Teak—the King of Timbers

Teak

Harvested teak lumber along the Burmese border in Tak.

When the demand for hardwood in the west soared, teak lumbering started to shape the history of Burma and northern Thailand. Although the forests have now been depleted, there is still plenty to see to remind you of the former importance of teak. And surprisingly, a few giant trees have survived and are worth visiting.

In Asia the teak tree (Tectona grandis) has traditionally been used for building houses, palaces and Chinese junks. Its timber was highly valued because of its durability and resistance to termites. The trade in this hardwood, however, soared during the eighties and nineties of the 19th century when European stocks of oak were depleted and teak became its substitute, especially for the decks and interiors of ships. In 1882 a Danish sea captain named Hans Niels Andersen returned to Bangkok with the news that his cargo of teak had been sold in Liverpool for a profit of a hundred per cent. Thereafter ‘the trade was transformed into a wild scramble which rivalled a gold rush’ writes W.S. Brisbowe in his biography of Louis Leonowens, the most legendary ‘teak-wallah’ and son of Anna Leonowens, whose Victorian (and in some parts spurious) account of life at the court of King Mongkut made her a celebrity.

Most teak-wallahs who came to work in Burma and northern Thailand were employed by British companies. The local population, the khon muang, feared ghosts and evil spirits to such a degree that they refused to work in the remote forests. Thus the teak-wallahs had to hire Shan and Burman labourers for the extraction of the prized trees. When a problem arose in 1886 between the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and King Theebaw of Burma, the Britons had an excuse to annex Burma. Following the aggression towards his neighbour King Chulalongkorn of Siam allegedly did not sleep for one week, worrying that a similar fate might await the north of Siam. The Britons had already complained about the gangs of robbers that harassed the teak exploitation in the north, and the venal northern princes who had assigned lumber concessions for the same forest to different foreign companies. Chualalongkorn realized that the British might use any inconvenience as an excuse for intervention and therefore began, step by step, to bring the northern vassals under tight central rule.

Left: Teak trees flowering in August. Right: Details of the blossom.

Left: Teak trees flowering in August. Right: Details of the blossom.

In the meantime a number of teak-wallahs became legends, like the adventurous missionary Maria Alonso Creek, whose collection of local northern women was a cross between a harem and a brothel. And Leonowens’ addiction to gambling with the princes of Chiang Mai was the talk of town. Often he supplied them with the cash they needed to get out of debt — in return receiving concessions for the richest forests.

However, the actual work of the teak-wallah used to be far from Chiang Mai and Lampang. With a horse, a number of elephants and their mahouts, along with a crew of other labourers as his only companions, he used to labour for many months in succession in the midst of dense forests. Teak trees were selected for ‘girdling’ so that they died and the wood dried up to become lighter, as green teak is too heavy to float. After one or a few years, the dead trees were felled by means of a cross-cut saw pulled in succession by two men. Elephants dragged the trimmed logs to a nearby creek from where, in the rainy season, they floated downstream into larger tributaries and finally arrived at one of the main rivers, such as the Yom, Nan or Ping. Then the logs were made up into rafts which, crewed by native employees, continued the trip to Bangkok, where the logs were eventually sawn into planks for shipment to Europe.

During the 1910s and 1920s, annual exports from northern Thailand were between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of teakwood, so it is not surprising that already by the 1930s many forests had become depleted. The need to replant these areas had been ignored. Nowadays, virgin teak forest is left only in the Mae Yom national park in Phrae province. However, this natural heritage will be lost when the Kaeng Sua Ten dam is constructed as has been planned since the late 1980s.

Although teakwood furniture, carvings, and other products are still common, the vast majority are now produced from other timbers (for instance, most woodcarvings at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar are made of the wood of the raintree, Samanea saman). However, the ghost of teak’s former glory is still present all over the northern provinces and with the ‘teak story’ as guide a trip in the north should not be boring.

Teak

Left: In the early 20th century small railways were constructed to transport the teak logs from the jungle to the tributaries of the Ping and Yom. Centre: A raft of teak logs floating in a river. A woodcarving covered with gold paint in a Chiang Mai temple. Right: Thailand’s largest teak wooden Buddha image is in Wat Buppharam, Muang district, Chiang Mai.

Leaving Chiang Mai in the direction of Lampang, you will pass the Training Centre for Elephants run by the Forest Industry Organization, which is worth visiting, although at present few elephants are employed in forestry. Lampang, 100 kilometres southeast of Chiang Mai, has long been a major centre of the teak trade. The importance of Burmans and Shans for the trade is still reflected by a number of ‘Burmese-style’ temples, as for example Wat Si Chum, which was built during the first decade of the 20th century by craftsmen from Mandalay. The wihan of this temple contained unique murals of gold paint on red lacquer depicting the old, almost ‘colonial’ days of Nakhon (as Lampang then used to be called) when the teak trade flourished: timber elephants and Europeans at a picnic, including a view of their classic automobile. Unfortunately these murals were destroyed during a fire in 1992. In December, as Reginald Campbell recalls in his Teak-Wallah, the Adventures of a Young Englishman in Thailand in the 1920s, teak-wallahs from all over the region used to gather in Nakhon to celebrate Christmas with polo, pony-races and other festivities.

