Don Det – Don Khon narrow gauge railway
The Don Det – Don Khon (sometimes spelt Don Deth – Don Khone) railway was a seven kilometre (4.34 mile) long, 600 mm (1 ft 11 5⁄8 in) narrow gauge portage railway located on Don Det – Don Khon islands, part of the Siphandon (sometimes spelt Si Phan Don) or Four Thousand Islands archipelago in Champasak Province, southern Laos. Built by the Mekong Exploration Commission, the railway was operated by Lao State Railway authority, opening in 1893 and closing either in 1940 or 1949. The railway was initially laid to 600 mm (1 ft 11 5⁄8 in) narrow gauge; later it appears the railway was partly or wholly converted to (possibly) 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) metre gauge. The railway aided the transportation of vessels, freight and passengers along the Mekong River. The Don Det – Don Khon islands railway held the title for the only railway ever built, opened and operated in Laos until 2009, when a railway was opened between Nong Khai, Nong Khai Province, Thailand and Thanaleng Railway Station, Dongphosy village, near Vientiane, Laos.
The French colonial administration of Indochina was determined to exploit the Mekong River to aid a route into China, and in doing so help counter British colonial expansion in Upper Burma. The Governor of Indochina saw the Mekong as ‘the main point of connection between the different countries of French Indo-China (Cochin-China, Cambodia, Laos and Tonkin), which will be able to communicate with each other through it’. However, the key obstacle lay in southern Laos, where at Siphandon Islands, the river splits into numerous channels forming formidable rapids collectively known as the Khon (or Khone) Falls. Attempts in 1891, 1892, and 1893 to scale the falls failed; there are accounts of steamships ‘engines roaring and boilers near bursting, with hundreds of men hauling from the rocks on ropes and others pushing from the decks with pikes’, and one vessel ‘allegedly wriggled up a narrow water-slide to within fifty metres of the top before the attempt had to be abandoned’.
Thus, alternatives modes of transport had to be found. One idea came in the form of a British tidal expert resident in Siam, Herbert Warington Smyth, who suggested, perhaps half-cynically, that a tramway or a canal with a series of locks should be built around the falls. The latter, he reckoned, ‘would satisfactorily cripple the French economy, costing about the same as the Manchester Ship Canal yet never carrying more than one ten-thousandth of its tonnage’. The French duly settled with a small portage railway across the island of Don Khon and later Don Det island. This would allow specially designed vessels that could be dismantled, transported via the railway and then reassembled and launched further upstream.
The first railway was laid on Don Khon island, the southern of the two islands, in 1893 the same year that Laos was ‘added’ to French Indochina, part of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia. The route stretched four kilometres from the south eastern corner of the island by Ban Hangkhon village in a north-westerly direction, terminating on the north side of the island by Ban Khon village. For the first four years the railway was a temporary affair, laid in segments that could be lifted once the train had past and relaid in front); the gun-sloops Lagrandière, Ham Luong and Massie were the first to cross the island via this method, and were followed by Garcerie, The Colombert and Trentinian (the latter later sank in the Mekong River after a gasoline explosion in 1928), in 1896. A number of impressed Vietnamese labour (for it was common for the French colonial administration to import Vietnamese manpower to Laos and Cambodia) man-hauled the wagons carrying sections of the vessels secured on top. By 1897, a permanent railway was laid and a wood-burning steam locomotive replaced manpower for traction. The first seven tonne steam locomotive was christened Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of French Indochina between 1897 and 1902, and equipment was supplied by Decauville from Cochin-China. Trains could be as long as 12-car formations, consisting of a steam locomotive, open-topped wagons and carriages yet it took an average of two shuttle trains to load a vessel. While it can be assumed that initial freight loads were sections of or complete vessels destined for the Mekong River upstream of the islands, it is most probable freight and passengers became the mainstay traffic on the line. At the northern terminal by Ban Khon village, passengers would make the transfer to a steam ship once more on the river channel that divides Don Det and Don Khon islands. As these vessels could only travel when the river was in flood, the decision was made in the 1910s to extend the railway by another three kilometres to the island to the north, Don Det, where the railway terminated by a pier near Ban Khon village. The private company 'Compagnie Saigonaise de Navigation et de Transport, puis Compagnie des Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine' appears to have ensured passengers and goods made the connection between Don Khon and Don Det. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 appears to have sealed the fate of the railway, and the last train was reported to have run in 1940. However, one source places the closure 'around 1949' having believed the railway been used by the Japanese during the Second World War.
