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The Arrival of Rail in Siam

A separate article, dedicated to King Chulalongkorn, mentions the "fancy-footwork" required from the Monarch if he was to acquire a railway network for his Nation but yet maintain Thailand as an independent country. The big European Powers were only too happy to accept railway planning and building contracts but, as the King well knew, the railway could also bring unwanted European dominance right into the heart of his Kingdom. The railways had conquered "The West", uniting the East and West coasts of North America, but driving Native Americans into "reservation" camps. Likewise, under British authority, railways crisscrossed the subcontinent of India and ran the length of the Malay Peninsula thereby consolidating all of those regions within the British Empire.

British influence, however strict and insistent, was beneficial to Thailand because it spurred the Thai government to reorganize its administrative systems, police force, postal system, the Navy, forestry department and so on. King Chulalongkorn welcomed such changes, as he was a guiding light of reform, but he didn't want to sacrifice Thailand's independence and the coming of rail threatened just that.

The building of the Royal Thai Railway began in 1893 with a line from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. It was slow difficult progress over sometimes swampy terrain with many workers falling to the ravages of malaria. The supply of ten steam-locomotives had been contracted to a British company for the first service which began in 1896. At this point, the King viewed with concern the strong British influence on the whole undertaking and their plans for the future. Negotiating diplomatically and effectively, King Chulalongkorn's government nimbly transferred management of the new railway, and future extensions, into the control of German railway experts.

Germany didn't have any territorial links to the region so was used as a "Checkmate" against any possible intrusion by Great Britain or France. So the railway was under German guidance until 1917 when the throes of the First World War were demanding European attention elsewhere. After the War, Great Britain returned to Thailand's Railway building but in a non-expansive, business like fashion. In fact, Great Britain and the Malay States provided a loan of 4 Million Pounds (a lot in those days) so that the railway could be linked south to the Malayan border.

So began the Royal State Railway of Thailand which now links Bangkok to points North, North East, East and South of the country. King Chulalongkorn didn't live to see the fruition of his dream but, by gently removing the bone from the British Bulldog at the right time, Thailand had its railway and remained an independent country.

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