|“Leua cheua jing jing! Incredible!” was my landlord’s response, on seeing my newly
acquired Khao Manee cat. His response was not unusual because most people are dumb struck when they first see a Khao Manee . Even if you are not a cat person, the Khao Manee is very striking. Whether you like them or not, and most agree they are very beautiful, I defy anyone to tell me that the Khao Manee isn’t the strangest cat, strangest animal for that matter, they’ve ever seen!
The Khao Manee ("white jewel") is now winning the hearts of American and European cat lovers, following other Thai cats such as the Wichien Maas (Siamese), the Si Sawaat (Korat) and the Thong Daeng (Copper). In June 1999 the first Khao Manees ever to leave Thailand arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. They were greeted by Colleen Freymuth who later in the same year became the first person to breed Khao Manees outside Thailand and on 5th Jan 2001, the Traditional Cat Association in America formally registered the Khao Manee, thus recognizing them as a distinct breed. A picture of the Khao Manee recently appeared in a magazine in Hungary suggesting that the word is now out throughout Europe as well.
I first became interested in the Khao Manee when Colleen Freymuth, an Arizona based breeder of rare animals approached me regarding obtaining some in order to preserve what she believed to be an endangered breed. Any concerns about placing an animal in the hands of a stranger were dispelled by the fact that Colleen was the holder of a US federal license for breeding endangered species, which imposes strict standards regarding the care of animal in a breeding program, and conversations with her convinced me that she was a true animal lover.
The Khao Manee, a minor Thai breed still being raised by people in Thailand, is generally thought of as a white cat with one yellow and one blue eye, sometimes called the “diamond eye”. I had first seen one in the course of researching an article on Si Sawaat, while talking to a cat owner who seemed especially proud of her Khao Manee, and claimed that ownership of the Khao Manees had brought her good luck. This was not unusual as Thais are a superstitious people and part of the reason for the Khao Manee's popularity lies in the ancient Thai belief that certain types of cat bring good fortune to those who look after them. In Cat Book of Poems or Tamra Maew, which dates back to the Ayutthaya period, it states
The sixth feline completely white, eyes of clear mercury, this cat
cat if in any house, brings long life and title, material wealth
coming in with no decrease will be entertained with all things in
After death, according to another tradition, the cats should be dug up as their eyes will bring good luck.
Cat Book of Poems is the nearest thing to a reference book on Thai cats and perhaps a good starting point for the question: what exactly is a Khao Manee? A fairly fundamental question if one was to be found for Colleen, but the answer was still a bit fuzzy, as different people seemed to have different opinions. I consulted Martin Clutterbuck, on expert on the Cat Book of Poems.
“The Khao Manee cat is not actually apparent in the poems, except for references to a white cat (called Khao Plort or "all white"), which does not have odd eyes. Genetically the Khao Manee is a ‘dominant white’, as is the Turkish Van cat, the white swimming cat from Lake Van, also white Persians and British short-hairs, in which the odd-eye gene is also prominent although in other respects the Khao Manee is quite different to these white breeds. Cats with this gene will occasionally produce both solid and odd-eyed offspring”
This was confirmed by other Thai cat breeders who used the term Khao Manee to refer to any pure white cat regardless of eye color. An odd-eyed kitten occurred perhaps 2 to 3 times in a litter. It seems likely therefore that the Thai breeders initially sought to breed a pure white cat and the odd-eyes appeared purely by chance, perhaps some time after the Cat Book of Poems had been completed.
My quest therefore was for a pure white cat, with either odd or solid eyes. The odd-eyes were perhaps preferable but these were hard to find and owners were sometimes reluctant to part with them. Those that were for sale would usually be snapped up quickly and price seemed no object.
While inquiring around a name that kept coming up was that of Namdee Witta. Namdee had an interesting theory that the Khao Manee was actually a royal cat, the true Royal Cat of Old Siam although this term is traditionally used to refer to the Wichien Maas, the Western “Siamese” cat. Namdee claimed that the Khao Manee was a favourite of Rama V and that the reason he had given a Wichien Maas to the British Consul general in the 1880s was because he could not bear to part with one of his own precious Khao Manees. Thus the Wichien Maas not the Khao Manee became know to the world as the Siamese Cat. Furthermore he claimed that the 50 odd cats that he had in his possession were the descendants of King Chulalongkorn’s own cats, passed onto him by his aunt.
I was intrigued by his story and anxious to see his cats.
