kuan Ho was an undergraduate intern at the ISEAS Library from May to August 2023.

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