Photo of a Wichien
Maas by Jakkapat Kangwan
cats are still to be found in their native land of Thailand, where they
have existed for hundreds of years.
Sue Brown and
Martin Clutterbuck have researched the origins of this famous breed in
its homeland, together with other native Thai breeds such as the Copper
(the ancestor of the Burmese and Tonkinese). Their findings, together
with Martin's full academic study and translations of the ancient Siamese
Cat-Book Poems manuscripts, have recently been published in a book, “The
Legend of Siamese Cats.”
the photos on this page are taken from The Legend of Siamese Cats book
and are under strict copyright control.
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.
(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.
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.
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 academically.
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.
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...
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 me.
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
pick-up truck] ride into the peaks to visit a hill-tribe village.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 future
© Sue Brown/Martin
Clutterbuck/Jakkapat Kangwan 1999
information about Thai cats and Siamese can be found at
"The Legend of Siamese Cats"