Accounts of the railway
There are few accounts of the railway either in written or pictorial form, but insight into this curious railway can be garnered from an account written by Marthe Bassenne, a doctor’s wife travelling between Phnom Penh and Luang Prabang in 1910:
The train, struggling and grating amid the clashing sound of steel, hauled us across the island, which is covered by teak trees and bamboos whose branches brushed our faces. The temperature was very high and the sun, filtering through the trees, roused noxious fever-vapours from the tangled undergrowth. Sweat caked my hair under my sun hat; the heat burned my arms through my clothes; and the mosquitoes took advantage of my predicament to attack me as they pleased, all over my hands and face…—John Keay, Mad About The Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia
A more contemporary account of the railway can be found on a website promoting tourism in Laos, written in the early 2000s (decade):
When we visited the site of the old engine, we were lucky to meet Grandpa Vandy CHANTHALAT, aged 88 years old. He looked healthy and introvert. His native village is Bane Khonetai [a village near Ban Khon]. He told us that he was the train driver under the French administration. He was employed when he was 18 years old. He left the job in 1941. He pointed his finger to the bridge where the railway was installed then said "It was constructed in 1917." He showed us his certificate of work and the medal he received from the French authority.—Unknown author, Asia-planet.com
Another account, recorded in 1997, involves another local who used to work on the railway:
Van Thi, born about 1910... worked on the railway in 1929 and was a corporal boatman mechanic in 1934. He said in times of high water, the terminus for trains north of the dock was Don Khon, while at the low water, they crossed the bridge to get to the dock of Don Det. There was a locomotive, 12 cars and a special car for the governor.—Unknown author, Le blog de Francois.fer-air
Route today and main features
While the entire railway alignment including the viaduct remain intact and can be walked or cycled along with ease, with the exception of a few short stretches in a maintenance yard, no rails remain in situ. The alignment is used by both locals and visitors to traverse the islands, and it is a key attraction for tourists. Almost all visitors reach the islands via Nakasang village, Champasak Province off highway Route 13 on the ‘mainland’, arriving by boat to Ban Hua Det village on Don Det island.
Beginning at the concrete pier gantry that extends into the Mekong at the north eastern corner of Don Det near Ban Hua Det village, the alignment cuts south-south-west through rice-paddy fields along a shallow embankment to a river channel that forms the division between the two islands. A steeper embankment forms the approach at the southern end of the island, and the alignment crosses a river channel by way of a 170 m long, 14 arched viaduct which appears to have been constructed from reinforced concrete. The viaduct remains in good condition and the trackbed consists of compacted ballast and sand. During the dry season it is probably possible to cross the riverbed, and some maps show the two islands ‘as one’ to reflect this. However, during the wet season the purpose of the viaduct can be fully appreciated with water levels a few feet away from the viaduct’s parapet. Crossing to Don Khon island, the alignment curves through Ban Khon village and around a small, grassy yard that probably served as a maintenance depot for the railway’s rolling stock. One of the two wood-burning steam locomotives still in existence can be found here. Built in 1911 by the Orenstein & Koppel ("O&K") company and named ‘Eloïse’, the engine is covered in rust and mounted on a short stretch of overgrown track, presumably Meter gauge. It is possible this locomotive came 'second-hand' from Decauville built lines in Cochin-China; one source places its arrival on Don Khon in 1929. By the locomotive, at right angles, lies another short section of track. A square concrete pit, flooded with rainwater, lies to the engine’s rear which was probably the base of a Decauville style turntable. As of 2011, a shed has been constructed to protect the steam locomotive and presumably provide a small museum dedicated to the locomotive and the railway. The section of Meter (?) gauge track has been raised onto a small concrete plinth to protect the track and wheels from inundation. Nearby, a small concrete tower, heavily obscured by vegetation, probably served as a water tower. The yard was most probably located due south of the site of the original northern terminus and pier on Don Khon island before the viaduct was built and the railway extended across Don Det island. A former Custom House can be found nearby; it is possible it was built at the same time as the railway. Further south, the alignment cuts through dense jungle atop a steep embankment, skirting to the north of the highest hill on the island that rises to 172 m (564 ft). At Ban Hangkhon village, the alignment swings west through a small clearing, that possibly served as a small freight yard and terminates at a large concrete pier. The pier, though utilitarian in design, remains in remarkably good condition. The pier features sizeable struts and support columns, a winch system inbuilt into central steps and multiple walkways at varying levels (to enable vessels to be offloaded at varying heights of water levels). These can be reached by steps, but the lowest level is now covered in silt. Stung Treng Province, Cambodia can be seen due south from here, and it is possible to visit the province via the local boat that one can take from Ban Hangkhon village to view Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and the pier from the river. To the north of the pier, a sizeable water tank is fast succumbing to the encroaching jungle while a small workman’s hut with a caved-in roof stands immediately east of the pier. However, the most notable feature is the overturned steam locomotive devoid of its wheels. It is unsure what gauge the locomotive is configured to, when and where the locomotive was built and what name was given to the locomotive. Perhaps the isolation of the islands, the relative sluggishness of the Laotian economy and the logistical difficulty of removing the remains of these locomotives to the ‘mainland’ have prevented them succumbing to the scrap merchant’s blowtorch.
