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Last update: Sep 24, 2022

The railway survey from Burma to Chiang Saen.

By Archibald Colquhoun and Holt Hallett.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun

In 1879 Archibald Ross Colquhoun and Holt Hallett were early western visitors to Chiang Mai. They were by no means the first travellers to visit Chiang Mai; the missionaries were well ahead of them. In 1867, the McGilvary family made the First Presbyterian missionary expedition to Chiang Mai, which was called the "North Laos Mission"; since Chiang Mai and Lanna were not yet part of Thailand.

Dr. Daniel McGilvary built a wooden church on the East bank of the Ping River, close to the Nawarat bridge. It was the first Western building in Chiang Mai, and is still there, now owned by the aptly named First Church of Chiang Mai.

An earlier visitor was Captain William Couperus McLeod (also W.C. MacLeod); who arrived in Chiang Mai on January 12, 1837. The very first westerner though was Ralph Fitch, an Englishman who visited Zimmé (Chiang Mai) in 1587.

holt hallett Archibald and his colleague Mr. Holt Samuel Hallett however were the first to describe the people and tribes of the Siamese Shan state (northern Thailand, also called the Lanna kingdom); at a time when it was an isolated area, not yet part of Thailand.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun and Holt Hallett were colleagues studying and reporting on a proposed railway connecting British Burma with China. Holt Hallett, a retired railway engineer, was tasked with a survey for this railway. He wrote the book "A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States" in 1890, and this is still an excellent source of historic information on Northern Thailand.

Holt Hallett's planned rail map The railway line from Burma to Chiang Saen that Holt Samuel Hallett surveyed was never constructed. Two routes were proposed, both starting in Moulmein. Moulmein or Mawlamyine was the capital of Burma during British colonial rule from 1827 to 1852; thereafter Rangoon (Yangon) became the capital. The first proposed route would start in Moulmein, go into Thailand to Tak, then upwards towards Lampang, north through Kiang Hai (Chiang Rai) and ending in Kiang Hsen (Chiang Saen); the terminal point.

The other route went from Moulmein northwards, crossed into Thailand to Mae Sariang, east to Hot, northeast to Chiang Mai, through Chiang Rai and ending in Chiang Saen.

Hallett returned to Bangkok to seek Siamese support for the railway; and his meeting with King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) was a success, "the King expressed himself strongly in favour of the railways". However, Hallett’s proposed trans-Asian railway never materialized, largely because the British wanted Moulmein as the terminus, not Bangkok.

King Chulalongkorn
King Rama V during his first grand tour of Europe in 1897. Seated left to right:
Grand Duchess Olga, King Chulalongkorn, Empress Maria Feodorovna and Tsar Nicholas II.
Young man on the far right: Crown Prince Vajiravudh, later known as King Rama VI.

The people of Thailand were most interested in Western technology like railways, but always managed deftly to keep the colonial powers of Britain and France away from their territory. If they were building a railway it was on their terms; and it went not from Moulmein but from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. In 1901 Thailand started the construction of its own railway from Bangkok; which was to reach Chiang Mai in 1921.

The rulers of Thailand never saw a need for a railway to Burma, but the Japanese army tried to build one in World War 2. They succeeded in making the "Burma railway", also known as the also known as the Death Railway, at a great loss of life of British, Australian and Dutch war prisoners. The effect of the Burma railway on the war was very limited, since the amount of goods transported was very little.

After many decades of isolation, Myanmar has opened up its land borders in 2013; and nowadays, the most popular border crossing is at the towns of Myawaddy (Burma) and Mae Sot (Thailand). That is right where Hallett planned the railway from Moulmein to Tak. The Myawaddy - Mae Sot border has also the largest trade volume of all Myanmar's land borders.

The two moustachioed colleagues wrote the following two books about their surveys in the Siamese Shan states, where Siam is the old name for Thailand:

  • Amongst the Shans - by Archibald Ross Colquhoun, 1885. With upwards of fifty illustrations and an historical sketch of the Shans by Holt Samuel Hallett.
  • A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States - by Holt Samuel Hallett, 1890. A survey for a railway from Moulmein to Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen.

Both books are exploration books; written in the same period and style. Holt Samuel Hallett's book is mainly about surveying possible railroad routes and has detailed maps; Archibald Ross Colquhoun's book is more about the people and tribes of Northern Thailand, sometimes in exhausting detail. They both have colourful descriptions of markets, clothing, and habits of the Southeast-Asian population at the end of the 19th century. In a sense these books are the forerunners of modern travel blogs and books.

Both Archibald Ross Colquhoun and Holt Hallett were not just "railway men", but also amateur anthropologists. For example, Archibald describes that, quite surprisingly, at that time there was still widespread slavery in the Siamese Shan state. A quote from "Amongst the Shans" :

(Page 70) In most of the Karen-nee villages, "Shan-yangs" of the Karen tribes, Yendalines, and Padaungs, of the mountain- ranges to the north-west, are found, all doomed to a hopeless state of slavery, into which, priced like beasts of burden, they are sold to the Zimme Shans, by whom they are re-sold to the Siamese.