Driving from Lampang to Ngao, one will pass by the former training centre for elephants and the Teak Improvement Centre at Mae Huat Teak Plantation. From Ngao a dirt road (Highway 1154) leads in a southerly direction to the entry of the Mae Yom national park near the Kaeng Sua Ten rapids. However, to appreciate the last virgin ‘golden’ teak forest in the national park one had better continue ten kilometres and turn left. Highway 1120 to Chiang Muan district (Phayao province) runs more or less parallel to the Yom river. After about 25 kilometres, the rustic village of Ban Sa Iap (Ban Don Chai) is the stepping stone to the impressive teak trees on the other side of the Yom.

Ban Sa Iap, as well as Mae Ten, five kilometres to the north, will be inundated if the controversial dam is finally constructed. The dam has been a hot issue for several years. Visiting government officials as well as environmentalists have been a common sight in the villages. The farang (western) sympathiser is often vehement about environmental activities, which gives pause for thought: in the past the westerners had demolished much of the teak forests, yet now they preach the necessity of its conservation with the zeal of missionaries.

In Mae Ten, hardly any brick buildings are be found. All the houses are made of teak and built on stilts of sturdy trunks. The wooden façade of the small temple just outside the village features beautiful carvings. ‘Mai sak — teak,’ confirms the abbot, the only person around. Although the villagers have pragmatically chosen the side of the activists, the old women smoking cheroots are watching me with suspicion as I stroll past their compounds.

Teak

Left: Colourful sashes adorning the trunk of a teak tree to please the spirits at a gate of the old town of Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province. Right: A plantation of young teak trees.

To reach the next destination, Phrae, I have to return southwards. Between the district towns of Song and Rong Kwang, tens of — maybe even over a hundred — stalls selling figures carved from teakwood are lined along the road, with mangkon (dragons) being the most popular carvings on sale. Many of the blocks used by the woodcarvers are obtained illegally. To observe the lawbreakers in a safe way, you only need to jump on the late afternoon train from Den Chai to Chiang Mai. Along the first 20 kilometres of the track, following the Yom river, cyclists smuggling their loads of teak blocks or planks out of the forest are a common sight.

Living in an expensive teak house is now the dream of every status conscious parvenu. In the town of Phrae, Ban Prathap Chai can hardly be surpassed. For the palace-like building, 130 teak logs have been used. The owner has crammed all the rooms and halls with heavy, carved teak furniture. For ten baht (foreigners 20 baht) visitors are allowed to feel impressed by the building. Instead of a ticket, I get a tiny wooden elephant.

In Uttaradit province, nearly 100 kilometres to the southeast, the world’s biggest teak tree towers up into the sky amidst a forest of its seedlings. ‘Towers’ is maybe an exaggeration because during a storm in 1977 its crown was torn off, reducing its height from 47 to 37 metres. But the trunk, with a circumference of ten metres, is truly impressive. It used to be adorned with colourful sashes to please its tutelary spirit, but recently conservationists have ‘protected’ the trunk with a wooden fence, while the veneration of the spirit is directed to a spirit house outside the elevated walkway around the fence.

Although the tree is a dwarf compared to North-America’s redwoods, it is a living monument of about 1530 years old. A visit to the tree is recommended in a number of tourist guides, but actually foreigners seldom make the trip. On a busy day, a few dozen local sightseers may come to admire this ‘Mother of Teak’. After a pick-up truck loaded with children drives off, I’m left sitting all alone beside the giant. There is hardly a breath of wind but the rustling of the large withering leaves is even louder than from a trembling-poplar.

trees anchored in the brick walls of the old town of Chiang Saen

Left: Teak trees anchored in the brick walls of the old town of Chiang Saen. Right: In the 1880s Frenchman P. Neis crossed the north of Thailand on the back of an elephant; near Wiang Pa Pao he passed through forests of giant teak trees — such forests have all disappeared now. Picture from his Travels in Upper Laos and Siam (1884).

Another day, just 10 kilometres north of Si Satchanalai, I see a sign beside the road: BIGGEST TEAK TREE 720 METRES. Intriguing, another ‘biggest’! I follow a winding path uphill and between thickets of bamboo to find the lonely and little known giant. Although it is taller and less damaged than the one in Uttaradit, the circumference of the trunk indicates that she is not that old. As well as the usual offerings of areca nuts, liquor, stick rice, sweets (covered with ants), and plastic garlands, a little mirror, a comb and lipstick have been offered by locals at the small spirit house with a corrugated iron roof which stands beside the tree. To satisfy her vanity I take a number of pictures of the grand old lady. It is a miracle that she has survived the genocide.

©Sjon Hauser: text and pictures