In 1886, the British raj in India had recently taken possession of the last remaining portion of the Kingdom of Burma. They now discovered that the mountainous portion of northeastern Burma—the so-called “Shan States”—was not likely to allow the British to succeed readily to Burmese hegemony, and they began a long, five-year battle with the many groups of Shans—which included the Tai-Kheun of Keng Tung—to establish their rule there. At one point, they entertained the notion of invading Siam itself once they had succeeded in taking Keng Tung and consolidating their control of the whole of the Shan States; but they ultimately decided to let Siam serve as a buffer state between themselves and the French to the east. The most remote Shans, perennially out of reach of the Burmese, were those in that part of the Shan States that lay to the east of the Salween River and centered on the old state of Keng Tung. That region was more directly approached through Siam than through the rough terrain and hostile hills of eastern Burma. The British lacked even the most elementary intelligence about Keng Tung, where few Western travelers had ventured. Earlier, two separate attempts by the Siamese kings, Rama III and Rama IV to conquer Keng Tung had met in failure. What made the British believe they could succeed on the heels of the Siamese failed attempt can only be attributed to hubris—and lack of good intelligence that Younghusband was tasked to remedy. The area was a patchwork of intrigue with Britain—occupying Upper Burma since 1886—Siam, Lan Na, the French and the Shans themselves vying for position and power. Younghusband describes in his journal pages the land he traverses and the characters he meets, and hints at the machinations of other interested parties in the region. He writes with a fine eye for detail. His book includes intermittent drawings of the different ethnic groups he encountered as well as four fold-out sketches of land formations (mountains and rivers), the city walls and its twelve gates, and routes connecting Keng Tung to other population points in the region, including the sister city of Chiang Rung (Jing Hong) in Sipsongpanna and an outline of the walled town of Chiang Rai (Kiang Hai), his jumping off point from Siam into Burma.
(excerpt from THE TRANS-SALWIN SHAN STATE OF KIANGTUNG by G.J. YOUNGHUSBAND)
From LIEUT. G. J. YOUNGHUSBAND,
(Queen’s Own) Corps of Guides,
To The Quartermaster-General in India
In accordance with instructions received from you, through Colonel M. S. Bell, V. C., Deputy Quartermaster-General, Intelligence Branch, I proceeded to Burma in the beginning of January 1887.
2. My instructions were briefly as follows. I was, firstly, making Moulmein my starting point, to find out and report upon the best route which was available for a force operating on Siam, whose objective was Zimme, the most important town of Northern Siam. Secondly, I was, if possible, to penetrate into the trans-Salwin Shan State of Kiang Tung, and report on the feasibility of a flank attack delivered on that State through Siam; and, thirdly, I was to work down from Kiang Tung to the seaboard at Bangkok, passing through the parts of Central Siam marked “unexplored” on the map.
3. Throughout my journey I was not only to report minutely on all military matters, but also to learn all that was possible concerning the people, their customs and habits, their trade and commerce, their industries and the products of their country,—vegetable and mineral. I was also to enquire into the relations existing between the Siamese and their neighbours, more especially with regard to the French in Cambodia, and the feeling amongst the Shans towards the British, who were at that time engaged in subduing the cis-Salwin Shan States.
4. On all occasions, when it was possible, I was instructed to make compass sketches of my route, and plans of fortifications and fortified towns; I was to place myself in the position of a General invading a new country, and to accurately observe and report upon every subject which would be of use to an army which at any future date might pass through the country explored by me.
5. I reached Moulmein on January 16th, 1887, and remained there a week, waiting for carriage, and collecting information regarding the harbour and its capabilities, and also concerning the best route to follow into Siam. The result of my enquiries on the latter point was, that three routes were reported as feasible,—1st, the Paphun route; 2nd, the Yembain route; and 3rd, the Rahang route. The majority of my informants agreeing that the Yembain route was the most direct, and not more difficult than the other two, I decided on following it. I may here mention that I think my decision was wrong, and that the Rahang route will, in reality, be found the best. Full particulars will be found in my Report on Siam, concerning the Yembain route from personal observation, and concerning the Rahang and Paphun routes from information collected. Judging from my experiences of information given by non-military travellers, I cannot recommend that much reliance from a military point of view be placed on their utterances. As an instance, I may mention that the Yembain route was described to me by a missionary who had traversed it as “quite easy and leading over a few low hills.” He looked at the hills from an Alpine explorer’s point of view, and comparatively to the Alps the hills between Burma and Siam are of course low and easy. But in practice it proved that the “few low hills” took me a fortnight of incessant and laborious marching to cross. It would therefore be advisable to have the Rahang route reported upon by a military officer before its absolute superiority to the other two routes can be established.
