The History of Koh Mak Island

Koh Mak Museum

There are very few islands in Thailand which are still in the same hands as they were over a century ago. There are even fewer which have a written history covering this period. This is the story of the family who to this day still own over 80% of the island of Koh Mak (Ko Maak). We’ll cover the period from its purchase by Luang Prompakdee, through the French occupation, to the present day.

Family Origins

Koh Mak was first settled by Chao Sua Seng, who established a coconut plantation on the island and who occupied the post of Palad Jeen, or Chinese Affairs Officer, during the reign of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn). Later, Chao Sua Seng sold his coconut plantation to Luang Prompakdee, who also held the post of Chinese Affairs Officer and who came originally from Ban Koh Po in Prachankiriket province. This is now the province of Koh Kong in Cambodia, but at the time it was a province of Thailand.

Ban Koh Po (Koh Po village) was a sub-district of Prachankiriket province, (Koh Kong) and was located on the banks of the Koh Po River. This village has a long history, and was densely populated, and in the days of Rama IV, it was an administrative and trading centre. The offices of the Royal administration were there, and the offices of the appointed Governor of Prachankiriket, Prapicha Chonlathee.

In the 19th Century this was a place from which agricultural products were sent by sea to be sold in Bangkok, especially rubber and ‘rong thong’ (gamboge, a kind of gum resin collected from a tree and used as a colourant in paints and dyes).  Every aspect of a modern, wealthy, progressive society was concentrated within Ban Koh Po. Royal officers and prosperous families lived there, and traders, some of whom traded on a large scale. Large sailing ships came to and fro, carrying on a constant trade with Bangkok.

Records show that in Ban Koh Po, there was a tax collector called ‘Nai Kong’ who was charged with collected taxes from the gamboge-tappers and sending the taxes to the Royal Finance Bureau. Historical evidence shows that he was responsible for the gamboge-tax from 2411 to 2435 B.E., that is, 1868-1892, in the reign of Rama IV.

Also living in Ban Koh Po was the family of Luang Prompakdii and Khun Mae Mulee which was one of the best known, most respected and prosperous in Prachankiriket. Luang Prompakdee’s trading interests were highly diversified. His trading post and house were situated right in the centre of the village, on the river bank, by a pier that stood out into the river. North of this pier were terraced houses for workers and servants; and south of the pier stood Luang Prompakdee’s own house, built in the old Thai style with a high, steep roof and a verandah looking out over the river.

Further along from Luang Prompakdee’s house were the houses and offices of other traders, and the houses of royal officials and villagers, all settled very closely together along the river bank. Then came the house of the Governor, Prapichaichonlathee; then more houses, and so right out to the edge of the village.

It was King Rama V who reformed the administrative system away from direct royal rule to a system of Ministries, each Ministry being responsible for a particular aspect of administration. (Very similar to the system used in modern day Thailand.)
However, the administrative reforms of Rama V brought big changes to Prachankiriket. Old procedures were abolished and government offices were relocated from Ban Koh Po to Tambon Laem Dan at the mouth of the Tapangrung River, inside the Straits of Kong. As these changes were taking place Luang Prompakdii and Khun Mae Mulee were busy expanding their own business interests in the area.

The Timber Business

As changes in local administration were taking place Prachankiriket, Luang Prompakdii and Khun Mae Mulee were busy expanding their own business interests in the area.

They set up a timber factory and bought mangrove wood on the southern banks of the Bang Krasop River, a place which is still known as Rong Pheen (‘Wood Factory’) to this day.

The province of Prachankiriket had very large mangrove forests covering the flooded, muddy estuarine areas. Every area of mangrove forest was a flooded zone. This forested area was interlaced with many creeks, and the mangroves flourished there plentifully.

At that time, charcoal-burning was not being done in that area. Luang Prompakdii and Khun Mae Mulee were the first traders who bought mangrove wood and shipped it to Bangkok on a regular basis by large sailing boat. On its return journey, the boat brought back goods from Bangkok for sale in Prachankiriket.

The Purchase of Koh Mak . . . For 24,000 Baht

Khun Mae Mulee was highly respected by the people and known for her devotion to Buddhism. She owned rice fields which she rented out, collecting the rent in rice; part of this rice was set aside so that it could be given as alms to the monks on a regular basis.

With her close connections to traders and royal officials, Khun Mae Mulee was well informed, and this is how she learned that Chao Sua Seng, another of the Chinese Affairs Officers, wanted to sell his coconut plantations on Koh Mak. Khun Mae Mulee agreed to buy the plantation for the sum of 300 Chang, which was the name of the currency in those days (One Chang = 80 Baht).

And that is how the coconut plantations on Koh Mak, which covered the entire island, came into her family, in whose possession they have remained to this day.

French Colonisation

As is recorded in history, Bangkok was built in 1782 at the start of the Chakri Dynasty and until the reign of King Rama IV, or around 1857, the security of the kingdom was endangered by the colonial ambitions of the French. The French invaded Vietnam in 1858 and seized many important cities such as Saigon and Binh Hoa; later they took complete control of the whole of Vietnam.

It was shortly after the island was purchased that the political situation in Prachankiriket began to feel more uncertain. This was the heyday of European colonialism, when the nations of Europe were competing to exploit nations throughout Asia and the other continents. Lands belonging to many less developed countries were seized by the British & French. On Thailand’s borders, the British took control of Burma & Malaysia, whilst the French seized Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The French did not use force against Cambodia as they had against Vietnam. Here they resorted to a softer, diplomatic approach by sending a representative to negotiate with the King of Cambodia, proposing that Cambodia should become a French ‘protectorate’. Eventually the Cambodian monarch acceded completely to French wishes.

