A railway on the Mekong
A Railway on the Mekong
©SJON HAUSER: text and images
While impressive Khon Phapeng Falls on the Mekong River have become a major attraction for Thai tourists on a weekend trip to Southern Laos, a few nearby islands in the river are a paradise for backpackers from both East Asia and the West who, from their base in cheap bamboo accommodation, love to explore the scenic the scenic countryside on foot or by bicycle. For historic railway buffs, the region has a remarkable surprise. The only railway ever built in Laos was here in the far south of the mountainous country, leaving its relics still scattered over the islands Don Det and Don Khon, partly hidden by jungle.
In Southeast Asia, the earliest railway construction mainly served colonial expansion as a means of transport for merchandise and natural resources to and from the newly opened markets. On the other hand, in Thailand —which never became a colony — the completion of a railway network was part and parcel of a regal master plan to avoid foreign domination.
In this one exceptional case of French colonial enterprise, however, it was to circumvent by rail a virtually insurmountable barrier to navigation on the Mekong. The resulting seven kilometre long railway line extended over two of the 4,000 islands of Si Phan Don archipelago in the watercourse at the southern tip of Laos.
Just before crossing into Cambodia, Southeast Asia’s largest river splits into numerous branches to pass over a ten kilometre long rock barrier that stretches across its complete width. At two sites, it plunges at least fifteen metres through this barrier—considered the region’s most formidable rapids. Along other stretches, the gradient is less abrupt, but there the racing torrents and treacherous rocks also form a barrier to navigation.
Yet, in the seventeenth century — Laos’ Golden Age — local traders from Vientiane often descended the Mekong in wooden prahus (dug-out canoes) to bring their merchandise to Phnom Penh, where products from the Laotian forests, such as rhinoceros horns, benzoin, and deer skins, were highly valued. These traders used to return home with cargoes of textiles from India.
In 1641, a returning party of Lao traders was accompanied by merchant Gerrit Wusthof and some of his assistants from the godown (warehouse) of the Dutch East India Company in Phnom Penh. After five weeks of ascending the Mekong from Phnom Penh, the party arrived at the southern end of the archipelago.
‘There we met a very strong current,’ Wusthof recounts. ‘Nearby are the openings through which the [raging] stream pours down, between mountains, rocky islands and [very high] cliffs.’ They had to unload their boats and haul them against the current. The next day they arrived at the fan ‘which, because of its steep and rocky outcrops, was impassible. Here the stream roared so loud as only the sea can do…we had to unload all the goods from the prahus and carry them some 2,600 steps across.’ It took them twelve days to get past this barrier.
From that time, few Westerners had been there until, more than two centuries later, in 1866, the men of the French Mekong Expedition ascended the mighty watercourse. The explorers were eager to prove that the Mekong could be developed as a major trade route between their country’s blossoming colonial possessions in Vietnam and the rich markets in Yunnan (southern China), so the barrier in southern Laos—in those days Siamese territory—seemed to thwart this scheme. Doudart de Lagrée, the commander of the expedition, therefore reported to the colonial administration in Saigon that without gigantic construction work navigation through the rapids would be impossible.
However, in the final report by the de facto expedition leader Francis Garnier, there was, surprisingly, more than just a glimmer of hope. He suggested that the rapids could be circumvented by a railway or a canal. In his report, he even urged the French rulers to extend the ‘zone of civilizing influence’ to both banks of the Mekong in order to better protect future shipments.
After recuperating from their humilating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870), the French again returned to the idea of developing the Mekong as a commercial artery. Optimistically, they started to experiment with steam navigation on the river. In 1887, a steamer successfully navigated the Sambar rapids in Cambodia and, a few days later dropped anchor in a bay at the southern end of Don Khon—which was instantly baptized Margueritte Bay in honour of the wife of a high official on board. But the attempts to maneuvre this steamer, and others, through one of the openings in the great barrier all ended in failure.
In 1993, the French therefore started to construct a railway from the bay to the northern tip of the island. The very same year, their violent naval demonstration in front of the Royal Palace in Bangkok (a classic example of “gun boat diplomacy”) had forced the Siamese to cede to them the right (eastern) bank of the Mekong. Two small gun boats, assigned to patrol the Mekong north of the archipelago, had already left Saigon. By the time they moored in Margueritte Bay, the three kilometre railway on Don Khon had been completed. While one of the gun boats was being hoisted onto a flatbed carriage on the railway line, it was struck and derailed by a floating tree. Once the carriage had been repaired, the water level had fallen too low to allow the gun boats to be reloaded aboard the train. However, Lieutenant Georges Simon, who was in command of the operation, remained undaunted. He set his force of coolies to work building another line from a much lower point on the island.