An account of my journey from Moulmein to Zimme, by the Yembain route, will be found in detail in my report on Siam. I took 23 days over the journey, a distance of 372 miles. Throughout that distance I plotted out the route followed by me, taking angles to all prominent peaks, and making outline sketches of any peculiar landmarks. I made a free-hand sketch of the Thoungyeen ferry as seen from the Siamese guard stockade and a ground-plan sketch of Maing-loungye Stockade, the only fortified place passed. The first part of the journey, that is, till the Me Ping river was reached at Muang Haut, was very laborious, the path a mere track, passing through an endless labyrinth of forest-covered hills. From Muang Haut to Zimme our way lay up the Me-Ping valley through level cultivated land.
At Zimme I remained four days; during my stay making a bird’s eye view of the town and fortifications, which gives a fairly good idea of the place.
My further progress northwards was discouraged in every way; and if it had not been for the great kindness and energy of Dr. Cheek, I should have remained months at Zimme, and perhaps have been altogether prevented by the authorities or the corning rains from proceeding. Through Dr. Cheek’s agency I attached myself to a Yunnanese caravan and hired three small ponies from them to carry my goods and a little merchandise. The day before I started I was assailed by an almost overwhelming accumulation of small disasters. Firstly, my interpreter was frightened by some evil-disposed person into thinking that he would be certainly killed if he proceeded with me, and no bribe or increase of pay would induce him to come on. Then, a mysterious letter reached me that my life was in danger, and that we were being tracked by a party of Shans. Then they got at my cook-boy, and nearly frightened him to death at the prospect of the lingering tortures he was inevitably to suffer, and even my staunch little Goorkha orderly, Judh Bir, came to me with a lump in his throat, and asked me not to go on, for, though he cared not what happened to himself, and that where I went he would go, yet that he could never hold up his head again if he had to return to the “Guide Rissalar” without their Sahib. But the crowning blow came next morning, when I found that the whole of the saddlery down to a watering bridle had been stolen in the night. Here again Dr. Cheek came to our assistance, and, fitting us out afresh, started us off on our journey.
We reached Kianghai in six days, a distance of 136 miles, without any difficulty beyond that of keeping up with the Yunnanese, who travelled at a great pace. The track throughout was a footpath, leading mostly through forest-covered hills. I plotted out the whole route, waiting till the caravan was out of sight, and then dismounting and taking angles at every mile.
At Kianghai we remained two days, and I made a rough ground-plan of the town and its fortifications.
A full account of my journey from Kianghai to Kiang Tung and back will be found in a separate report13 on the trans-Salwin Shan State of Kiang Tung. The journey to Kiang Tung occupied seven days, the distance being 155 miles. The first day across the border my carbine was stolen in broad day-light from within two yards of me; this, and the fact that the Yunnanese posted regular pickets and sentries at night, were the only intimations that we had passed into a new and hostile country. I was an object of curiosity to some, of fear to others, and of dislike to a few. I think I was taken for an American, they having established medical missions at Zimme, and other places in the north of Siam; and as they, by their good works, have gained a good reputation by hearsay amongst the Shans, I profited thereby.
Concerning the country I collected as much information as was possible without an interpreter or without raising suspicion. We found that necessity soon taught us a mixed language in which we could converse with the Yunnanese, and through them with the Shans; and though the information collected was necessarily bazar gup, yet I hope it will be found as reliable as that which is procured through official sources by the aid of an interpreter.
I mapped out the whole route and made outline sketches of passes and prominent hills.
At Kiang Tung I was received with much coldness, and for some days was obliged to camp outside, during which time I managed to make, as opportunity occurred, a rough sketch of the defences. On being admitted into the town, I was given a room in the rest-house, and accorded an interview with the prince, a young boy who had just ascended the throne. His father, who died two months before, was strenuously opposed to the entrance of Europeans into his country; and I was informed that a short shrift would have been my lot a few months before. Beyond being led out by a mixed crowd and shown the execution tree, and having a knife drawn on me by a man I asked to hold my pony, I perceived no signs of active or passive hostility to me as a European, though, of course, if it had leaked out that I was one of the Mandalay Englishmen, it would have been a different matter.
Any further progress northwards was vetoed by the Prince, and I did not feel justified in taking my orderly and cook-boy into what would have been almost certain destruction if I had proceeded against his wishes. Our chances of detection being considerably augmented by the arrival of fugitives from Mone, we made tracks one evening of March 18th, towards Siam, and travelling at the rate of nearly 2 5 miles a day, reached Kianghai without any misadventure.
