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Chiangmai Yesterday - Mae-Pah Cargo Boats

boats on river

This sketch depicts cargo vessels plying the Mae Ping, close to the Stoi or Satoy rapids, about a century ago. It is reproduced from a mural painted in 1958 by Boonpun Pongsepradit, a local artist from Mae Rim, which graces the original Chairman's office of the Anusarn Chiangmai Company.

The craft in the foreground, which is being towed upstream, flying the Thai flag of the period depicting a white elephant on a red field. It was typical of the boats owned by Luang Anusarn Sunthorn, founder of the Anusarn Chiangmai Company in 1882, that were used to ferry passengers and transport merchandise between Bangkok and Chiangmai.

Another vessel is shown heading downstream with the British flag, the Union Jack, flying at its masthead. This was probably owned by a Burmese merchant for, in those days, Burma was a part of the British Empire.

At the end of the last century, it was common practice for merchants to buy travel documents and passes from foreign diplomatic missions, especially those of Britain, France or the Netherlands, in Bangkok or Chiangmai. These documents afforded the merchants a measure of respect from Thai officials and also gave protection from search or extortion. Under this blanket protection, the merchants could trade freely, not only in legal goods, but also in contraband.

These Mae-Pah craft were built of teak and could carry up to 3 tons of cargo. Towing a fully-laden boat upstream required the efforts of as many as 8 strong men. Travelling only during the daylight hours, the crews would make camp on the river bank every night. The arduous journey from Bangkok to Chiangmai, against the flow of the river, could take as long as 6 weeks with a vessel full to the gunwales. By contrast the return trip downstream lasted only 3 weeks with the help of the rushing water.

With the completion of the Khoontarn tunnel in 1921 (B.E. 2464), Chiangmai was finally linked permanently with Bangkok by rail, and the number of Mae-Pah boats on the river swiftly dwindled. Sadly these sturdy craft are no more, nor would it be possible for such a craft to navigate the full reach of the river. Recent deforestation has caused considerable seasonal fluctuations in water flow, and a modern nation's insatiable demand for electricity and irrigation has seen the river dammed.

It is still possible to take short cruises on the Mae Ping, from Chiangmai to Ban Tak, and the energetically inclined can rent canoes and kayaks by the hour. Further south, cruises can be taken on the sparkling waters of the reservoir of Bhumibol Dam.


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