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Chiang Mai Thailand - All About Chiangmai Thailand


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by R.W Wood

Dick Wood, one of the most famous characters in the expatriate community reminisces back one hundred years to the time when his father first arrived in Chiang Mai.

In the year 1892 "The Chiang Mai Record," compiled by Mr.D.F. Macfie, notes that Mr.W.W.Wood was working for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as Forest Manager.  

In the year 1992 Mr.R.W.Wood, M.C.,his son, is still living in Chiang Mai. (This Wood family has no connection with W.A.R. Wood, the British "Consul in Paradise".) De Mortuis: "The story of the Chiang Mai Cemetery" by R.W. Wood opens with the following biographical note:  

Richrd Willoughby Wood was born in London in June 1916, the youngest son of W.W. Wood, a former Forest Elephant at Mae Rim Elephant Training CampManager of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in Chiang Mai and Bangkok: his mother had been Matron at the Bangkok Nursing Home. He was brought up in the countryside in Somerset and Devon, and educated at Wellington College and Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1937,following in father's footsteps, he arrived in Burma as a forest assistant with BBTC and spent two happy years in the forest. On the outbreak of war he joined up in Burma, and was commissioned in November 1939 in the Burma Rifles. He served throughout the retreat of 1942,thereafter in intelligence patrol work on the Chindwin front until Christmas 1944, when scrub typhus very nearly finished his military (or any other) career. He was a major, and was awarded the Military Cross and a Mention-in-Dispatched. He stayed on in Burma after the war in the Burma Frontier Service, but was eventually pressed out by political changes after 11 years in the country.  

In 1948 he joined the forest staff of the Borneo Company Ltd and was posted to Chiang Mai. He became Forest Manager from 1953-60, after which the Thai forests were nationalised, and was then posted to East Malaysia until his retirement in 1965 to Chiang Mai as a pensioner of the Borneo Co.  

Dick has since spent his time in gardening, on which he has written a pamphlet "Amateur Flower-Gardening in Chiang Mai" and has travelled widely throughout the Far East. He was a good all-round sportsman, particularly tennis, though this has lapsed with time, and nowadays he and his wife, who is a Chiang Mai Thai, spend most of their summers in Devon, close to his old home. He has appeared on BBC television as narrator in a programme on elephants for "the World About Us." Today, in the year 2000 Dick still lives in Chiang Mai and is a regular and active member of the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club.

In July 1980 Dick Wood wrote an article for the Journal of the Siam Society entitled "Of Teak and Elephants: a Teak-Wallah Reminisces." Below are some extracts which give a vivid impression of times past.

First of all the teak tree. You don't have to go into the forest to see the tree, which grows all round Chiang Mai, in gardens and on roads, and particularly all over the University campus. It is the tree with the yellowish bark, Elephant at Mae Rim Training Camplarge light green leaves, and white bunches of flowers which have a lacy appearance. It takes 80 to 100 years to grow, and at maturity has a girth of about 7 feet, and a height of 60 to 80 feet. It is not the king of the forest in appearance, being branchy and having flutes and buttresses, but is the most valuable of the woods of southeastern Asia. Sometimes it is attacked by creepers, which of course imprison jungle spirits within the teak tree; when passing such trees, a small stick is placed beneath the lean, to support it, because if the tree falls the spirits escape and make trouble. Reforestation is natural and although plantation schemes have been attempted, little has been achieved, probably due to time lag. You will plant for your son or a department in the country, who was then virtually the local ruler. Leonowens cultivated the chief and used to gamble with him almost nightly; it is said that Leonowens always lost, but after all he would have looked rather silly if he had won. His assistant, Mr. Macfie, who eventually died here in 1945, was also called in, as part of his training, but having no transportation was required to swim the river to the palace in his underpants, with dry clothes waiting him on the other bank; he was also given the junior's privilege of gambling with his own money.

Leonowens' diplomacy obtained several leases, as did three other European firms, during the 1890' s, mainly in Chiang Mai and Lampang, which also had its palace, The Royal Thai Government Forest Department was formed, originally raised and advised by Englishmen from the Indian Forest Service, and the forests were organised on a sustained-yield basis. Leonowens eventually broke away to form his own firm, it being found by his employers that there was a slight flaw in some of his leases-they were in his own name and not the Company's. The foreign lessees continued in business uninterrupted except for the Second World War, until 1955, when partial nationalisation was decreed; total nationalisation came in 1960 and today the Forest Industries Organisation, which is part of the Royal Forest Department, is the sole lessee.

