Cruising Thailand's Chao Phraya River with Admiral Zheng He
by Harold Stephens

You think it's a big deal visiting 38 countries strung between Indonesia and East Africa? Try doing it in the early 15th century.

One of the most interesting trips one can take in Thailand is up the Chao Phraya River--the River of Kings--from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam. A number of cruise boats make the trip, some overnight, while others travel one way by river and return by bus, and vice versa. But one doesn't have to travel that far to enjoy the river. The Marine Department and the Thai Boat Service Association launched ten new boats and for ten baht (twenty-five US cents) one can travel up and down river within greater Bangkok, and, that includes two very interesting klongs, or canal, trips. Boats leave every 15 minutes and carry passengers from 7 am to 7 pm. The Thai government is encouraging river travel both for transportation, to get from one place to another, and for pleasure.

Admiral Zheng He

This idea of taking a sightseeing trip up the Chao Phraya, however, is nothing new. If you were around 600 years ago you might have come upriver with a Chinese admiral, along with 28,000 "tourists" aboard one of his 317 ships - all magnificent sailing junks.

It all started on July 11, 1405, where the Yangtze River meets the China Sea. It was from here that Admiral Zheng He set sail with his armada, one of the largest the world has ever seen, to explore the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. A month after leaving China the fleet reached the Gulf of Siam, crossed the sand bar at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and made its way upriver to Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam. All along the banks of the river, for a hundred kilometers, thousands of people gawked in wonder. It was a sight truly amazing.

There stands today in Ayutthaya a statue of Admiral Zheng He in memory of this extraordinary voyage. But this wasn't Admiral Zheng He's only voyage up the Chao Phraya to Ayutthaya. Two more voyages up the river followed.

The intent behind Zheng He's expeditions was quite different from that of the western explorers. Zheng He's purpose was to establish relations with foreign countries and expand trade contacts. His expeditions were largely peaceable though occasionally there were skirmishes and unwelcoming rulers were captured and taken to China for "instruction." As such, Zheng He is today, in China, a cultural symbol of peaceful relations between countries and cultures.

As famous as Zheng He is today, probably what is more astounding than anything else about the man and his voyages is that for centuries he had been all but forgotten. The first I heard about the admiral, they called him Cheng Ho then, was years ago in Malacca (Malaysia). There is a well there called Sam Po Well and, when I asked about it, I was told it was named after a Chinese seaman who came many centuries before and, "if you drink from the well, one day you will return." From the looks of the water in the well, if one drank from it, I doubted he would make it to the nearest hospital. Also, not far from the Sam Po Well is Sam Po's footprint. It is a gigantic print, maybe more than a meter long, and is embedded in a patch of coral along the beach. There was another footprint, they said, farther up the beach in the Langkawi Islands, some 500 kilometers away. That is unquestionably a gigantic footstep, even for a legend. I guess back then we all assumed Sam Po was fictitious, Chinese folklore of sorts.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued and, in the basement of the National Library in Kuala Lumpur, I was able to find references to Admiral Cheng Ho. I found one reference that made a good story about the admiral arriving in Malacca with 62 ships and 27,000 men and had, aboard his command ship, the daughter of the Emperor of China and her 500 handmaidens to be presented to the Sultan of Malacca for her hand in marriage. When I read further and learned that Admiral Cheng Ho was a eunuch, I couldn't help wondering if this was the reason he was picked for the mission with such a precious cargo. In the courts of China they called him the Three Jeweled Eunuch. My later studies, however, proved different.

There is no question that Zheng He's ships were mighty. The larger vessels carried 1,000 crewmembers plus 2,500-tons of cargo, and were 150 meters long and 60 meters wide. Aside from crewmembers, the vessels carried clerks, interpreters, officers and soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. Nine masts and 12 sails propelled the craft. Their hulls were constructed of multiple watertight compartments, useful in the event of a breach. These ships were the largest, most advanced in the world at the time. Besides necessities for living and navigation, the ships were also loaded with pearls, precious stones, silk, chinaware and rare animals intended for trade and as gifts for nurturing transnational friendships.

As I at first thought, Zheng He was not chosen by the emperor to carry his daughter and 500 handmaidens aboard his ship because he was a eunuch. It was quite a different story.

He was born in the poor, mountain province of Yunnan, far from the sea. His family was Muslim, from Central Asia, who had fought on the side of the invading Mongols. When the Mongols were defeated and driven out of China, Ming armies came looking for rebels. They captured the 10-year-old boy and, as was the custom with young male prisoners, castrated him. He was sent to serve the emperor's son at his military base in north China. When this prince later attacked the capital, Nanjing, and took over power as the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He so distinguished himself in battle that he ended up as one of the emperor's closest aides.

The new Yongle emperor wanted to impress Ming power upon the world and show off China's resources and importance. Thus he gave orders to build even larger ships than were necessary for the voyages. The emperor gave command to Zheng He and the title "Three Jeweled Eunuch."

Zheng He was more than a military officer and a naval commander. He was a gifted scholar too. He spread abroad the Chinese calendar, metrological system, medical skills, and technologies of agriculture, manufacture, architecture, sculpture, and shipbuilding. It is said that thanks to Zheng He's visit, the people of Malacca learned how to construct city walls, how to dig wells for water, and how to build roads on mountains. The Siamese learned water treatment from him and the method of burning straws to fertilize farmland. The people of Vietnam learned of mountain and field reclamation and the agricultural system of growing three crops a year.

In 1433, after visiting 38 countries during 28 years of exploring for his country and during his seventh voyage, Zheng He became ill in Guli (Calicut), died soon after at sea and was buried at sea.

Around the time of his death, a new Chinese ruler, suspicious of the outside world, banned all further expeditions, ushering in 500 years of isolation and leaving the way open for countries such as Spain and Portugal, and later Britain and America, to rule the waves instead.

Zheng He's fleets ventured far beyond Southeast Asia, to as far as Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea and then on to the east coast of Africa, stopping at the city-states of Mogadishu and Brawa (in today's Somalia) and Malindi (in present day Kenya). He sailed farther than anyone before him, at the head of an armada bigger than any of the fleets of all European countries. That is difficult if not impossible to dispute. Nor can we disregard the record of Zheng He's seven voyages engraved in 1431 upon a marble pillar at a temple to the goddess Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province. It stands today as a lasting record of the Chinese admiral's seven voyages.

I can't help ponder what if Zheng He had managed to maintain his magnificent fleet and China had not turned inward and willingly lost its vast scientific and military advantage. Europeans most likely could not have taken over the spice trade and subjugated the Asian and African continents. And, had China had the interest, it could have colonized Australia and the Americas before the Europeans.

Perhaps Zheng He's greatest legacy was the army of Chinese entrepreneurs who followed him. Today, more than 34 million Chinese live overseas in 140 countries spread over all the known lands.

Harold Stephens has explored the South Pacific and Southeast Asia for forty years, writing 24 books about his exciting experiences and about those of others he has met. He has searched for Lost Cities of Southeast Asia, hunted for (and found) sunken treasures, fought pirates of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, tracked Southeast Asian Big Foot, climbed the Matterhorn, and drove around the world in a Jeep. He has published thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, from the Washington Post to the Bangkok Post, with plenty in between. See more about the author at

Story posted 12/30/05.

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