Binge Drinking Elephants and other Tales of Lampang’s Bygone Days

Before the 1916 introduction of rail to Lampang in northern Thailand, the old commercial district of the city was located directly on the bank of the Wang River along the road known today as Thanon Talad Kaow (“Old Market Road”). It lies between the present post office and the municipality office, where the former palace of the last tributary ruler of Lampang—Chao Bunyawat Wongmanit—used to be. In former times, this area was called Kad Kongta in the local dialect, translated “the market on the road by the pier.”

Chinese and Burmese merchants began building businesses at Kad Kongta during the late 19th century. Lured by Lampang’s flourishing teak industry and thriving river trade between Paknampho and Lampang, the Burmese came first and soon were followed by the Chinese. Large trading companies, like the Bombay Burmah, British Borneo, and East Asiatic, placed numerous employees in Lampang to operate teak concessions, all of whom needed essential goods and services.

Burmese merchants, who initially provided goods and services for the ex-pat community and nobility of Lampang, built large, ornate teak shophouses at Kad Kongta. They sold goods like cloth, cotton, tobacco, lacquerware, medicinal herbs and other forest products, as well as imported goods brought by Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan, such as tea, silk, copper utensils, clothing, vegetables , beeswax, walnuts, felt mats, hats, iron and salt.

Chinese merchants, who followed the Burmese into Lampang’s commercial hub, built double-storied brick and concrete shophouses, with plaster walls, wooden shutters and stucco ornamentation, alongside their Burmese counterparts. Many of these early migrants married local women and lived above their businesses with their families. The fronts of buildings looked out onto the busy street, while the backs were constructed to serve as depots bordering the river for easy transfer of goods off cargo boats. These were then loaded onto oxcarts and elephants to travel farther north.

Wooden shophouses in Lampang’s main market district circa late 19th/ early 20 century.

Ah Gong Phanichphant was one of the first Chinese traders to establish a shophouse at Lampang’s Kad Kongta market. Born in a small town in Guangdong Province, Southern China, c. 1859, he subsequently migrated to Jakarta to work under Dutch colonialists. Not long after becoming a Dutch citizen, Ah Gong moved to Thailand where he decided to try his luck in Lampang. He started a Kad Kongta market business, selling hardware and imported merchandise, including lanterns. Following the unfortunate deaths of his first three wives, he married the youngest of three sisters—Dang—a 21-year-old Thai-Chinese woman who lived nearby. They had two sons before Ah Gong passed away at age 64, only a few years after their marriage.

Dang’s father, a Chinese trader originally from Hainan, owned a small barge that he poled along the river between Lampang, Paknampo and Bangkok. As a young girl, Dang accompanied her father until she was old enough to navigate the river on her own. After the death of her husband, Dang continued the long trips to Bangkok to buy imported goods. On the way down-river, she sold her famous fermented fish paste, which made her a welcomed and familiar face along the river, keeping potential bandits at bay. The return trip would take Dang up to three months or more, travelling against the current with a heavy boat full of goods.

Dang often encountered elephants along the river. Elephants were a major form of trans-frontier transportation in the region during the mid-19th century. They were highly valued by the former northern Thai tributary rulers and Burmese teak merchants, who utilised them intensely in teak forests of Northern Thailand for logging operations and for breaking up log jams along rivers and streams. Teak logs from upstream were collected in Lampang before being rafted down the Wang River to Paknampho in Nakhon Sawan Province, and then on to Bangkok for milling.

The northern Thai Chaos (tributary rulers) acquired immense wealth from their control over the teak forests and their ownership of elephants. The Chao Luang (tributary king) of Chiang Mai, who reportedly owned over three hundred elephants during the mid-1870s, made a fortune selling them to Burmese teak merchants.

I first met Dang Phanichphant in Lampang in 1981; at the age of 92, she was a gracious, kind-hearted, sharp-witted woman who enjoyed chewing betel nut.

