It's all about teak

In today's time deficient world, when cost and convenience has become a buzz word, teak has taken a back seat as the material of choice in construction of buildings, bridges and boats.

Teak or Tectona Grandis is what is classified as a tropical hardwood and today grows mainly in India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines. The wood contains a resin which makes it water resistant, repels insects and also prevents decay.

Another reason for teak's popularity is that the wood can be easily fashioned into teak furniture and other fittings. Teak also has the capacity to withstand extreme climate and even high winds, the main reason why it became so popular in ship building since the middle ages.

A good example of teak's durability is the public benches in English parks, which were recycled from the decking of ships which were scrapped.

The trees grow up to a height of 150 ft with reddish green leaves while the color of the heartwood ranges from brown to dark gold. The older the tree, the better is the wood. That is why the attributes of teak, which make it so popular, increases with the age of the tree.

Teak continues to be in demand, mainly for furniture, even today, and many plantations are coming up in China, Indonesia and Puerto Rico. These plantations are source for sustainable teak and can be harvested without harming the rainforests to which teak is indigenous.

There are, of course, a few surviving examples of teak structures of the past. Some of them are preserved for the future generations to see, but some others have all but rotted away. Here are some examples of teak structures which are still a delight to tourists and heritage lovers.

The oldest teak ship - Edwin Fox

Today if you want to know what it feels like to sail in a teak boat, you can take a river cruise down the Ayeyarwaddy River in Myanmar. The teak boats these days are built by local craftsmen and are about 30 meters long with a shallow draft of one meter. Complete with lounge bars and other common areas, these teak boats will take you back to life in a more leisurely day.

It also takes you to the days of the sailing ships built of teak, which sailed the high seas in search new continents and new trade routes. Not always did these ships carry silk, spices and tea from the East to West. These ships also carried human cargo, Africans who were kidnapped from their villages to be sold as slaves to the tobacco plantations in America and convicts from England to Australia.

One such ship was the Edwin Fox. This teak ship is today the only survivor of that fleet of ships. Edwin Fox has had a rather checkered history. The ship was built completely in teak at the Calcutta dockyard, in India, in 1853. Its maiden voyage was from Calcutta to London, around the Cape of Good Hope.

Soon after its maiden voyage, the Crimean War broke out and the Edwin Fox was pressed into service as a troop ship, carrying both troops and their cargo. The war came to an end in the February of 1856, and in the same month the Edwin Fox was on her first voyage from Melbourne in Australia. For a while this teak ship plied between Chinese ports carrying cargo and passengers.

Then in 1858, the Edwin Fox had to carry a new category of passengers- convicts from England to Freemantle, Western Australia. In a little less than a decade, the full-rigged teak ship was converted into a barque and started carrying immigrants to New Zealand.

Edwin Fox made four trips carrying over 700 families who wanted to settle in the island colony. The voyage lasted anything between four to six months and to say it was harsh was an understatement. Many people died en route and were buried at sea. When they arrived, they found that living conditions were very harsh and there was little hope of ever seeing their country again.

The ship's fortunes also changed, Edwin Fox was soon overtaken by steam ships, in 1880, and she became a freezer ship for New Zealand's sheep industry. Edwin Fox days as a sail ship had clearly come to end. In 1897, she was towed to South Island and continued as a floating freezer. Before long, the owners found a new way to make money out of the old ship: she was turned into a coal store hull. She had lost the beauty of the tall riggings and masts. A further indignity was that, all the fittings were removed and large holes were cut into the sides.

During the sixties, Picton port was being expanded and the old ship, or what was left of it, was once again in the way. Edwin Fox was towed to Shakespeare Bay and there she stayed for the next four decades. The old hull listed to its side, slowly moving with the tides. The water rotting her lovely teak interiors; what was not rotted was vandalized.

The story of the brave ship did not end there. In 1999, the Edwin Fox society bought the old teak ship for a small amount and managed to refloat the ship after raising more money from heritage buffs. She was towed back to the Picton waterfront. The Edwin Fox had finally come home.

The restoration work on the Edwin Fox started. The first plan was to completely replace the tall masts and the riggings and renovate the interiors. But then it was found that this was not possible as finance could not be raised. The main reason was that the teak which was used all those years ago was not available anymore.

Today the Edwin Fox is preserved as a hull with a museum nearby. Tourists flock her two decks to soak up the atmosphere onboard. The Edwin Fox society hopes that the tourism receipts would keeping coming in and help in maintaining the old ship.

The hull of the Edwin Fox has been certified as a category one registration from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The trust which administers the Edwin Fox is also on the lookout for a sponsor to continue the restoration work.

