Ferdinand de Lesseps is known to history as the man who pushed through the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. Later (from 1880 onward) he led an attempt to dig a canal through Panama, but the project failed due to technical problems and the deaths of workers from malaria and other tropical maladies.
Something not generally known about Lesseps’ career is his involvement in a French scheme to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand (then Siam,) roughly concurrently with the digging in Panama. The British were generally opposed to the French leading such a project, not least because it would have impinged on their sphere of influence on the Malay peninsula, and King Chulalongkorn tended to follow British guidance in such matters. However, the idea had other influential backers in the Siamese government.
Here is what Bas Terwiel’s ‘Thailand’s Political History’ (pp. 192-3) has to say about the involvement of de Lesseps:
In June 1882 the pressure upon the Siamese government was intensified by the arrival of Francois Deloncle, employed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who offered the Siamese the services of the famous Ferdinand de Lesseps. Eventually the Siamese government decided to allow the French to make a survey of the terrain where the canal was planned. To prevent international rivalry, the project was handled by the international Suez Canal Company, and the British government agreed not to offer opposition to the concession so long as British subjects and British vessels would enjoy the same rights as those granted to any other nation. The survey began in January 1883, but its findings were of such a nature that they effectively put an end to the French proposal.
How close did the French actually come to succeeding at getting the project underway? It seems to me that if de Lesseps hadn’t already had his hands full in Panama, his influence and ability to find funding might have made it a reality. As it is, he doesn’t seem to have actually visited Siam (although in 1884 he did receive a decoration from the king.) Any information about how realistic the idea of involving de Lesseps was would be useful here.
There were no hills to surmount in the digging of the Suez Canal, so de Lesseps could build it without locks. This was a major cause of the failure of the Panama canal project, as landslides resulted when they tried to dig through the hills to create a canal at sea level. While the Kra Isthmus dig would have been shorter (44 km vs 77 km for the current Panama Canal,) the hills there are slightly higher. Malaria might also have been a problem, had the project gone ahead. So, did the concurrent project in Panama (which it seems was only shut down in the late 1880s) influence the technical survey undertaken by the French? When did it become clear that the methods used to dig the Suez Canal were not applicable in areas with a change in elevation?