As historian Milton Osborne writes in The Mekong. Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future: ‘This task, which took more than a month, could only be partially completed , for the new route was nearly five kilometres in length , while the rails available only stretched for three. When the trans-shipment of the two vessels finally began…the first three kilometres were covered relatively quickly, with Vietnamese manpower hauling and pushing the boats forward. But then it was necessary for teams of men to continue the vessels’ advance by picking up sections of the rail from behind…and relaying them, a few dozen metres at a time, over and over again. This physically demanding work took place amid the frequent downpours of the late rainy season so that the workers were more often than not labouring in mud and drenched to the skin.’
Yet, the gun boats were afloat above the Khon Falls a few weeks later.
In 1897, the construction of a permanent rail began with docking facilities and steam-powered cranes at either end of the line. A decade later, the Compagnie des Messageries Fluviales was opening a more or less regular passenger service on the Mekong from My Tho (connected by rail with Saigon) to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos.
Marthe Bassenne, the wife of a French physician, made the complete trip in 1909, and gives an account of the trans-shipment on Don Khon: ‘An army of coolies stacked the merchandise in small, open train-cars wherein we piled, together with the locals, balancing ourselves on the luggage in utter chaos. The train pulled us, struggling along grating, and with clashing sound of steel, across the island that is covered by assorted teak trees mixed with bamboo, the branches of which brush across our faces.’
It was not until 1920 that a bridge was built between Don Khon and the island of Don Det to the north of it. On the latter, the line was further extended north to a more suitable embarkation point above the falls.
Impressive as the conquest of the river barrier was, the newly opened route was still a far cry from the thriving commercial artery the explorers of the 1860s had had in mind. Since Simon could not take the gun boats further than the Tang Ho rapids, just north of the present day Golden Triangle, China’s riches remained unattainable remote.
What’s more, navigation on the Mekong, downstream from Tang Ho, was restricted to small vessels of no more than thirty-five metres length, while passing through many of the rapids continued to be extremely dangerous transits. In 1910, the steamer La Grandière, proceeding downstream from Luang Prabang, sank to a depth of eighty metres where, deep underwater, the explosion of the boiler completed the bulk’s destruction.
It still took passengers more than five weeks to travel from Saigon to Luang Prabang in the 1930s, while the trip required half a dozen changes of vessel. This was slower than the far longer trip by sea from Saigon to Marseille. The operation of the railway on Don Khon and Don Det finally came to an end following Japan’s occupation of Indochina in the early 1940s.
Although all the rails and most of the sleepers have been removed, the former track is still easy to follow on both islands. In wide curves, the bed, covered with crushed stones, meanders through the lush tropical landscape of paddies and forested hills. The southern and northern ends of the line on Don Khon are of special interest. At the former, the quay and hoists are still intact, as are the power house, a large fuel container, and a tiny locomotive that once ran on the narrow gauge rails. Additionally, there is a splendid view over the Mekong, with its dozens of small islands covered with willow-like bushes. You may notice that some of the small fishing boats actually corry tourists on dolphin watching excursions. A small group of Irrawaddy dolphins, a freshwater species near to extinction, lives in the deeper waters. In the village, just east of the landing, stands a heavily eroded maritime monument.
A second, more complete locomotive stands just beside the former track on the northern end of the island. Walking from there through the nearby villages in the direction of the impressive Somphamit Falls, you may notice that segments of the railway line from the former track are now in use as tiny bridges crossing the ditches in front of the villagers’ homes.
Most visible of all the relics of the railway is the stone bridge connecting both islands, with its dozen arches a good example of typical French nineteenth century architecture, a kind of Pont d’Avignon lost in the tropical countryside along the Mekong. In the late afternoon, local schoolkids in their uniforms cross the bridge on their way back to their homes on Don Det. A little later, backpack-travelers from the nearby accommodation begin to gather on the bridge, just to stand there and chat among themselves until dusk falls.
©SJON HAUSER: text and images
A slightly different version of this story appeared in Guidelines Chiang Mai, November 2007: 68-70.