Tracking The Teak That Transformed Thailand

In the 21st century Thailand’s place in the global economy is marked by tourism, rice exports and car assembly. Few are aware that one hundred years ago the second largest export of then Siam was teak, extracted from the forests of Northern Siam. To modern eyes this industry was disastrous for the environment but it nevertheless made huge fortunes for some, helped shape modern Thailand politically and left traces of its former glory in the many beautiful teak buildings to be found across the northern provinces.

In the nineteenth century teak was an immensely important commodity. Not only used for building and furniture it was viewed as a strategic necessity for construction of naval vessels. The British had thus developed a large teak industry in India and Burma. By the mid-nineteenth century fears were growing of dwindling supplies versus ever growing demand and the British started to look further east to the forests of northern Siam. At that time the Siam teak industry was in the hands of local Chinese or Burmese operators working under concessions granted by various local rulers. The first of the major European companies to enter Siam was The Borneo Company Ltd, a British company that opened a sawmill in Bangkok in 1870. Some years later they appointed as their General Manager Louis Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens, English tutor to the young Chulalongkorn in the 1860’s.

The Lampang home and office of Louis Leonowens built c.1905 when he managed his own teak company

It was the Danish owned East Asiatic Company, whose impressive headquarters building can still be seen on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, that changed the game for Siamese teak. In 1882 the company founder H.N. Andersen organised the first shipment of Siamese teak direct to markets in Europe. This shipment demonstrated to European customers that the quality of Siamese teak was equal to that from India or Burma (The company made 100% profit on that first shipment). Other companies followed, most notably the British company The Bombay Burmah Trading Company (BBTC) arriving in 1887. The arrival of these well organised, well capitalised and politically well connected European companies eventually pushed the older Chinese and Burmese firms out of business.

The East Asiatic Company headquarters on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok were built after the company introduced Siamese teak to Europe

The entry of large European (predominantly British) companies into the Siam teak trade coincided with King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) efforts to establish a centralised European style government structure throughout Siam. The two matters became intrinsically intertwined. As increasing numbers of British subjects entered northern Siam in the teak trade, there was an increasing number of legal disputes with local rulers who managed the forests, causing friction between the British and Siamese governments.

As a result in 1874 the “Chiang Mai Treaty” was signed that gave Bangkok authority to resolve these disputes and also appoint a judge-commissioner from Bangkok into Chiang Mai. These changes were bolstered even further in 1883 by the “Second Chiang Mai Treaty” which allowed Bangkok to exert real control over Chiang Mai. With a firmer legal basis for their business the British teak companies rapidly expanded into northern Siam.

The establishment of the two Chiang Mai treaties showed how British and Bangkok interests were often aligned. The British wanted European style legal frameworks to operate within whilst the Siam government was keen to strengthen their control over the northern provinces and integrate them into the rapidly forming nation of Siam. But at the same time King Chulalongkorn and his government had legitimate fears that the British might not stop at anything less then the annexation of northern Siam. In 1885 tensions were high between the British and King Thibaw Min of Upper Burma, who had called upon his countrymen to liberate Lower Burma from the British. In the midst of this King Thibaw imposed a large fine upon The Bombay Burmah Trading Company (BBTC) for over-felling in its concession areas and for bribing officials. The BBTC used its political connections in India and London to have the Government of India reject King Thibaw’s ruling and instead impose harsh conditions upon the Mandalay government under the threat of military intervention. In the end King Thibaw rejected the counter-demands and was subsequently deposed by the British in the Third Anglo-Burmese War of November 1885. Across the border in Siam King Chulalongkorn and his ministers followed these events with great concern. They would have noted how employees of the BBTC had quickly donned military uniforms to command troops advancing to Mandalay and afterwards just as quickly resumed their duties at BBTC. For many years to come the cry of “Remember Mandalay” would remind the Siamese of the potential dangers in dealing with the British and particularly the BBTC.

Mandalay Palace from where King Thibaw Min was deposed by the British after a dispute with The Bombay Burmah Trading Company in 1885

Nevertheless the teak business grew rapidly and BBTC in-particular became the largest teak trading company in Siam. By the first decade of the twentieth century BBTC had control of 40% of the commercial teak trees in northern Siam. They were no doubt advantaged by ongoing advice by the British to the Siamese government. When in 1897 the Royal Forestry Department was established to better manage the conservation of forest resources and the all important revenue from them, a British forester from Burma, Herbert Slade, was chosen to head it. The British continued to head the department until 1923.

