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The Beginning of the Railway in Thailand -- Essay

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Once a present from Queen Victoria to King Monkut in 1855 , the little steel train might have been used as a toy by his young son, the Prince Chulalongkorn, and this might have led to the building of the Railway in Thailand years later. Speculations, yes, but it could have happened this way.

Prince Chulalongkorn was crowned in 1868 as Rama V and is seen as one of the big reformers in the history of Thailand. King Chulalongkorn introduced the first postal service under German management in Thailand as well as updated jurisdiction. He ended indentured servitude, a relatively mild slavery compared to other countries, and introduced goverment reforms with Europe as a model. And of course, he was also responsible for the first railway in Thailand.

In 1888 he ordered a British firm to work out plans for a railway project, the first of its kind in Thailand. The railway was to be built from Bangkok to Korat, a total of 265 km.

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It happened that the German Master engineer ("BAURAT") Karl Bethge arrived 1891 in Bangkok from China, sent by his employer KRUPP. This was at a time when the railway project together with its cost projections had been presented to the King.

Bethge, invited by the King to examine the railway project, had worked for over a decade in implementing large railways projects in Europe and proved that the railway could be built much cheaper than projected. As a result, he was asked if he would like to be involved in the new railway project in Thailand. He agreed and was appointed general director of the new Railway department of the ministry of public works.

At December 12, 1891 a contract with the British CAMPELL was signed and at March 9, 1892 the opening ceremony. King Chulalongkorn started the project with a spade full of earth.

Right from the beginning, the railway project was influenced by political means. But it seemed clear that this project could lead to a consolidation in Siam (Thailand) and thus eventually to independance against the rival forces of France and England.

Seven months later on December 20, 1892 a young German engineer received the invitation from Bethge to build the railway. His name was Luis Weiler and he will be forever remembered as the pioneer of building the railway in Thailand.

Weiler was born 1863 in Spain as the son of a German railway builder and his Spanish wife. The family moved to Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt/Main, Germany) in 1877 where Weiler started his initial studies. Apparently, Weiler followed in his father's steps. In 1891/92 he was employed in the railway management at Cologne (Koeln,Germany). Then he followed the call to Thailand as a section engineer.

Weiler arrived in Bangkok on February 1893 at 9 a.m. For the next 24 years he would be engaged in building the Bangkok-Korat line and the northern line in Siam, with only a single intermission of 5 years in Europe. In 1904, in his second term, he was appointed head of the Railway Department.

In an interresting foodnote (found in letters from Weiler from August 26, 1893 to his father), it was stated that no Thais were involved into the ground preparation work of the rails. This was done by Chinese from the Mainland and Sumatra. Thais couldn't be employed as they refused to do the railway's dirty mud and dust related work.

With the technology of 100 years ago, it cannot be imagined how difficult it was to build the railways through unknown territories, steep mountains, monsoons and jungles nobody could enter. Rails must have been laid, tunnels built and bridges designed and implemented. Britain called the Korat railway "The pioneer railway of Siam" in those days and this certainly with true.

After Siam declared war against Germany on July 22, 1917 (on pressure of England and France), Weiler was detained together with other German nationalities. On August 1, 1917 he caught an infectious disease and was as a result released on August 24, 1917. Still hospitalized, increasingly rapid deteriation of his health forced Weiler to look for a passage back to England. On December 22, 1917 he took the first available steamer to Europe.

Weiler died on Wednesday, January 17, 1918 while at sea in the channel of Mozambique during his trip from Singapore to Lorenzo Marquez over Penang and Sabang at 6.50 p.m.

He never saw his country again. ##

By Rainer F. Otto

© Copyright 1998-2008 by Rainer F. Otto



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