It was easy for the French to use their great military force to impose their will on Thailand’s neighbours, who were in a weak position and unable to fight back.

In their ambition to expand their power, the French had their eyes on a large area of Thailand bordering on Cambodia: Pratabong (now the Cambodian province of Battambang), Siamrat (now integrated into Cambodia as Siem Reap) Srisophon and Prachankiriket. All of these were then Thai territories.

The French tried to force the Siamese rulers to accept that the land to the east of the Mekhong River should be under their control. This included the North and South of Laos, the country of the Laotian people, whose relationship to the Thais went back many generations.

Realising that Thailand would not be overcome or bullied easily, the French then took matters further and launched military offensives against Thailand and eventually annexed the province of Prachankiriket which then included Koh Mak.

Prachankiriket Under French Rule

Historical records show that the French occupied the eastern seaboard of Thailand from 1893 – 1904. During this time the Thai King, Rama negotiated with the French and it was finally agreed that the French would withdraw from the area around Chantaburi in return for the province Prachankiriket (now part of Cambodia) which lay to the south of Trat.

After Prachankiriket fell to the French, the lives of its people changed in every respect. The French sent Khmer military and civilian personnel, from Cambodia, to administer the province. To the locals, these were foreigners, who spoke a foreign language. Historians record that the Khmer officials dealt with the local people in an overbearing way and demanded forced labour.

As for Luang Prompakdii and his family, they already had bought the coconut plantation on Koh Mak, a secure property firmly within Thai territory, far from the oppressive rule of the French. Yet, he still felt tied to his home in peaceful Ban Koh Po, and to his relatives and friends. His business was prosperous and comfortable, and he was leading a very good life. And so Luang Prompakdii continued to live at his house in Ban Koh Po long after the French took over. The responsibility for looking after the coconut plantation in Koh Mak he gave to his sons.

However, one night an incident occurred which changed his mind about staying on.

Why Luang Prompakdii Moved to Koh Mak

The wealthy people of the region were concentrated together in Koh Po village, because it was still the centre of trading, just as it had been when it had belonged to Thailand. One very rich trader in Koh Po was Luang Panom Tao, or Chao Sua Tao. He was known far and wide on account of his wealth, which came from trading in timber, herbs and herbal medicines. Luang Prompakdii was a close friend of Luang Panom Tao. Later one of his daughters would marry one of Luang Panom Tao sons.

Then one night in 1910, in the sixth year of French rule, Luang Panom Tao’s house was burgled and most of his savings, in the form silver coins and ingots were stolen. Seeing what had happened to his close friend, Luang Prompakdii became considerably more and later that year moved his entire family to live on Koh Mak.

The Settlement of Koh Mak

There was an abundance of land on Koh Mak. Some parts of the island were old orchards, but much of the land was uncultivated, and these virgin lands were cleared and cultivated by Luang Prompakdii’s children.

Luang Prompakdii and Khun Mulee both were devout Buddhists and built a temple on Koh Mak. Then Luang Prompakdii built a large sala (hall) for the temple of Wat Pai Lom in Trat province. They kept working on their plantations in Koh Mak, with their children, until the end of their lives, and passed away at an advanced age on the island of Ban Suan Yai.

Through their diligence Koh Mak was cultivated with coconut and para rubber plantations, all owned by members of the extended family. The children of Luang Prompakdii, on receiving their inheritance from his coconut plantations, divided up the unoccupied areas of the island for their children and grandchildren. Eventually all this land became cultivated with coconut palms and para rubber, leaving no land for outsiders – except that which family members were willing to sell.

At present, Koh Mak is still very rich with coconut and para rubber plantations. Many islanders still work in agriculture, although nowadays the tourism is playing an increasingly larger role in island life.

The Start of Tourism on Koh Mak

It may be a surprise to learn that although tourism is still very much in it’s infancy on Koh Mak, the first bungalows for tourists were built over 30 years ago at Ban Ao Nid on the east of the island. The remains of what was known as ‘Koh Mak Resort’ can still be seen in the sea close to the main pier.  However, three decades ago transport and telecommunications were not what they are today and with only a small number of intrepid tourists making it to this part of Thailand the lack of infrastructure made business difficult and put paid to the development of the island for another decade.  The first organised group of western tourists were a group of German divers.

But before all this Koh Mak was on the route of a passenger steam ship that sailed from Bangkok to Koh Chang, Koh Mak, Koh Kood and onto Cambodia and Vietnam in the early part of the 20th Century.  This carried visitors to the island and also goods.

However, by the late 1980s the two main beaches on Koh Mak, developed into tourist attractions. Bungalows and resorts were built to serve Thai and foreign tourists properly.

Nowadays Koh Mak has something for everyone from cheap bamboo backpacker huts to a variety of mid range bungalow resorts and upmarket boutique establishments. Plus of course the small private resorts on the islands of Koh Kham and Koh Rayang, for people who really need to get away from it all. No wonder that in October 2006 the Sunday Times newspaper included Koh Mak in it’s list of the world’s ‘Top 10 Secret Beaches’.

Koh Mak Museum

Koh Mak now has a small, one room museum housed in an 80 year old wooden house at Koh Mak Seafood Restaurant,  Ao Nid Pier.    The house is owned by Khun Tarin who is one of the descendants of Luang Prompakdii and he is happy to talk visitors through the display of photos that offer a brief, but fascinating insight into the lives of the islanders dating back 80 years.

This brief history of Koh Mak is adapted from the original text by Somsak Suttitanakul (Koh Mak Resort) 1993, and subsequent update by Jakrapad Taveteekul in 2002.