By chance one Sunday while passing through Nakhom Pathom on the Pinklao-Nakhon Chaisri road, I saw a huge poster of a Khao Manee. It turned out that this was the location of the ‘Cat Museum’ owed by Namdee, an old style Thai house which was partly a restaurant. Unfortunately Namdee was away and had taken his cats with him.
“His is renting the premises, but is late with his rent. His is planning to re-open the museum in Pattaya.”, some not very friendly people explained. “His phone has been cut off for non-payment.” Evidently the good luck which the Khao Manee is supposed to bring is not working for him! A note for him to call me when he returned did not solicit any reply.
The cat farm/museum looked like another victim of Thailand's economic collapse and the story about King Chulalongkorn a clever marketing ploy to popularize the breed and thereby benefit Namdee’s cat farm. With no documentary evidence to support it, it was easy to dismiss his colorful story.
This changed a few months later. Daphne Negus, the author and cat lover, was turning out her extensive library of cat books and came across the following quote from Siamese Cats, by Sydney W. France (Third Edition June, 1951. First published October 1948)
"When I was in Siam in 1930, I was told that there were two distinct types of Siamese cats… The first is the one we see in England…. The second, which was said to be peculiar to the Royal family and palaces, had the body colour of the first - but not the points… Having been a contemporary at Eton with the then King, I got a special permit to see the Bangkok Palace more thoroughly than the usual tourist does, and I saw one or two of these 'Royal' cats…
At that time the export of the first type, except neuter ones, was absolutely forbidden, owing to the fear that they might become extinct in Siam, because so many had been exported. The second type was absolutely unobtainable, far less exportable, for it was not to be seen outside the royal palaces"
The quote confirms exactly what Namdee was saying all along about the Khao Manee being the true Royal cat of Siam. His story seems believable too. There is little doubt that the pure white cat is the Thais’ favourite and most likely to win first prize at cats shows. If this is true today it was probably the case in Rama V’s time too.
Even if Namdee had been home, it would not have done me much good as he was only prepared to sell the cats to royalty. I did finally find a breeder/dealer called Suwat Rajniyom who had a young queen with odd eyes that he was willing to sell. He was not an ideal source, as he was obviously doing it as a business rather than the love of it and the conditions in which he kept his cats left a lot to be desired. His Khao Manee however seemed to be genuine, pure white and with one blue and one yellow eye. Sripae, the name he had given her, was quite thin but otherwise well. And as soon as she arrived at my home, she was given a lot of fish to eat. She seemed to appreciate a tour of the garden on a lead and harness. She had a very dainty walk, placing one foot directly in front of the other like a fashion model. It might have been the first time in her life she had been out of her cage and she followed me everywhere. Her temperament was unusually affectionate.
“Who an earth is this?” was the attitude of my dog and cat on seeing Sripae. Perhaps her strange eyes unnerved them .
“I’m a royal cat! You are mere commoners!”
In keeping with her regal ancestry she showed not the slightest fear. Although not in any way aggressive, there was no question of who was the boss. On the first occasion she met my Si Sawaat my heart stopped. But I should not have worried. She stared at him. He stared at her. And then he promptly turned tail and fled. However, to make life easier for all concerned, she was kept initially in a spare room which, with her lively and inquisitive nature, she was obviously not happy about.
“Let me out!”
“I can’t. Its dangerous out there for a valuable cat like you. You might be stolen. Its just for a few days and then you’ll be out in the wide open spaces of America”
This was the plan until it became apparent that Sripae was getting remarkably fat around her tummy. A visit to the vet confirmed my worst fears: she was pregnant. How Suwat had allowed her to be exposed seemed inexplicable. Sending her to America in this condition was obviously out of the question so I had to keep her until she had her kittens and then another 2 month after this, until the kittens were old enough to travel. On 29th June, 7 weeks after her arrival, she had 4 kittens during the night in a cardboard box which was packed with blankets. She proved to be an excellent and devoted mum.
Although it was a lot of work, I grew very fond of her during the 4 months I looked after her and the kittens. The house felt very empty when on 6th June the shippers came and collected her and the kittens from the house for their long flight to the other side of the world, while I anxiously awaiting news of their arrival in Los Angeles airport. It was not until the next day that Colleen confirmed that they had arrived safely, the first Khao Manees ever to leave Thailand.
A Khao Manee has yet to participate in a cat show in America, but my betting is that it is only a matter of time before the prizes and honors start to roll in.
*From the Legend of Siamese Cats by Martin Clutterbuck. (White Lotus Press) by kind permission of the author
©Copyright N.F.W.Abel 2001