Lesser features of the former railway can be found along various parts of the alignment, including ballast, the occasional wooden sleeper, rail – (metal) sleeper sections discarded near the route (gauge uncertain), and concrete culverts. At Ban Khon village, a short bridge allows a narrow road to pass under the alignment. Visitors heading back from Ban Hangkhon village after a half-day’s walk or cycle along the alignment choosing to return to Don Det island via the eastern footpath are confronted with a precarious bridge made from old rails and rail - sleeper sections spanning a stream. Signs of an early attempt to stimulate tourism and perhaps as a nod towards the island’s unique role in Laotian railway history can be found near Ban Hua Det village, where a rubber wheeled motorised tourist ‘train’ complete with ‘carriages’ in the form of trailers lies abandoned near the gantry.
Unresolved queries about the railway
Due to a general lack of information regarding the Don Det – Don Khon islands narrow gauge railway, a number of queries have arisen about various aspects of the railway, they include:
- It is not certain the year of the railway’s closure. Some have put the year as 1940, others at 1949; given the ambiguity over whether the Japanese occupation of French Indochina used the railway, it is likely this query will remain open-ended. According to Thai Sources from Supreme Commander Headquarter, this line has been closed due to the Indochina War in 1940. Even Thailand had a shared sovereign on Don Khon between 1941 to 1946, the line has been effective abandoned as French enterprise has removed the track, locomotives and rolling stocks. Even though IJA (Imperial Japanese Army) tried to restored the route in 1945 by getting the rails, a locomotive taken from French enterprise in Indochina, wooden sleepers and spikes, only 4 km of rails has been laid by the end of WWII.
- The exact year of the opening for the extension of the railway from Don Khon to Don Det is also unknown. One reference places the extension in the 1920s. Nonetheless, if the account by Vandy Chanthalat is accurate, the viaduct was constructed in 1917; however rails and the railway extension’s opening may not have commenced until the 1920s. Another source puts the construction of the bridge at 1910.
- Although it is not clear what gauge the steam locomotive ‘Eloïse’ stands on (which can be eventually resolved by measuring the length from the inside of both rails!), it is assumed to be Meter gauge, a popular gauge used by the French at the time. Moreover, it is unsure when or why the French colonial administration chose to change gauge; one unreferenced source places the change at 1946. The change was perhaps an attempt to standardise the railway gauges in the region to Meter gauge, that is if the section of track here is Meter gauge. Meter gauge is used throughout most of Vietnam’s railway network, the entirety of Cambodia’s and Thailand’s railway networks, and the French built Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. However there were never plans to connect the railway to other networks, and other than the abortive works at Thakhek, the French showed little interest in developing a proper railway network in Laos. The line’s conversion to Meter gauge could have been a parting gift from the French as their influence in Laos waned in the late 1940s (full independence been granted to Laos in 1954 in the same year Laos withdraw from the French Union), perhaps akin to the French-built port at Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This theory is unlikely, given the development of transportation via local and regional highways, and aircraft after the Second World War, reducing the reliance on the Mekong as a freight channel. However, it may have been converted at an earlier date, possibly to coincide with the extension of the railway in the 1910s. Whatever date the line was converted to a wider gauge, it would have potentially benefited from locomotives of the same gauge been transferred from other parts southeast Asia and further afield.
