The Cats of Bangkok

In the tiny, cluttered room in Banglamphu in Bangkok, there were cats everywhere: on the bed, the table, the chairs, the floor.

"I have 30 cats in all" Mrs Muay told me, as she sat playing cards on the bed. "I feed them on fish, of which they eat around 15 a day, and also rice and liver. It costs me about 200-300 baht a day." This would amount annually to over half the average earnings in Thailand.

One white cat lying on the dresser, appeared to be in a sort of sling. "He has just come back from the vet. My cats are prone to illness and I spend a lot on vets' fees. The cats that live in the wat are tougher as they lead a less pampered existence."

Mrs Muay's cats had originally been feral but had decided, wisely it would seem, to come to live with her. "They sleep in the bed. Each has its own distinct personality". She picked one up and stroked it, which provoked some hissing. "If one of them appears to be getting a lot of attention, the others get jealous."

"This one is has a 'diamond eye'". She showed me a white cat with one blue and one yellow eye. "We Thais believe that that cats with a diamond eye bring luck to the owner".

"Did this one bring you good fortune?" I asked.

"I received 200,000 baht shortly after I got him". 200,000 bahts is about $5000.

Mrs Muay was exceptionally proud of this cat and I recalled a recent story about a Bangkok businessman, who acquired a feline with a diamond eye, and whose business subsequently prospered, who staged an opulent wedding at the Phoebus Amphitheatre for his cat and that of a friend which also had a diamond eye. It was a traditional wedding together with white bridal gown, a red tuxedo for the groom, a dowry of 1.5 million baht ($40,000) in cash and jewellery, and a wedding ring . The bride arrived by helicopter and the groom in a Rolls-Royce with a motorcade. The best man was a parrot and the maid of honour an iguana. The wedding was followed by a reception for 500 human guests and a honeymoon cruise along the Chao Phya River.

"Korat cats are also meant to bring luck. Do you have any Korats?" I asked.

"This one is a Korat". She showed me a large brown and white cat. This surprised me.
The cat was not what cat fanciers would describe as a Korat, which is a blue cat, with a heart shaped face. However, Thais seem to call any cat with a brown coat or brown markings a 'Korat'. Perhaps the fact that the blue coat tends to go slightly brown in the sun has something to do with it. Genuine Korats are rare although it is possible to buy them at the weekend market at Chatuchak.

Korats are only one of the breeds that have originated from Thailand, which has played a unique role in feline history. It is the home of the most recognisable pedigree cat of all, the Siamese, and the Burmese, now one of the most popular cats in the west, is partially of Thai origin, and closely resembles the coppery-brown cats of old Siam known as the Supalak or Thong Daeng. Probably the most common of the unique Thai breeds today is the Khao Manee which means literally "White Jewel". Thai cats are highly prized not only for their beauty but also their intelligence, their liveliness, and sense of mischief. They are also highly talkative, with attractive voices and can be trained to retrieve, like dogs, and perform other tricks.

Thai literature and folklore contains several references to cats. The Cat Book of Poems, written and illustrated between 1350 and 1767 and an invaluable record, shows 17 distinct types of cat mostly black and white but also the Siamese, the Korat and the Copper.

In the Hae Nang Maew, a tradition still carried out in some North-eastern villages, a Korat cat, with its cloud- coloured coat, is used in a rain-making ceremony. The cat is carried about the village on a litter, while the villagers make a noise with musical instruments to attract the attention of celestial beings. Then they pour water over the cat, to make it yowl and screech until the celestial beings, unable to endure the sounds, promise to grant the villagers any request. The villagers then say "Give us rain".

Cats are not yet as popular as dogs among Thais, and only recently have there been any cat shows in Bangkok. There are no feline charities, and cats are fed generally on scraps rather than special cats foods. Most of the cats one sees are feral. Cats are not neutered and the only limitation on their numbers is competition for food, disease and cars. The life of these animals is a world away from that of the pampered domestic cat. Most are painfully thin. The average age is about 2 years whereas pet cats generally live till about 15, and sometimes into their twenties or even thirties. The feline density in Bangkok is around 1 cat per 8 rai. Although superb hunters, the main source of their food is scavenging or scrounging from the wats, food sellers and street markets. The fact that the rubbish is wrapped up in plastic bags which can be torn open with their sharp claws, helps. It is survival of the fittest rather than of the cutest.

