The confluence of the Nan river and the Ping river that form the ChaoPhraya river is an interesting place to visit when you know its historical importance among others for the Danish teak trade 100 years ago.
Wherever you read about river life, inland shipping and timber floating in the old Siam, you time and again see the name ‘Pak Nam Pho’, literally that is: ‘The Confluence at the Pho Tree’’. A place of utmost importance, in fact it was the capital of the waterways; the floaters, the fishermen, the rafts and the rice barges, but also the wildlife, especially the birds benefited in millions from the rivers and the swamps.
Sooner or later, most of the teak logs from the concessions up north arrived here; also the thousand of logs from the East Asiatic Company concessions of approximately 5.000 km2 in and beyond Phrae Province by river Yom.
Nowadays the official name of the town and province is Nakhon Sawan, it means: ‘The Heavenly City’; and it is beautifully situated 240 kilometers northeast of Bangkok. Nevertheless, the old name: Pak Nam Pho is much more in daily use, a bit more down to earth -sic- as it is. In the swamps just east of Nakhon Sawan, river Nan, with its tributary Yom, meets river Ping and they form ChaoPhraya river..
Years of flooding, years of drought
It is early October 2011, it is the rainy season and it is not a pleasant drive up the central plains from Bangkok. In many places even the highway 1 and 32, The Asian Highway, is starting to flood, from time to time only one lane passable. It is the time of flooding; all paddy fields, villages and even towns to the east and to the west are partly inundated. But this is also the period of the year where all the teak logs in ‘the old days’, could float quite fast down the minor rivers, for example Yom and Nan. In extraordinary rainy seasons, like this year, the water overflew the river banks.
Learning by watching nature really, I finally understood why it was necessary -as early on the river route as possible- for the companies to let their Siamese river-teams built rafts of the logs and man them. They did that immediately before the old town of Sukothai where the river passed the last waterfall, or more exact: cataract, the waterbed still narrow and not so much wider than the rafts. If they had not done so very many single logs would have been stolen or lost in the flooded paddy fields or the swamps; on their way first to Pak Nam Pho and then finally through the very flat plains to Bangkok.
On the other hand; in dry years the logs got nowhere and in 1904-5 EAC experienced that it had taken three years -three seasons- to get the logs from Phrae the approximately seven hundred kilometers down to the sawmills in Bangkok. In those years the logs were laying in one big mess at the bottom of the almost dry riverbeds, and EAC doctored the books, in order to hide that many million dollars were stranded somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It must be remembered that the company had invested heavily in Phrae, starting years earlier. Both H.N. Andersen and his partner up here, Captain Guldberg would like to see the sawmills in Bangkok work!
Young Dane in Pak Nam Pho
In 1909-10 Ernst Mazar de la Garde, son of the postmaster in Ribe, Denmark, spend the season in Pak Nam Pho. The young man of 25 year was working as Forest Assistant mostly in and around Phrae, employee of EAC. His primary job was to supervise the logging and, with the help of the elephants, to get the logs down to the river Yom. But when we meet him, he had established himself in Pak Nam Pho. Here EAC had a domicile built on pontoons and moored to the quay. In the house there were both offices and living quarters and Gardes job was to follow and inspect the arriving rafts.
Thereafter he, together with his counterparts, the King’s officials, had to measure the length of the logs since the royalty had to be paid according to this. Today there seems to be nothing much left neither of buildings nor teak. Only a few Chinese trading houses stand, simple and functional architecture.
The rafts themselves were impressing. They consisted of around 180 logs, tied together with rattan, and then shelters for the crew, who lived ‘onboard’, were made. After the royalty procedures the rafts could then start out on Chao Phraya River, the last leg of the journey to Bangkok maneuvered with the help of two huge oars in the front of the raft.
After the last raft had left, Garde also started out, but he was travelling north in a ‘manpowered’ boat of the company. Because of all the cataracts in Nan and Yom River, steam boats could no longer be used. It was then his task to find stranded logs between Sukothai and Phrae, where the rafts had not been formed yet.
Pak Nam Pho was back then the outpost of the local edition of civilization. Small steamships easily reached its wooden quays. We know that King Chulalongkorn in 1881 asked, then Captain, Andreas Richelieu to sail the Norwegian explorer Carl Bock up here. It took four days and nights and a lot of coal against the current.
Also The Royal Gendarmerie had a post and a block house in the town. Colonel Carl Springer, then captain, was most active in trying to reclaim stolen teak. The logs were often hidden in the big swamps to the East of Pak Nam Pho. Later Colonel Springer resigned from the Gendarmerie and for the rest of his life lived in Phrae where he worked for EAC.
During our short stay of 3 days, the water level in the rivers rose tremendously fast and the current got even stronger. Dykes of at least 2 meters had been erected on top of the quays, but the water had already started to lick over them, more sandbags were added.
The peaceful rivers and the landscape had turned to be an inferno of water running at high speed. High time to leave. It took us 11 long hours to reach the outskirts of Bangkok.
In the dry season travelling to Nakhon Sawan by ‘The Asian Highway’ 1 and 32 is easy and the town and surroundings are really worth it. There is a steep hill – or rock, in northern part of town; prominent in the landscape also because of antennas and radars, but nevertheless there is public access by a serpentine road. The road starts by the pompous Greek inspired white Town Hall at the foot of the hill. On the top there is a little temple and a magnificent view over the town, the rivers and the swamps. As an extra, a lot of birds will surround you.
As an exception, I would like to recommend a hotel, namely The Vissanu Grand Plaza. Although absolutely affordable, the hotel offers good value (and a good breakfast) for money. As all over the world you can be sure when you note all the cars of the sales representatives and the technicians parked safely inside the hotel campus.
Mazar de la Garde, Ernst (1945): ’Blandt Teaktraeer og Elefanter’ [Among Teaktrees and Elephants]
We left Nakhon Sawan the fifth of October 2011. The water situation was as the photos show. But I really feared how this would end; the amount of water was extreme and the speed fast and powerful as an iron fist. Two days later the town was totally inundated up to the foot of Khao Kop Mountain. Nakhon Sawan paid a high price and it will take a long time to rebuild. Whether people can live in the town without fear in the rainy season, I don’t know.