About forest work. There are, as you know, three seasons in this country-the hot season (March to May), the rains (June to October), and the cold season (November to February). In the hot season forest work ceases: elephants and riders rest and recuperate in camps in good fodder areas, while the rest of us have a short holiday in Chiang Mai-some doing annual accounts, if we can; some doing almost anything after months alone in the forest, like reading a good book. Chiang Mai was always as big as Babylon, after the jungle. There is also preparation for the next season's work, and at the start of the rains, all hands go to the forest again and the working year starts. Elephant working camps are built, six elephants to a camp, in each area, and stocked with rice. The European assistant in charge builds himself two or three bamboo huts in strategic places, and also has a tent: he must be as mobile as possible, as it will take him a month to tour his area and visit all his work. He travels with three pack elephants and has his servants and some provisions with him. He may be in charge of as many as 20,000 logs to be produced in the season, and several hundred elephants. Most of these will belong to contractors, who will deliver logs to a specified point for a fixed rate, but he will have a small force of Company elephants to whom the difficult areas are allotted. He is a doctor, veterinarian, paymaster, administrator, land walking dogsbody; he is on his own and will not speak his own language for weeks or months; his mail will come in and out by runner from Chiang Mai once a week, which, thank God, is his only link with higher authority; his portable radio will give him some contact with the international scene, if it happens to work; he eats as well as he can, buying local chickens and eggs from villages, and supplements his food, if he can, weekly from Chiang Mai, by aforesaid runner. He may shoot wild pig, or deer, or jungle fowl, but is often too tired or busy for hunting; he drinks water as he needs his own head on his shoulders, and strong legs; he is up before sunrise and filthy by early morning; the teak trees may grow a mile apart and 3,000 feet up the hill, and he has to visit each one; it is vital that he should supervise the cutting up of the felled trees into logs, so that no marketable timber is left behind, and that logs are cut to a maximum length, wherein lies the profit; he may get back to camp in time for an afternoon nap, but by 4 o'clock his office and administration problems commence and he will be busy till 8. If he is not in bed by 9, he should be. No wonder he enjoys a holiday; there are no Sundays in the forest.

His compensation is that he is independent and enjoys responsibility and self-reliance; his hazards are latterly less great; wild beasts and snakes are only serious in theory; his health is nowadays greatly safeguarded by new drugs, though always on his mind; malaria and dysentery used to be his occupational diseases, and black water fever and typhoid have decimated him in their time.

The elephants throughout the season work three days and rest two; at the end of each working day, and on rest days, they are loosed in the jungle, with forefeet hobbled to avoid their straying far; they use their spare time feeding themselves, on bamboo, creeper, grasses and bark. Elephants are rather delicate, and require constant care; heartstrain from overwork is frequent, and they should not be worked in the heat of the day. On working days the rider catches his elephant before dawn, washes it and scrubs it with a hard creeper brush, to clean the skin before saddling; the dragging chains and breast band are then put on, and they go to work. Sufficient trees have already been felled on rest days for the working period and sawn up into logs; the elephant pushes and drags the logs away from the tree stump, down to a graded path which the riders have cut out, and drags along the path, day by day to a delivery point, often some miles away. The drag path must be carefully cut, as continual uneven pulling on the log may cause a chest or back gall on the elephant, which may be the size of football and full of matter. This must eventually be cut by the assistant, with a sharp knife, and he will have to dodge what comes out. The wound is then disinfected daily with a stirrup pump, and allowed to heal from the inside.

Concerning the elephant himself, his life cycle is similar to a human being if on a more massive scale. The female is usually overcome by the springtime and some lucky male is attached; they wander off into some deep jungle, right out of sight and later on return smiling, trunk in trunk. We then note in our elephant books that we can expect a happy event in about 22 months time; it is important to keep these records, as pregnancy is not always easy to spot, and the female must be put off work six months before giving birth. The birth is usually also away in the jungle and there is one calf, though twins occasionally occur. Another female, or auntie, will attach herself to mother and calf, as a protection, particularly against tiger who like young elephant. The calf is weaned at three years and remains wild till then. At three, we take the calf away from the mother and train it; it is put into a triangular enclosure called a crush and tied fore and hind legs, and the trainer, with infinite patience, teaches it to accept a man on its back, to allow hobbles on its forefeet and to respond to the rider's words of command and the guiding movements of his feet behind the elephant's ears. Cruelty in training will result in the elephant being savage. Some males become man-killers; savage females are rare, but very dangerous; the mother of the white elephant calf formerly at Chiang Mai zoo has killed three people.

From the age of three to 18, t he young elephants have little to do, but may be used as pack animals. At 18 they join a working camp and learn the technique of timber extraction; this they pick up very quickly, no doubt from the examples around them. They reach full height of seven to eight feet in their 20s, and fully mature at 30. They work best between 30 and 40, but by 50 are slowing down, after which they move to light work, or pack work, until they die in harness between 60 and 70. The female of the Asiatic species does not have tusks; some calves are born without tusks, some with only one tusk.

Most male elephants each year develop a condition called musth. The symptom is an oily dribble from glands on either side of the head, and the condition renders him temporarily dangerously mad. It may last a few days or some weeks. It is thought to be sexual , but not proved to be so. A musth tusker will kill a female elephant as readily as anything else that he meets. The only cure is to tie him up until it passes.

Lastly, the co-operation between man and animal is a vital feature of the work; often a rider will stay with his elephant for years and they understand each other perfectly, the elephant responding to words of command and sometimes working in silence while he intelligently pursues his own method, problem by problem. After working with teak and elephants, nothing can quite take its place. You can take a man out of the jungle but you can't take the jungle out of a man.



Wat Sean Fang

Wat Buppharam Wat Mahawan Wat Chetawan

This site was last updated: 25 January 2007


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