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Archibald Ross Colquhoun holt hallett

Last update: Aug 29, 2020

The railway survey from Burma to Chiang Saen.

By Archibald Colquhoun and Holt Hallett.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was by no means the first traveller to visit Chiang Mai in 1879; the missionaries were well ahead of him. In 1867, The first Presbyterian missionary expedition to Chiang Mai by the McGilvary family was called the "North Laos Mission"; since Chiang Mai and Lanna were not yet part of Thailand. The first Western building in Chiang Mai was a wooden church which was later built by Dr. Daniel McGilvary on the East bank of the Ping River close to the Nawarat bridge (on Charoen Muang road, the extension of Thaphae road); today it is still there. It is now owned by the aptly named First Church of Chiang Mai which has new buildings nearby. 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 Zimme in 1587.

Holt Hallett's planned rail map 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. His book, "A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States" was first published in 1890 and is still an excellent source of information on Northern Thailand.

The railway line from Burma to Chiang Saen that Holt Samuel Hallett surveyed was never constructed. The proposed railway would start in Moulmein (Mawlamyine, Burma), 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. Another possible route went from Moulmein northwards, crossed into Thailand to Mae Sariang, went east to Hot, northeast to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and ended in Chiang Saen. Moulmein or Mawlamyine was the capital of Burma during British colonial rule from 1827 to 1852; thereafter Rangoon (Yangon) became the capital.

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.

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 a connection at a great loss of life of British, Australian and Dutch war prisoners but for the war effort it was almost useless.

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 following two books were written by the two moustachioed collegues 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 seemed to be 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 surveyed 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 created Thailand’s first accurate maps from 1881 to 1893 as Government Surveyor and Director-General of 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 chapers to it.

Chao Uparat Bunthawong
Chao Uparat Bunthawong, taken by Francis Chit in 1863.
Notice the typical Lanna hairstyle, which is still popular these days.

A very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone.

Colonel Sir Henry Yule was a posted as a secretary to Arthur Phayre's mission to Ava, Burma, in 1855. He published a book about this a few years later, "A Narrative of the mission sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855".

Henri Yule only traveled inside Burma, but also described the geaography and towns of northern Thailand. On page 212 of his narrative, he describes the eastern Shan state (now part of Thailand) and the town of Zimme:

        This Iamahey, or Jamahey, is undoubtedly the Shan town of Zimme, which has been very rarely reached by any European traveller in modem times. Fitch describes it as "a very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone;" which is remarkable, if true.

As the explorers wrote in journals and letters to their families about Lanna, each wrote their own spelling of Chiang Mai. Ralph Fitch, the English gentleman merchant who visited Chiang Mai in 1587 (four hundred forty years ago) spelled the town Iamahey. In 1615 The East India Company favoured Jangoma, while the early Portuguese used Chiangmai. The British in colonial times, before 1900, called it Zimme and gradually started using Chiangmai. The French called the place Xieng Mai, and the Dutch preferred Ischeen May and Tsieengh Maeij.

Yule describes different early explorers of the independent eastern Shan State, which is now in northern Thailand; and in this context, on page 210 he mentions Jangomai and on page 214 Zengomay. So, in one book, Yule describes the discovery of the kingdom of Zimme/Chiang Mai; and mentions no less than 5 other names for Chiang Mai: Iamahey, Jamahey, Jangomai, Zengomay and Kiang Mai.

Yule goes on to describe captain William MacLeod's early mapping efforts of Northern Thailand in some detail. For example on page 264:

        In 1837 Captain Macleod penetrated through Zimme to the remote Shan state of Kiang Hung. (Kengtung)

And on page 308:
        The ruins of the fort of Kiang-Hai (= Chiang Rai), with the remains of Pagodas and arched gateways, were seen by Macleod on his way from Zimme to Kiang-Tung. It is said to have been the capital of the state before the foundation of Zimme.

MacLeod's maps were not very accurate, because at that time mapping was done with a sextant and distance estimation. A few decades later, James McCarthy mapped Northern Thailand with the use of triangulation, which was much more accurate.

According to Hans Penth ("On the history of Chiang Rai"); it seems that the walls and gates of Chiang Rai were torn down around 1920 on the advice of Dr. Briggs, an American missionary physician, who argued that the area along the wall and the moat was muddy and filthy and therefore a source of all kinds of illnesses, and that the wall also obstructed the flow of fresh air. That was the end of the historic fortifications of Chiang Rai.

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. So what's with 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.

From Zimmé to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has had more than a hundred names in the past; the French called it Xieng Mai, the Burmese Zimme, Zimay, Zimmay or Zam-may. On most maps older than 100 years Chiang Mai is called Zimme. From Zimme it was changed to Chiangmai or Chiang Mai. Zimme seems a very different name from Chiang Mai, but it may have gone through a phonetic route like: Zimme - Zimmay - Zam-may - Jang-mai - Chang Mai - Chiang Mai. The following paragraph lists some examples of the spellings of Chiang Mai.

A list of the historical names of Chiang Mai (alphabetical):
Cheang Mai
Cheung Mai
Chiang Mai
Chiang May
Chieng Mai
Chung Mai
C'ieng Mai
Kiang Mai
Shia mai
Tschieng Mai
Tsching Mai
Tsieeng May
Xieng May
Xieng Mai
Xieng mai
Xieng Me


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:


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All photos copyright © 2020 R.Schierbeek (except the historic black and white ones).