Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close


Features  >  Thai Teak

Thai Teak

Thai Teak

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media (18 December, 2021)

Teak (tectona grandis; mai sak in Thai) is indigenous to only a narrow belt of tropical highlands in Southeast Asia, stretching from Burma through North Thailand to Laos and Vietnam, though some believe it may also be indigenous to the Philippines and Indonesia. Nowadays it is grown in plantations worldwide where conditions allow (generally an elevation of 700-1500 metres, subtropical temperatures, plenty of water and well-drained soil). This global proliferation of the tree is due to the extremely high value of its timber (currently around US$1500 per cubic metre), which in turn is due to the wood's durability and workability, as well as its resistance to damage or distortion by insects or weathering.

Humans have long recognized these favourable qualities, and examples of teak use in buildings in India and China date back around 2000 years. Chinese junks that roamed the world's oceans in the 15th century were made of teak, and in Thailand the wood has been used for centuries in temple, house and boat construction. The craft of carving teak for use on gables and bargeboards of Thai temples is one of the country's principal artistic heritages, and the landscapes of the north in particular are typified by sturdy teak barns for storing rice that pepper the countryside.

Though the wood of the trunk, which is in fact classified as medium-hard rather than hard, is the plant's most valuable aspect, the most striking aspect of a young teak tree is its massive leaves that are sometimes as big as elephant's ears. By contrast, the trunk of this slow-growing plant is spindly to say the least until the tree attains an age of 10-20 years. However, what the trunk lacks in speed of growth it makes up for in its straightness and lack of lower branches, which makes it ideal for felling, transporting and cutting into planks. The bark of the tree is an indistinct grey, but the freshly cut wood has an attractive, honey-coloured glow, which fades to a silvery grey, like the head of a distinguished statesman, as it ages. Teak trees do not reach full maturity until they are 80-100 years old, though human greed frequently has them slaughtered long before they attain such an age.

The first large-scale commercial use of teak by Western cultures occurred when the British began to use the wood for building boats to reinforce their superiority of the world's seas, across which they had travelled to carve out their empire. In the late 19th century, the spiraling price of teak in Europe sparked a ‘teak rush', and because of intractable problems with the Burmese, companies like the the Bombay & Burmah Trading Company and the Borneo Company set their sights on the teak forests of North Thailand. The local chao, or ruler, did not miss the opportunity to line his pockets from a venture that required his permission to embark on, and the stripping of the teak forests of North Thailand began in earnest.

One of the most successful teak wallahs of that era was Louis Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame. In fact, much of Anna's life was a fiction, including her name, which she felt had a higher-class ring to it than her ex-husband's rather ordinary surname of Owens. Louis clearly inherited some of his mother's guile and subterfuge as he used his boyhood connection with King Chulalongkorn to entrench himself as one of Thailand's main teak traders. After being sacked by the Borneo Company for creaming too much of the teak profits for himself, he established his own company, L.T. Leonowens Ltd, which still operates today, though not in teak.

Leonowens' main rival for control of the teak business in North Thailand was the aptly-named Dr Cheek, who arrived before Leonowens in Chiang Mai, the capital of North Thailand, as a doctor in the employ of the Laos Presbyterian Mission, but soon gave up handing out pills in favour of branding teak trunks with his mark and sending them in enormous rafts downriver to Bangkok. The cheeky doctor amassed a fortune and even had his own harem located in a Chiang Mai backstreet. Like Leonowens, Cheek was finally rumbled by his employers (first the Borneo Company and later the Siamese government) who realized he was creaming off the lion's share of the takings. From teak baron the doctor was reduced to the role of pauper.

Cheek and Leonowens rarely visited the jungle camps where the teak was actually cut – they just organized its branding and transportation to the sawmills of Nakhon Sawan and Bangkok further south. Yet those underlings who did get to experience life in a teak camp often became addicted to the experience, despite the difficult conditions. One of these field workers was Reginald Campbell, who chronicled his days in the jungle near Phrae during the 1920s in a book called Teak Wallah. His accounts of the various stages of felling, dragging, branding and counting the logs are interspersed with tales of encounters with man-eating tigers and rampaging elephants.

Without the assistance, willing or otherwise, of elephants in shifting teak trunks that weigh several tons, there would have been no teak boom, and the connection between this powerful animal and resilient plant is quite uncanny. Not only do teak leaves look like elephant ears, but also both plant and animal are revered by people for their insuperable strength. Sadly, the urge to dominate and control nature led to people using one species against another, and elephants were largely instrumental in clearing the Northern Thai forests of their magnificent stands of teak. Even sadder, the elephants' reward for this collusion with humans against nature was the reduction of their habitat and thus their numbers to the point where there are no more than a few thousand elephants remaining in the country today, compared with 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

As for the teak tree, it can still be seen in North Thailand in such prominent places as around the moat of Chiang Mai's old city, but all these trees are grown from plantation stock, meaning that their genes have been modified in some form or other. The vast tracts of natural teak forest that once covered the hills of the north have all but disappeared, apart from a few pockets in remote areas such as the Mae Yom National Park near Phrae. Here, the only teak stand left in the country large enough to warrant the term ‘forest' acts as a poignant reminder of the beauty and grandeur of this resilient tree that has been exploited almost to extinction.

Yet if you want to take a look at Thailand's last natural teak forest, you'd better hurry up, as plans have been in the pipeline for over a decade to build a dam in the Mae Yom National Park that would inundate most of the park's trees. Whereas North Thailand was once a scene of abundance and plenty, it is now witnessing a race to extinction between its most precious plant and animal. Perhaps before the 21st century expires, the hills of North Thailand will no longer be graced by stately stands of teak, nor echo to the excited trumpeting of elephants.

Story by Ron Emmons; Photo by Ron Emmons - CPA Media