Elephants at work in a teak concession, possibly in Phrae
[From an original photo at Wong Buri house]

Teak was a tough labour intensive industry for which the British bought in many workers from Burma. The process of extracting a teak tree would commence in March and April with selected mature trees being “girdled” or ring-barked. With the outer layer of the tree cut the tree would slowly die and dry out. Two years later in the March to June period the dead trees would be felled and then dragged by elephants to the nearest river. Elephants were a vital part of the industry with 2,500 elephants reported to be in the teak industry in 1896. Once the rains commenced in September the logs would start their long journey down river.

The Chao Phraya river and its major tributaries used to float teak logs down to Bangkok,
a journey of 5 to 8 years [source: wikimedia]

Logs would be floated individually down the upper reaches of the river systems so as to better negotiate rapids. But as the logs arrived into Tak, Sukhothai or Uttaradit provinces they would be tied together into rafts of about 150 logs for the rest of the journey south. Finally on reaching Bangkok on the Chao Phraya river the teak companies there operated saw mills which processed the logs into product for domestic sale or export. Each year about 100,000 logs would arrive in Bangkok but the journey by river for any individual log may have taken between five and eight years, assuming that it was not lost, stolen or delayed further by low rainfall. This was not a business for those looking to make a quick return.

A raft of teak logs on their long journey down-river to Bangkok
[From an original photo at Wong Buri house]

After the first world war the teak industry went into decline and by the 1940’s much of the industry was nationalised. Few today give a thought to this once huge industry but in the provincial towns of the north many beautiful teak buildings still stand as a legacy of this era.

The “gingerbread” style Wong Buri house in Phrae,
built in 1897 by the town’s ruling family

In Phrae the Wong Buri house is a beautifully restored teak house built in 1897 by the ruling family. Open to the public it has on display many exhibits about the old teak industry. The Khum Wichairacha house is another impressive teak house in Phrae, currently in need of a new benefactor to complete the expensive task of restoration.

The Khum Wichairacha house in Phrae, currently looking for a new benefactor to complete the task of renovation

There is also a small museum about the teak industry within the grounds of Phrae’s Royal Forest Department training school. This school is in the original compound of the East Asiatic Company’s teak concession and the buildings date from this period.

Then and Now. The East Asiatic Company Director’s house in Phrae, circa.1900 vs 2019
The East Asiatic Company buildings in Phrae now house a museum to the teak industry

Any visitor to Lampang should take time to admire the buildings along Talad Gao Road, also known as Kad Kong Ta. This area of the town has many beautifully preserved shop-houses built by Chinese and Burmese merchant families in the early 1900’s when the teak industry was at its peak. These days a lively arts and craft market is held each Saturday night in Kad Kong Ta and whilst shopping one is able to enter many of these beautiful buildings.

Beautiful teak architecture in Lampang’s Kad Kong Ta district.
The Chinese built Fong Lee building, from the 1890’s
Kad Kong Ta Street Market held every weekend in Lampang is a great way to see the beautifully renovated shop-houses dating from the early 1900’s

A different legacy, resulting from the large number of Burmese merchants and workers that followed the British companies into northern Siam, is a number of Burmese influenced temples in the region. An outstanding example is Wat Si Rong Mueang built from teak in Burmese style between 1900 and 1912.

Lampang’s Wat Si Rong Mueang  is a beautiful Burmese style temple built from Golden teak.

Lampang’s Wat Chetuwan provides an example of a different style of Burmese architecture, influenced by the ancient temples of Bagan.

Wat Chetawan in Lampang show cases a different Burmese style derived from ancient Bagan

The teak industry is now long gone and perhaps mainly remembered for the environmental destruction it wrought upon the forests of northern Thailand. But this industry was also instrumental in establishing the modern state of Thailand. It helped provide the wealth of funds that King Chulalongkorn’s modernisation plans needed in order to build a modern government apparatus and associated public infrastructure. Plus it was the demands of the international teak industry which both pushed and enabled the Siam government to seize control from traditional local rulers and assimilate the northern states into Thailand as we now know it. It is inspiring to see today ever increasing interest in the teak architecture of this period and increased efforts being devoted to restoring and preserving many of the beautifully crafted buildings from this era.

Where to Go

References

  1. Capital Accumulation in Thailand 1855 – 1985. Suehiro Akira, Silkworm Books, 1996.
  2. The Kingdom of Siam 1904. A. Cecil Carter, The Siam Society, 1988
  3. Control and Prosperity: The Teak Business in Siam 1880s–1932. Amnuayvit Thitibordin, PhD dissertation, Hamburg University, 2016
  4. Forestry as Foreign Policy, Anglo-Siamese Relations and the Origins of Britain’s Informal Empire in the Teak Forests of Northern Siam, 1883-1925. Gregory A. Barton & Brett M. Bennett, Western Sydney University , Itinerario, 34 (2010): 65-86

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