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Detail of [Double sided manuscript map on cloth showing central and southern Thailand, the Thai border with Burma, and Cambodia], recto. [Producer not identified], [between 1767 and 1782?]. Geography and Map Division.

From the Mountains to the Mekong

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In 2023, the Geography and Map Division (G&M) acquired a map which, even among the nearly 6 million cartographic items in our collection, is unique. Hand-drawn in blue and red ink onto a piece of cloth nearly 4 feet wide and more than 8 feet long, the map – or really two maps, one on each side – was made in the 18th or 19th century, presumably in Thailand. Each side shows a different area of Southeast Asia, each including part of Thailand and part of neighboring countries: modern Myanmar, on one side, Cambodia and Vietnam on the other. The text is in the Thai language and script. Both maps sport exquisitely illustrated landmarks and landforms, including mountains and rivers, vegetation, temples, cities, and roads.

Full view of large cloth map in blue ink, showing rivers, mountains, a few buildings, and Thai textual labels
[Double sided manuscript map on cloth showing central and southern Thailand, the Thai border with Burma, and Cambodia], recto. [Producer not identified], [between 1767 and 1782?]. Geography and Map Division.
Full view of large cloth map in red ink, showing a coastline, rivers, mountains, several buildings, and Thai textual labels
[Double sided manuscript map on cloth showing central and southern Thailand, the Thai border with Burma, and Cambodia], verso. [Producer not identified], [between 1767 and 1782?]. Geography and Map Division.
Much about this map is unknown: there’s no indication of the creator on either side, or of the date of creation. It’s not clear whether the two sides were drawn by the same person, or even at the same time. The maps are stylistically quite different, which could reflect different creators, audiences, or purposes.

Close-up of a section of river in blue ink showing a wavy pattern with small circles
Depiction of a river on the blue side
Close-up of a section of river in red ink showing a less intricate wavy pattern with no small circles
Comparison on the red side; while similar, the patterns used to depict the water are not identical

Hand-colored slide showing a river lined with raised wooden houses and trees, with two small boats in the foreground
Bangkok – looking up river or canal. Jackson, William Henry, [1895]. Prints and Photographs Division.
The best comparable examples that I’m aware of are 17 maps, also on cotton cloth, which were found in the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok in 1996. These maps are varied in their size, coverage, and style, but many are large and some show similar regions to those shown on the map in G&M.

The cloth hints at a storied history: lines, small holes, and discoloration reveal where the map has been folded and how it must have been stored. Some sections show damage from insects and moisture, but the map remains almost entirely legible, thanks to the large empty areas in between features.

Close-up of map with a river and Thai textual labels in blue ink, showing several small holes in the cloth, a fold line, and splotches from water damage
Detail of blue side showing evidence of damage

Some areas of the red side of the map have corrections made with a white pigment. In one case, blue ink showing through from the other side of the map has been masked with the white pigment, possibly to provide a blank space for the label later written in red ink.

Close-up of map in red ink showing four stupas on a mountain; the rightmost stupa has been covered with white pigment
In this detail of the red side, one of a set of four stupas has been covered with a white pigment

This layering of ink and pigment is a clue that the blue map was likely made first. This map covers area along the Thai-Burmese border, which was an area of conflict throughout much of the 18th century. This side is oriented with west at the top and shows the mountainous terrain between central Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Mountains and mountain passes are noted, along with several Karen villages.

Close-up of map in blue ink showing a river, a mountain, and Thai textual labels
Detail of the blue side; the text in the lower right reads บานกะเรียงยู (“there is a Karen village here”)

The red side of the map covers a larger geographic area. I could get oriented quickly thanks to the large lake in the middle of it, labeled ทะเลทรา้บ: this is Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The map shows rivers flowing into and out of the lake, which is an important part of the Mekong River drainage system.

Close-up of decorative textual label in red ink, with blue ink showing through from the other side
Detail of the red side showing the label on lake Tonlé Sap

Even with my rusty Thai language skills (two years of study in college, but it’s – ahem – been a little while), I can recognize some place names. Near the top of the map is Saigon – today’s Ho Chi Minh City – and Battambang can be seen just below Tonlé Sap. The ornate building to the lower left of the lake is the city-temple-palace complex of Angkor, noted in Thai as พระณคอรลวง (Phra Nakhon Luang).

Close-up of map showing an ornate building between two rivers, one of which is crossed by a bridge
Angkor shown in a detail of the red side

This recent acquisition joins a small but fascinating collection of Southeast Asian cloth maps at the Library. This large pair of Vietnamese cloth maps depict the 1885 siege of the Đò̂ng Hới Citadel in Quảng Bình Province; one map shows a plan of the citadel while the other situates it within a wider landscape.

Wide photograph of a large cloth map of a coastal area; the interior shows mountains, rivers, roads, and buildings
[Cloth map of Qu.ng Bình Province, Vietnam]. [Producer not identified], [not before 1885]. Geography and Map Division.
Wide photograph of a large cloth map showing the plan of a citadel with illustrations of soldiers, ships with French flags, and scenery
[Pictorial cloth map of the Siege of the Đò̂ng Hới Citadel, Bình Trị Thiên, Vietnam]. [Producer not identified], [not before 1885]. Geography and Map Division.
This earlier Vietnamese cloth map of Huyen de Nghia Hanh has been heavily annotated in French.

Manuscript cloth map showing rivers, mountains, a wall, and numerous sections of Vietnamese and French text
[Plan du Huyen de Nghia Hanh]. [Producer not identified], [not before 1819]. Geography and Map Division.
G&M also holds a set of 4 Hmong story cloths, which convey narrative and geographical information through beautiful embroidery. All four maps can be viewed on our website.

Blue rectangular cloth with large embroidered section showing numerous animals, plants, and people engaged in primarily domestic and agricultural activities
[Hmong hand-stitched story cloth maps of mainland Southeast Asia], Map 2. [Manufacturer not identified], [2016]. Geography and Map Division.
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Comments (2)

  1. The Thai map is fascinating, and I’m pleased that some of its mysteries are being unraveled. One question — G&M provides the map’s dates as between 1767 and 1782 (?), i.e. from the Burmese destruction of Ayudhya to the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty. Does this estimate come from any specific features or clues on the map or from analysis of the cloth and ink?
    Congratulations on an excellent posting!

    • Great question. The date in G&M’s catalog record was estimated based on a comparison with the maps as described in the Royal Siamese Maps book; according to our cataloger, a translator suggested that some of the place names appear earlier than the Burmese-Siamese War of 1785-86. The Library’s analysis of the cloth and ink was broadly consistent with an 18th or early 19th century date. There’s still plenty of research to be done on these maps!

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