The Teak Tree (Tectona Grandis)

Young tree
Young tree
Young teak tree in front of the first office of the East Asiatic Company in Phrae

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Teak Tree

This article about the teak tree is a short history of the teak industry in Thailand in which British, Danish, and French companies were involved. I am not a tree expert but will try to explain the importance of the industry for Siam in the 20th century.

It is based on my own research and experience over the past five years. I have tried to keep it short and focused on Thailand. I have included a long list of sources that are either easily available or online if you are interested in reading more.

The exploitation of teak by foreign companies in Siam started in 1884 and ended roughly in 1956. During that period, teak was an important export product of Thailand, second to rice.

Old colonial house Lampang things to do
The Louis T.Leonowens House in Lampang before the restoration, 2018

The teak tree in Siam

The teak tree is a hardwood tree native to south and southeast Asia. It grows in areas with a climate with an annual rainfall that averages from 1,250 until 1,650mm and a dry season from three to five months. Such an area is North Thailand.

Teak wood is unique in that it contains natural oil that repels water, making it ideal for shipbuilding and outdoor furniture. It is water and weather-resistant. The teak tree doesn’t grow in an evergreen forest.

It does in mixed deciduous forests. Deciduous means that the trees shed their leaves manually. These forests contain many deciduous trees of different species, with the teak trees growing scattered here and there in small groups and patches and often as single trees. The distribution of the teak tree is very irregular. It is often completely absent in large areas of such forests, where the conditions for its growth seem ideal.

Tree trunks in a river
Teak logs in a river in North Thailand. Picture by Morinosuke Tanaka, courtesy of Oliver Backhouse

The Siamese Teak Boom

The teak boom in North Thailand started in 1884. The British Borneo Company was the first overseas company that obtained concessions via its employees Marion Alonso Cheek, a missionary doctor, and Louis T.Leonowens, the son of Anne Leonowens. Cheek was a missionary doctor who became involved in the teak trade. Leonowens was the son of British teacher Anna Leonowens, who taught at the Siamese royal court.

The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation stepped in, followed by the Siam Forest company. Louis Leonowens started his own company in 1905, named after him. The Danish East Asiatic Company secured teak logging concessions in the late 19th century and was followed by the French Est Asiatique.

Elephants in a row
A group of elephants of the EAC. Source: University of the Côte D'Azur

The harvesting of the teak tree

The teak industry was a capital-intensive industry. It could take at least five years to get a return on your investment. The procedure was as follows. The forest manager selected the trees that were big enough. His staff then “girdled” the tree: they cut a deep ring in the tree’s bark, after which the tree died. After two or three years, they cut the tree. If you cut a teak tree and dump it into the water right away, it will sink immediately. In the dry season, elephants dragged the tree trunk to the nearest stream connected to one of the main rivers.  

Four man with tree trunks
Four employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation

Floating teak logs

When the water level was high in the rainy season, they dumped the log in the river, after which it hopefully floated all the way to Paknampo (Nakhon Sawan). Before they released the log, they marked it with the name of the company. For decades observing floating teak logs was a familiar sight for people living along with the Ping, Wang, and Yom rivers. When the water level was high, these floating logs could be destructive: in July 1932, they damaged the first Ping River bridge in Chiang Mai. The damage was such that they had to demolish the bridge.

Wooden bridge with logs Chiang Mai Timeline
The Khua Kula bridge damaged by teak logs. Picture courtesy of Oliver Backhouse

Teak rafts on the Chao Phraya River

In Paknampo, foreign staff of the teak companies and workers collected the logs and fit them together into enormous rafts. Local staff then steered these rafts on the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok, ending up in the sawmills. This whole process from the girdling to the arrival in Bangkok could take up to five years, depending on the rainy season. Not all logs made it to Paknampo, though. Many logs got stranded or stuck along the way.

Forest managers made boat trips to look for stranded logs of their companies. This activity was called stock-taking or “neaping.” When they found stuck logs, they had to find a way to get them afloat again, which was a difficult job. When the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation was preparing to end its operations in November 1955, they took stock of all the logs stuck on the banks of rivers, on sandbanks, in rapids, and other places. More than 3300 logs were stuck in the Ping and Wang rivers and regarded as unretrievable. The company approached the EAC to buy these logs (source: correspondence between BBTC staff).

Rafts of logs in a river East Asiatic Company
Rafts of teak logs on the Chao Phraya River. Courtesy of Mrs.Suwaphon Chuto

The sawmills in Bangkok

All the companies had sawmills in Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River. The rafts ended their long journey here. After being processed at the sawmills., the teak planks were exported to countries in Asia and Europe. Contrary to many people, a large part of the teak found its way, not to Europe but other Asian countries, such as British India, China, and Japan. The below numbers come from the book “the Teak industry” by D.R.S.Bourke Borrowes, adviser to the Royal Forest Department. The Siamese Ministry of Commerce and Communications published the book in October 1927. It is a precious book for those who are interested in the teak industry. You can read it online.

statistics of teak export

The departure of the foreign teak companies

In 1955 the forest lease of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and those of other companies expired and were not renewed by the Thai authorities. Instead, the five foreign concession holders – four British and one Danish – were to share with the Siamese Government’s forest industry organization in the exploitation, for the next 15 years, of one-third of the forests available. The British companies decided to cease their operations. The Danish East Asiatic Company would review its position later in the year 1956.

Buffaloes in front of warehouses
Warehouse in Bangkok of the East Asiatic Company in 1935. Source unknown

References for this article

I have studied the teak industry since the early 2016s. Oliver Backhouse, whose grandfather Evelyn van Millingen worked for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, contacted me to organize a tour to Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Phrae. This sparked my interest in the history of the teak industry.

Most researchers offer huge lists of books they have consulted but I want to keep it short. If you read the below books and articles, you will have learned the most essential information about the teak tree and the teak industry.

The best book on this subject:

Prof.Kittichai Wattananikorn, British Teak Wallahs in Northern Thailand from 1876-1956, Bangkok, 2018

Other recommended reading:

Reginald Campbell, Teak-Wallah: The Adventures of a Young Englishman in Thailand in the 1920s

Marti Patel, Silver Challenge Cups, and a Bronze Frog Drum: Colonialism and the Development of Teak Capitalism In Northern Thailand, Macquarie University, 1990

D.R.S.Bourke-Borrowes, The teak industry in Siam, Bangkok. 1927

The history of the teak industry features in these tours