The longest teak bridge

The cruising teak boats on the Ayeyarwady River won't carry you past the U Bein Bridge, which is a footbridge across the Taungthanman Lake, which is 10 km south of Mandalay. But the U Bein Bridge is one place you must visit, especially early in the morning.

The U Bein Bridge is of special interest to heritage buffs, as it is a 1.2 km long wooden footbridge, said to be the longest bridge in the world to be made of teak. It is named after the builder of the bridge who was supposed to be a town mayor.

The bridge's frame was built in 1849 from the teak beams salvaged from the Amarapura Palace which was being dismantled when the kingdom's capital was moved to Mandalay, by King Mindon.

The U Bein Bridge has more than 1000 beams and about 480 spans. The lake dries up during the summer and in the monsoons, it fills up. Then an entire sub culture springs up around the lake; from the ducks which paddle around, to the fishermen with their nets and the small paddling boats.

A big favorite with visitors, the U Bein Bridge is the not the run-of-the-mill touristy place. Tourists who are looking for a different experience visit the bridge in the evening to watch and photograph the sunset.

During the day, the bridge has a life of its own, but the pace picks up towards dusk. The fishermen are hauling in their nets; the monks in crimson robes walk sedately on the bridge and of course the tinkle of the cycle bells.

But tourists have to be careful about the women carrying the wooden cages with the baby owls. They surround the tourists and demand you pay them a $1 to let them fly free. Most tourists fall for this ruse. Pay them the one dollar, if you must, but don't forget that these owls are trained and the fly right back into the cage!

Besides that there are other vendors selling a number of things, you might want to pick up, if you are so inclined. Or you could just walk on this teak bridge and soak in the life and culture around.

The world's largest golden teak building

From Myanmar, we hop across the border to Thailand. Home to some of the finest hand crafted teak furniture. Today the teak industry caters to the modern market place and one can pick up teak garden furniture, gazebos as well as furniture for the home. It is not just furniture that is made of teak; entire homes were crafted from teak.

One of the best known woods in the lumber world is teak. It is not only pricey but also much sought after for their versatile applications. Teak is more a tropical hardwood and is very prevalent in the South and South East Asia.

Down the ages, the most preferred wood for ship building and furniture, both indoor and outdoor, has been teak. It is no surprise that even a palace, in Thailand, was built fully out of teak wood. Many of the palaces, temples and even homes in India have doors made of high quality teak. It is said that the wood could last for generations, if properly maintained. In the natural state teak trees could grow to heights of over 100ft and like good wine, the older they are the better and stronger they get.

The Vimanmek Palace, meaning 'the palace in the clouds', in Thailand, the world's largest golden teak building, is a superb specimen of Thai architecture. This was the former residence of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ruled Thailand from 1868 to 1910.

This huge 'L' shaped palace, also known as the Vimanmek Teak Mansion, was dismantled from the fishing town of Sri Racha in the province of Chonburi, where it was originally located and later relocated in the Dusit Palace complex, near the Dusit zoo in the Dusit district of Bangkok. It is reported to have 81 rooms, halls and ante chambers and reflects the lifestyle of the royalty in those times.

The Vimanmek Mansion had a distinct influence of Victorian architecture. It was the first building in the country to have electricity and indoor sanitation.

It is interesting to note that no nails were used to build the Vimanmek Teak Mansion. This type of carpentry is also found in many of the old houses in Kerala, in the south India. Not only houses but furniture too was made of teak wood in this fashion.

In 1935, this building was abandoned for Royal use but converted as a store for royal property because of the insect and termite resistant quality of teak.

If not for the efforts of Queen Sikirit, this heritage building would have gone into oblivion and become just a relic of the old. The later generation would have had no idea about the history of this beautiful building and its significance.

In 1982, on the occasion of the Royal Bicentennial Celebrations of Bangkok as a city, Queen Sikirit requested King Rama V permission to restore the Vimanmek Royal Mansion and refurbish it in his honor.

The largest of the former royal residences in Dusit Garden, Vimanmek Mansion is owned and operated by the Bureau of the Royal Household. It is now a museum, representing the history of Thai culture, the king's photographs, personal art and handicrafts. Its 31 exhibition rooms, on 3 floors, showcases the national heritage, for posterity, some of which, especially the bedrooms reflecting the yesteryear ambience. The other rooms exhibit royal silverware, ceramics, ivory and glassware, crystals, gifts from all over the world and the first copper bathtub (imported from England)

Vimanmek Mansion is now a major tourist attraction of Bangkok. Extensive gardens, outbuildings and lotus ponds full of fish embellish this former palace. Traditional Thai dancers perform twice daily in a small pavilion beside the mansion.