Dang Phanichphant in 1981, aged 92

She declared that, as a young girl living in Lampang during the late 19th century, royal elephants were the biggest obstacle during daily expeditions to the old town to sell sweets.

 When I was eight or nine years old (ca.1897-8), my mother sent me out all around town (Lampang) to sell kanom (Thai sweets). When selling these sweets, I had to pass the palace of the Chao Luang every day, which frightened me very much because I heard people say that he had a furious temper. Whenever he was angry with someone, the person was whipped or punished in some way.

But not only was the Chao Luang brutal, so were his elephants. This was especially the case for elephants with drunken mahouts, which became intoxicated as well, being very fond of fermented rice wine stored in earthenware pots. Whenever a mahout and his elephant became inebriated, they would go out and cause trouble for local people by destroying fences and banana orchards.

Villages were not able to claim compensation, because these elephants belonged to the Chao Luang. Whenever they got a whiff of alcohol in somebody’s house, it meant that this house had to be rebuilt. In a couple of cases, the intoxicated elephants strolled into the Wang River and destroyed rafts carrying miang (fermented tea) and tobacco from Chae Hom District because they thought they smelt whisky aboard. When the elephants couldn’t find any whisky, they would overturn the bundles with their trunks and then stabbed at them with their tusks. These actions disturbed the people.

After the turn of the 20th century, when the local rulers of the northern territories lost their teak royalties to the Siamese government in lieu of fixed salaries, royal elephants were converted to a source of debt repayment for the Chaos as they turned their interests from forestry to gambling.

Once, a Chao Nai paid off a gambling debt to me with two elephants. The mahouts took the elephants to my orchard close to the river and left them there. The elephants ate up all my plants and then ate up the neighbour’s orchard. I had no use for the hungry elephants so I begged the mahouts to sell them for cost, from which I paid off the damages

The love of gambling by the former nobility is a recurrent theme in northern Thai history. Teak wallahs like Louis Leonowens, son of the legendary Anna Leonowens (English teacher for the Siamese royal court, portrayed in 1999 by Jodie Foster in the movie “Anna and the King”), acquired entire teak forest concessions through their gambling ventures with Lampang nobility. Dang also confessed that her main income came through gambling debts with the Chaos, particularly after 1904 when fixed salaries, she said, only gave them more leisure time.

Whenever Dang visited the palace, she brought along long strips of rolled-up newspaper to carry back hundreds of gold and ruby rings the Chaos paid her for incurred debts.

One could string 30 to 40 rings on one strip of newspaper. Each ring was worth 2-3 baht in those days. I then would sell the rings by the hundreds to the East Asiatic Company, where foreigners would buy them for 5-6 baht each. From the Chaos, I also collected valuable sarongs woven with gold and silver threads, as well as swords and spears made from gold and silver. Also I got their lacquerware trays of up to one metre in diameter.

Nevertheless, this was not the way Dang liked to have royal debts paid off; she preferred payment in land. In this way, Dang attained several plots lying outside the town, which her family still own today.

Dang’s shophouse 2011

With the northern rail network extension in 1916, a train station was built five kilometres from the old town, creating a new area for wholesale merchandising and industries such as sawmilling. River transport also declined as freight charges on trains decreased and roads began to develop. Consequently, Kad Kongta reverted to a modest retail market, and then gradually transformed into a quiet sleepy street. The teak industry was eventually taken over by the central Siamese government. Elephants were replaced by bulldozers and no longer can be seen wandering the town.

Dang never remarried after her husband’s death. She continued trading at their shop at Kad Kongta market where she lived until her death at age 96 in 1985. Her grandson, Dr. Vithi Phanichphant, remains passionate about conserving treasures Dang obtained from local nobility, and ensures that the century-old shophouse his grandparents built remains in good condition. Today, one can visit Lampang’s fascinating old commercial district during the street market held each weekend. Pay close attention; beyond the everyday street clamour, you just might hear faint echoes of drunken mahouts and rampaging royal elephants.

© Marti Patel 2012

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