These feral cats are subtly distinctive, and genetically unlike those found outside south-east Asia. Interestingly it is possible to detect certain of the characteristics of the Siamese in these cats, with their pale colour, their slight built and their wedge-shaped heads. Some even have the points of the Siamese. It is easy to see that the pedigree standard is an idealisation of these features.

Thai cats are much smaller than cats in the west, even the pedigree cats of Thai origin such as the Siamese or Korat which are in turn smaller than western breeds that can often weigh more than 5 kilograms. The reason probably lies in the difference between what the spoiled western cats get to eat and what the Thai cats manage to scavenge. The colour patterns of their coats seem to be similar to those found outside South-east Asia, including ginger, tortoiseshell and calico, none which are found in the Cat Book of Poems. The ginger gene must have been introduced after the book was written, travelling along the Silk Route, whereas the original Thai cats probably arrived by boat. Their coats are of a paler colour than western cats, caused probably by the hot climate of Thailand: the amount of pigment produced depends on the skin temperature, the higher the temperature the less pigment is produced.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of Thai cats is their tails: some have just a rabbit-like tail with the end slightly angled; some have a full length tail ending with something like an inverted, inflexible hook, or alternatively, a kind of knot; some have a half length tail only. Pedigree cats of Thai descent such as the Siamese usually have these characteristics bred out of them. In Thailand there are several colourful legends accounting for the kink in the tail. In one, a Thai princess gave a cat her rings to look after, and the cat crooked its tail to prevent them falling off. Another describes how the sacred Siamese temple cats were entrusted with looking after the golden goblet of the Buddha and in order to guard it properly they curled their tails around it. The more prosaic modern explanation is that it is a result of an inherited genetic mutation which results in missing or distorted vertebrae. The gene that produces this mutation would seem, from what I could observe, to be dominant as the offspring of a parent with a normal tail and a parent with a distorted tail also have distorted tails.

Many feral cats seem to live around the wats which are a source of food .

"Buddhism teaches compassion for all sentient beings", a young monk at Wat Mahathat explained to me. "A monk is therefore not only forbidden to take life but is also obliged to try to save the life of any creature if it is within his power. I feed the cats from my own food which I obtain through begging" .

Buddhist tradition seems to have an ambivalent attitude to cats. In one legend, the cat disgraced itself by catching a rat during a sermon given at the Buddha's funeral, while all the other animals were in mourning. In another story the cat saved the sacred books of the Buddha by catching all the mice that would have otherwise eaten them.

Some wats, such as Suan Mokkh, the forest hermitage and meditation centre, discourage cats from living there, as they hunt some of the rare wildlife living in the forest.

People with unwanted pets generally take them to the wat. My local wat has about 100 cats staying in it, included a 'Korat' - described as such to me by the temple assistant, but actually a brown cat - left by a couple who had to move away from Bangkok and were unable to take her. The owners were evidently quite devoted as they continued to visit her from time to time and provide food.

"She eats a lot, and is very fussy about what she eats", I was told. She was certainly not very friendly when I tried to pick her up and I got badly scratched. Feeding time is 5 o'clock each day when the cats are fed on rice and a small fish called Pla-Tu.

Back in my guest house, I watch 2 small families of cats, one black and one black and white from a black queen and one ginger tom from a ginger and white queen.

"The owner of the guest house objects to them because he claims they smell and make a mess", the manageress tells me. "However we shoo them away whenever we see his Mercedes, so he doesn't realize they live here. The cook feeds them on rice and fish". I ask how they have come to live here. "Originally a farang guest looked after them in his room for the first 3 months of their life when they were old enough to be let out. Then we took them to the wat, but the abbot refused to accept them, because of the large number of cats already living there. Somehow they found their way back to the guest house."

One of the kittens chases after a leaf that is blown about by the wind.

Copyright © 1996 Nicholas Abel/Pornpetch Yinatsawaphan, All Rights Reserved.

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Links to sites about the cats of South-East Asia

A fascinating page about the Cat Book of Poems
Did you ever wonder why Siamese Cats appear to be cross-eyed?
Siamese Cats in North Thailand
A site dedicated to the Siamese Cat
Information about Korats.
About the Korat
About the Burmese
About the Birman
Feline Information Page.
Some facts and links about our feline friends
Links to some interesting sites.