A town built with teak

Phrae’s skyline is not yet spoiled by tall buildings. The town’s numerous old houses, many of which are well-preserved, reflect its rich culture and history. Some, like Khum Wichai Racha in the main photo, still need funding for restoration.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. But sometimes even a thousand pictures cannot say enough. The photos you see on this page show some of the many beautiful houses in Phrae’s old town. But, of course, there is more than meets the eye. Each house has its own story, some also played an important part in the history of the town, and even that of the Kingdom.

When I visited Phrae a couple of months earlier, my focus was on the attractions in Den Chai and Long districts. Recently, when I got the chance to return to the northern province, I took the opportunity to do what I did not have time for the previous trip, exploring Phrae old town on a bicycle.

Thanks to an arrangement by the local office of the Tourism Authority I was lucky enough to be guided by Teerawut Klomlaew, a local cyclist and young entrepreneur with a passion on the town’s history and architecture. Teerawut runs the Gingerbread House Gallery, a bed and breakfast converted from an old wooden house on Charoen Muang Road, which was once a bustling business district. These days it is still lined with shophouses, some of which date back to the early 20th century when teak logging was a bustling business.

Actually, Phrae’s history goes way further back than that. Phra That Cho Hae, the province’s most revered pagoda, for example, was built sometime during the period from 1336 to 1338 under the command of a prince from Sukhothai who later became King Lithai. Wat Luang, another respected temple, and the city wall are said to be even older than that, based on a record that each underwent a major restoration in the year 831. That’s almost 1,200 years ago.

Yet the best-known part of Phrae’s history belongs to recent centuries. One of the most important incidents during the period was the Ngiao rebellion in 1902.

It happened during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). During that time Western imperialists were taking over the world. Siam, the Thai Kingdom, having lost its former vassal states in what is now Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia, to Britain and France, needed to tighten control on the remaining territory. In the North, local rulers were forced to pay higher taxes and hand over much of their power to officials from Bangkok. Resentment, of course, was rife. And a rebellion led by the Ngiao ethnic group from Shan State, which was under the British control, took place in July 1902.

There are many theories about who was actually behind the uprising, which killed scores of Siamese officials and their families, and what would have happened to what is now northern Thailand had the conflict not ended as it did.

Anyway, what happened was that Bangkok soon managed to quell the rebels and Chao Piriyatheppawong, Phrae’s last ruler, was allowed to flee to Luang Prabang, which was under French control.

Also, the logging business in Phrae, which used to be overseen by local elites, was handed over to Western concessionaires such as the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation and the East Asiatic Company.

To make a long story short, the booming lumber industry after 1902 spurred economic growth, giving rise to banks and other businesses that catered to the demand of the people in the logging business.

Many beautiful teak houses were built during this period, which come in a variety of styles, from the gingerbread mansions of the elites to the traditional northern design of the common people.

During our leisurely ride through the town, Teerawut led me and the other riders to many fascinating architectural gems. My favourite was Khum Wichai Racha on its namesake road.

The grand teak mansion, which is now under the dedicated care of Weera and Orapin Star, originally belonged to Phra Wichai Racha, former treasurer of Phrae. During the Ngiao rebellion, Phra Wichai Racha had at least three Siamese government officials hidden for safety in the attic. He also persuaded Chao Piriyatheppawong to meet Chao Phraya Surasak Montri, leader of the anti-riot forces from Bangkok, to show his innocence.

Later during World War II, Phra Wichai Racha’s son Chao Wong Saensiriphan, Phrae’s first member of parliament, was also a leader of the Phrae chapter of the Free Thai Movement, which worked against the Japanese army and helped Thailand from being considered as being on the same side as the Axis powers. Weera was kind enough to show me a room in the teak mansion that was used to store weapons and ammunition for the Free Thai members.

During our house-watching ride, we also met other interesting people, from writer to vendor, silversmith, monks and more. Everybody had a story to tell.

A picture may paint a thousand words. Still, it won’t reveal everything. Likewise, reading a thousand words is nothing compared to an actual experience. Go see Phrae for yourself before it becomes popular. Who knows what changes time will bring?

Tambon Ban Thin, 7km east of the downtown area, is home to Phrae’s only Tai Lue communities. At Wat Thin Nai you can visit a traditional house of the Tai Lue people who migrated from Xishuangbanna (called Sipsong Panna in Thai) in China’s Yunnan Province to this part of Phrae over two centuries ago. The beddings, utensils, yarn spinning wheels and other household items displayed in the wooden house raised on pillars reveal the lifestyle and beliefs of this ethnic group. But the attractions in tambon Ban Thin are not limited to those related to the Tai Lue. Ban Pong Si is a village known for intricate silver ornaments and other products. One of the shops there, Yo Yeuw Silver also doubles as a mini-museum showcasing a variety of antiques, including Thai money from different periods. A section of Mae Khaem stream, which runs through Ban Pong Si, teems with large fish so tame people on paddle boats can feed and play with them. Last but not least, Ban Thin is Phrae’s largest producer of dragon fruit, mostly the red variety. Part of the produce is dehydrated and sold as a snack. Before my recent visit to Ban Thin, I was never a fan of dragon fruit. But after the first bite of the dry fruity goodies, it wasn’t easy for me to stop.

Apart from Wat Phra That Cho Hae, which is located a few kilometres outside the city wall, Phrae also boasts many other temples. Among the must-see list are Wat Luang, Wat Si Chum, Wat Phra Non and the Shan-style Wat Chom Sawan where century-old Shan scripts on the pillars were recently deciphered. Some of them also have a local museum with interesting artefacts that reveal the beliefs of the locals and at the same time showcases their craftsmanship.

With four national parks and a forest park within its boundary, Phrae province boasts several natural sites. Shown in this photo is a part of Choeng Thong waterfalls of Lamnam Nan National Park. Located just 18km or so southeast of downtown Phrae, it’s a nice place for a refreshing break from the usually scorching afternoon Sun.

In his late 90s, Seri Chomphuming, former logging tycoon and one of Phrae’s most respected writers, lives a serene life in his wooden home in Phrae old town. As we were looking at his house from outside the gate, his daughter came out and invited us to come inside. We were lucky to meet the legendary writer himself. Despite his frail health, he was still sharp and in good spirits. In this photo, he is signing some of his books before giving them to the unexpected visitors.

Long before the Otop (One Tambon, One Product) programme was introduced, mo hom clothing had always been one of Phrae’s most famous goods. The durable cotton garments got their dark blue colour not from indigo but from hom (Strobilanthes cusia), a perennial plant of a different genus. Hom is grown in large amounts in Ban Na Khu Ha, a mountain village 25km or so east of Phrae town. Much closer to the town, Ban Thung Hong is one of the major producers of mo hom products which these days come in a variety of modern and creative designs. Both at Ban Thung Hong and Ban Na Khu Ha, visitors can join in workshops in which they will learn how to make their own mo hom products using tie-dye techniques.

The city wall of Phrae, called ‘mek’ by the locals, dates back over a millennium and is one of the town’s oldest structures. Designed to protect residents not only from invaders but also from floodwaters from the Yom River which runs along the town’s west side, the 15m-thick, 4km-long wall borders the old town area whose hydrodynamic shape is said to resemble a conch shell. These days, the wide top of the wall in certain sections also serves as public parks.

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