(Page 257): Slaves are bought in Zimmé as elsewhere in Indo China, the average price for a woman, provided she is under forty-five years of age, being about 72 rupees (£6), while that of a man, the inferior animal, is about 54 rupees (£4).

These "slaves" however had the ability to leave and change masters whenever they chose to, this prevented undue hardships being imposed upon them. The name slave is perhaps not accurate says Archibald, quote:

(Page 185): Slavery is hardly the term that should be used for the bond-service that is found in Burmah, Indo-China, and the Malay Peninsula. The indebtedness of the people, which is the principal cause of more than one-third of the population of Siam being in bondage, arises from three causes: heavy taxation, gambling, and indolent improvidence (lazy and lacking foresight). The debt-bondage arises from the heavy rate of interest that is given for loans; as much as six percent a month is sometimes charged for the first three months, after which time the rate is reduced to three per cent.


A 1000 Miles on an Elephant in the Shan states.

Surveying Thailand

Holt Samuel Hallett map
Holt Samuel Hallett survey map of Chiang Mai, 1890.
Red line = Hallett's route, blue line = modern roads
Zimme = Chiang Mai, Kiang Dow = Chiang Dao.

Holt Samuel Hallett estimated his location with a compass and by observing the walking speed of his elephants; he went up north from Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen and back via another route. When the Royal Geographical Society's cartographer plotted his survey; he found that Hollett had calculated his location wrong by less than 2 kilometres. The cartographer was quite surprised about this "highly satisfactory result". Maybe this was a bit of luck, for example Viang Pow on the map above is the old name of Phrao, on Hallett's map it is offset by a few kilometres.

At the time Holt Hallett was writing his book, published in 1890, another man was already surveying Thailand with more advanced equipment and methods. James McCarthy was using triangulation to survey Thailand; a much more accurate surveying method that measures the angles in a triangle formed by three survey control points. James McCarthy, who created Thailand’s first accurate maps, worked as Government Surveyor from 1881 to 1893 for the Royal Survey Department of Thailand. He published a book in 1900 about the survey of Thailand:

  • Surveying and Exploring in Siam - by James McCarthy (1900).

The dangers James McCarthy and his men endured resulted in the production of maps and surveys which were used for the planning for Thailand’s railway network. Unfortunately, McCarthy visited many towns in Shan state and Laos, but did not describe the town of Zimme/Chiang Mai in any detail. He seemed to have liked the small town of Luang Prabang (Laos) a lot, since he devoted a few chapters to it.

Chao Uparat Bunthawong
Chao Uparat Bunthawong, viceroy.
Taken by Francis Chit in 1863. Notice the typical Lanna hairstyle.


Does Chiang Mai mean "New City"?

Whereas Bangkok is less than 250 years old, Chiang Mai was founded in the late 13th century. Bangkok's city pillar was erected on 21 April 1782 when it became the capital of Thailand. Previously Ayutthaya and Thonburi were the capital; and Bangkok was just a small village on the Chao Phraya River.

In travel guides the meaning of Chiang Mai is often explained as "New City", as opposed to Chiang Rai, which was the first royal city. But "New City" is not the complete translation for Chiang Mai. What is the origin of all the "Chiangs" in Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, and Chiang Saen? Chiang is a Sino-Tai loanword, from Middle Chinese, meaning "fort, castle", and by extension, “city” (wikipedia).

Chiang Rai was founded by King Mang Rai (nowadays spelled Mangrai or Mengrai); and Chiang Rai means "King Rai's City". In 1294 king Mangrai decided to relocate his capital further south, close to the current Chiang Mai town; and in 1296 the construction of the walled town of Chiang Mai began.

Thus, a town was called "Chiang" if the king himself, or one of the higher-ranking royalties, lived in the town. A Chiang was a fortified and perhaps moated town with direct connections to royalty. Therefore, the simple translation of Chiang Mai may be "New City"; but perhaps a better translation would be "New Royal City".

The famous King Mengrai came to an unfortunate end in 1317 in the center of the old town of Chiang Mai. There is a small shrine to King Mengrai at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Prapokklao road, diametrically opposite the Lanna Architecture Center, where he was struck by lightning and perished.


Reference and links.

  • Sir Henry Yule: A Narrative of the mission sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855. Published in 1858. PDF here:
  • James McCarthy: Surveying and Exploring in Siam. (London: John Murray, 1900)
  • Sir Henry Yule on wikipedia:
  • Amongst the Shans - by Archibald Ross Colquhoun, 1885. With upwards of fifty illustrations and an historical sketch of the Shans by Holt Samuel Hallett.
  • A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States - by Holt Samuel Hallett, 1890. A survey for a railway from Moulmein to Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen.


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