After one day’s halt at Kianghai, we started on the third phase of our journey, which led us through the entire length of Siam from Kianghai to the sea, passing through the little known and mostly unexplored portions of Central Siam. A full account of our journey will be found in my report on Siam. A detailed sketch of the whole route as far south as Phitsanalok was made; from that point to Bangkok the country, being well known, was not sketched. A ground sketch of Muang-nan and outline sketches of different ranges and passes were made en route. The distance covered was something over 1,000 miles and occupied 44 days, including stoppages. The total length of our journey was about 1,800 miles and occupied, from January 24th to May 9th, a period of three and a half months. A full report on the military features of the country, together with all the information concerning the trade and products which I could collect, will be found in my report. From Kianghai, as far south at Uteradit, we travelled by land; our transport consisting of three small ponies, bought from the Yunnanese. At Uteradit we took to the river, finding that the commencement of the rains made land travelling almost impossible, and dropped down to Bangkok in thirteen days. The whole of the land portion of the journey was, as before, by a footpath, leading from village to village, and for the most part through densely-wooded hills.
The great watershed which divides the waters of the north, from those of the south, the Mekong and its tributaries from the Me Ping, Me Nan, and Me Nioum, can be almost imperceptibly crossed either just south of Muang-penyow or south of Muang-la.
For the river journey we hired a Siamese boat, a most comfortable and commodious mode of travelling, which seemed doubly luxurious to us after our long trudge.
As regards food, we lived from hand to mouth, not caring to be burdened with the large train of baggage ponies, which the carriage of stores would have necessitated. We generally managed to get eggs or chickens and rice, but nothing else, except in the large towns, where tough pork and beef were obtainable. Both Judh Bir, my orderly, and myself, suffered a good deal from the want of vegetables and of ghee or fat wherewith to fry our food. Chicken boiled in water without any savouring is such a tasteless, unsatisfying dish that we often, though half starved, were unable to swallow it. There is no milk throughout the land. On nearing Bangkok we found fruit, such as mangoes and plantains, good, plentiful, and very cheap.
We started with a canvas sheet, which it was our intention to use as a tent d’abris; but we found the labour of cutting bamboos and pitching it was so heavy at the end of a long march that we only used it a few times. At night we bivouacked under big trees, or in outhouses about villages; and though nightly drenched to the skin by dew and often rain, neither of us got ill for more than a day or two, now and then. At Kiang Tung my leg was bitten by a dog, and the want of rest and medicines caused it to swell to double its ordinary size: this, with the loss of our boots, which were completely worn out, and could not be replaced, made the last 200 miles of our march very tedious and trying. However, a fortnight on the river, on a diet of fresh fruit and fish, completely set us up again, and we arrived at Bangkok strong and well.
At Bangkok I stayed with Mr. Gould, the British Consul, and from him obtained much information and several useful maps, which will be found in my report. After staying seven days in Bangkok we took passage to Singapore, and thence to Calcutta, which we reached on June 1st, 1887, after six months’ absence. During this period we had traversed some 5,600 miles by land and sea.
Our information concerning Siam is now, from different sources, fairly complete. I would suggest, however, that any military explorer wishing to augment our knowledge of the country would do well to follow the route given below.
Leaving Moulmein, he should take the direct route to Rahang. This is, as abovementioned, most probably the easiest and shortest route into Siam, and has never been traversed or reported upon by a military explorer.
From Rahang he should strike eastwards till the Me-Neoum river is reached, and should follow it northwards to Muang Phe. This portion of Siam is almost entirely unexplored and unreported upon.
From Muang Phe strike across to Luang Prabang on the Mekong river via Muang Nan, with the object of working northward from that point, into the entirely unmapped and unexplored regions which lie between the French possessions in Tonquin and the British Shan State of Kiang Tung. If local hostilities prohibited the possibility of effecting an entry into these regions from Luang Prabang, I would recommend the traveller to take boat up the Mekong river till he could make his entry without attracting undue attention. He might have to travel as far north as Kiangtsen, and perhaps even Kiang Tung, before a likely opening was reached.
On reaching the borders of Tonquin, it would be with the traveller either to boldly enter the French possessions, as a British officer on his travels— scientific or sporting—or else to retrace his steps and strike down southwards through Eastern Siam and Cambodia.
In conclusion, it may be mentioned that my work has been divided into two volumes—1stly, a Report on the trans-Salwin Shan States; and, 2ndly, a Report on Siam. These two are bound and published separately.
Your obedient Servant,
G. J. YOUNGHUSBAND, Lieut.,
(Queen’s Own) Corps of Guides.