- There appears to be little information on the type of freight carried by the railway, with the exception of dismantled and fully assembled vessels. However, it is likely provisions would be carried north from Phnom Penh to settlements like Vientiane and Luang Prabang for the colonial administration. Certain types of timber would not have been carried by the railway, at least downstream, given the presence of specially constructed walls east of Don Khon island in the river channel that helped funnel timber logged near Vientiane pass by the islands downstream (see Related features below).
- While it is clear the alignment only accommodated a single track railway, due to the lack of availability of large-scale maps of the islands drawn during the railway’s operation, it is difficult to ascertain the exact layout of the railway at the pier termini. However, they would have probably included sidings.
- There are no accounts or evidence of where the ballast for the trackbed was quarried, although it can be assumed, as with early railway construction the world over, the stone was quarried locally on or near the islands.
Both islands feature other man-made and natural attractions, directly or indirectly related to the railway, these being:
- Tat Somphamit or Li Phi Falls, part of the Khon Falls, a set of raging torrents west of Khon Tai village on Don Khon island, is an apt display of the problems confronted by the early French explorers attempting to find a navigable route upstream.
- An obelisk-shaped memorial (its commemoration plaque removed) just south of Ban Hangkhon village, Don Khon island, possibly commemorating the exploits of the Mekong Exploration Commission.
- Disused concrete walls built during the French colonial era visible off the eastern side of Don Khon island and the western side of Don Som island used to funnel logs felled upstream from forests near Vientiane.
Until the 2000s (decade), the government of Laos made no serious attempt to reopen the railway since its closure in the 1940s. However, in December 2005, the Vientiane Times published news about the possible reopening of the railway by 2007 for tourist purposes. The budget for the reconstruction was estimated at US$1.5 million and while local materials would have been sought for the construction, new rolling stock from abroad would have had to be purchased. Despite been no more than the original seven kilometres in length, Deputy Head of the Lao National Railway Authorities, Mr Sone Sack N. Nhansana, said the railway would demonstrate 'the government's efforts and commitment to develop a railway network in the country'. An MOU was signed between the principal backer, the South Korean Kyungin Engineering and Construction Company and the Laos Government, but the company later backed out. Vietnam Railway subsidiaries Sai Gon Railway Passenger Transport Company and Sai Gon Railway Tourism Company appeared to have advised Laos on the railway's rehabilitation, by inviting officials to visit Da Lat, Lâm Đồng Province, Vietnam to study the Da Lat–Thap Cham Railway, a rack railway of similar length which runs for both locals and tourists.
Needless to say, more basic steps have been undertaken to preserve the railway, namely the construction of the shed and plinth for the steam locomotive ‘Eloïse’ on Don Khon island in 2011.
Moreover, as Laos and the regional economy develop, the country faces more pressing infrastructure requirements. Recently devoid of any railways, Laos now features a railway line from Nong Khai, Nong Khai Province, Thailand over the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong. At present the railway reaches Thanaleng Railway Station, Dongphosy village, near Vientiane, and there are plans to extend this railway into Vientiane proper. There are also plans for a railway from Vientiane into China, and a railway to connect with Vietnam, between Thakhek, Khammouane Province and Tân Ấp Railway Station, Quảng Bình Province, Vietnam through the Mụ Giạ Pass reviving the earlier but aborted Thakhek - Tan Ap railway. Continuing improvements to the local and regional highway and airport infrastructure have significantly reduced the need to use the Mekong River for freight transportation in Laos.
- Champasak Province
- French Indochina
- French Union
- Khone Phapheng Falls
- Mekong River
- Portage railway
- Siphandon Islands
- Thakhek - Tan Ap railway
- Transport in Laos
- Mad About the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia, Harper Collins, 2005.
- The Railway Atlas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, White Lotus, 2010.
- The only railway (ever) in Laos The International Steam Pages
- Keay, John (2005). "Mad About the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia". Harper Collins.
- Whyte, Brendan (2010). "The Railway Atlas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia". White Lotus, Bangkok.
- "Laos Travel Tips". 2002. Retrieved 23 July 2011.
- "Don Det & Don Khon Travel Information and Travel Guide – Laos, Lonely Planet". 2009. Retrieved 20 July 2011.
- "4000 Islands. Si Phan Don photo gallery by Peter Wolledge".