My mother was born in 1925. She has vague recollections of a near mystical childhood that I love prompting her to recount. One of the stories that I found most interesting was about her first trip to Bangkok from Sakolnakorn when she was less than ten years old and allowed to accompany her mother to visit her mother’s family in Bangkok.
She had to travel with a buffalo caravan to Khon Khaen to board the train there. It must have been a long trip and it certainly left a lasting impression on her. For me, what was amazing was the recollection that not so long ago just one generation away travel by car on paved roads were not possible throughout the country.
Buffalo caravans were trading caravans whose trade routes crisscrossed North and Northeast Thailand, a trading route whose importance historians have overlooked with their focus on the more important sea routes that Ayudhya dominated. However, it was this land route that supplied Ayudhya with items that its trading partners valued, such as various natural dyes, forest products, and animal skin.
Some interesting things I found on the internet about the land trade routes are one, from a chapter on Chiang Mai from Joe Cummings’ "Lonely Planet Thailand".
An insert about the Chiangmai Night Bazaar reports that from the 15th century Chinese muslim traders from Yunnan brought down silk, opium, lacquerware, tea, dried fruit, musk, ponies and mules while northbound caravans brought gold, copper, cotton, edible bird’s nest, betel nut, tobacco and ivory. By the 19th century, artisans had settled along the route to produce craft for the trade. The Chinese traders preferred to use ponies and mules, while the Thais preferred oxen, water buffalo and elephants.
There were three main land trading routes in Northern Thailand: one from Sibsongpanna (Yunnan) to the Gulf of Martaban (Burma) via Mawlamyiang, this route extends westward from Simao to Chiang Roong-Keng Tung-Fang (Chiang Rai).
The middle route went south to Mengla to Luang Nam Ta in Laos, to Chiang Kong where it merges with the first route and continues further south through Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang continued along the Salaween River down to Mawlamyiang.
The third route went from Simao to Ponsali, Luang Prabang, Nan, Prae, Lampang, and Lampoon, to Chiang Mai.
Another interesting article I found on the internet relating to buffalo trade routes was an extensive wikipedia page about the Kula traders who travelled in small and large caravans.
“Some of these caravans would consist of more than 100 people traveling in ox carts, horses and elephants. Kula merchants would sell and buy items during their travels such as elephants, ivory, animal horns, antlers, silk, water buffalo, firearm, caskets, case etc. Smaller groups of Kula would travel in groups of at least 5,10 or 50 people and would be armed with knives, swords, firearms and scared magical charms for protection. The Kula engaged in commerce differently from the Chinese where they didn't establish themselves by setting up shops in communities but preferred to travel from destination to destination and rest along temples, jungle, prairie and forests along the way.”
Tung Kula Ronghai (the crying plains of the Kulas), the driest region of the Northeast, was called such, because the plain of grass and swamp was so sparsely populated during the early of 19th century that many caravans and individuals would enter the plain and find themselves lost. People living in the community had to erect wooden poles and plant trees to identify the safer route to make navigation possible.
There is also a research paper by Junko Kmsumi of Tokyo University, “Why the Kula wept”, that describes a historical dispute between the Kula traders and the officials of Siam during the reign of Rama the third.
Finally, from a book by Prince Dilok Nabarath, “Siam’s Rural Economy under King Chulalongkorn”, a picture from the past:
Oxen carts bring produce to waiting river barges