The old lady smiles while looking at the fading picture in her frame. The picture shows a youthful Lanna beauty dressed in traditional outfit. The lady is the descendant of Chao Phrom Sunanta Wongburi, a Phrae nobleman, once governor of this small city in northern Thailand. The family’s glory days ended long ago with the demise of the teakwood industry. What remains is a magnificent mansion with balconies carved delicately, as if they were chiseled by craftsmen. The house is now a museum, one that gives visitors a glimpse of the lives of Phrae past, including those of the Wongburi.
At first glance, visitors will not guess that this small city of 25,000 used to be one of the most important trading hubs in Thailand. Over half a century ago, Phrae’s good fortune had a name: teak wood. Surrounded by mighty teak forests, the city became the trading place between British Burma and Siam for the precious commodity. From 1880 and 1940, the boom years of the teak trade, the city accommodated the Thai headquarters of half a dozen European timber companies — among them, the powerful British Borneo Trading Company, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, the Louis T. Leonowens Company, the Anglo-Thai Company, and also Denmark’s East Asiatic Company. They brought with them skilled Chinese labourers who had designed houses for Westerners, blending traditional Thai and European styles. From them, the Phrae house, with its distinctive Gingerbread style, was born.
At certain points, there were hundreds of teakwood houses in Phrae. Many survived until today, although most are modest in size or have been transformed into a modern form. Two dozen spectacular mansions, however, tell speak to the incredible wealth generated by teak trading and the power of the Phrae local elite, designated by the term “Chao.”
There is indeed rising consciousness among the inhabitants of Phrae to nurture their unique heritage. “There are still houses in desperate need of repair, but many have already been restored and are now marked in a circuit around town,” says Bee, owner of a charming coffee shop called the Gingerbread House Gallery, which promotes architecture and local handicrafts.
For travellers to Phrae, it is easy to wander around town and discover some of the exquisite mansions in which the former Chao lived. Biking is probably the best option, as they can be rented for free at the fire station in the city centre. Thanks to the Architecture Heritage Club, explanations in Thai and English are provided on signboards. And, with a bit of luck, inhabitants will open their houses, such as the owner of the Wongprathang House on busy Charoen Krung Road. The elderly homeowner proudly shows off her feature in a book on architecture funded by the US Embassy, as well as the diploma she received for maintaining such a beautiful architectural legacy. In her, in Phrae, is the image of an authentic, everlasting Siam.
SEVEN SITES NOT TO MISS
Khum Chao Luang, the residence of Lord Piriyatheppawong, formerly a ruler and governor, is surrounded by a garden in the city centre. The proud mansion features a mix of European and Thai Lanna architecture. Just the wooden stairs along the verandah, with their intricate sculpted details, make it worth a trip. The mansion’s former grandeur appears in fixtures like the old furniture and the crystal chandeliers. The house is now a museum displaying Phrae history.
In the back of Khum Chao Luang, just a street away, stands another amazing building, Ban Wongburi. Still home to the family of Chao Phrom Sunanta Wongburi, the mansion evokes the “gingerbread” Victorian houses in San Francisco, especially in its fading pink shades. Inside, it’s all about the daily life of this noble Northern Thai family. With a bit of luck, the descendants of Chao Phrom will be on hand to talk about the place and their history.
The Wichairacha House, built by Cantonese artisans, is a grand mansion with exquisite carvings. It seems to have been inspired by late 19th-century gingerbread architecture from the Philippines. Not to be missed are the balconies and verandah shades in typical art nouveau style.
Chao Nhan Chanwong House looks like an abandoned mansion from a fairy tale. Located in a large garden, the house was constructed in the same period as Ban Wongburi, around 1910. It features exquisite carvings and a distinct Thai-style roof. A school fills out the building today.
The former offices of the East Asiatic Company and the British Borneo Trading Company have been transformed into museums chronicling the history of teak. EAC obtained its second teak concession around 1900, and it was enormous, representing some 5000 square kilometres. Danish gendarmes protected the property into the 1940s. The museum displays historical photos and other memorabilia and is now part of the Phrae Forestry Training Centre.
In the busy Charoen Mueang Street — number 361 — is the last mansion built in gingerbread style by local elites. Finished around 1930, the Wongprathang House is a final testimony to an art of living that was slowly vanishing.
Built between 1900 and 1912, Wat Chom Sawan relates its history to Europeans living in Thailand. It was given to Shan living in Phrae from teak concessions. In fact, the teakwood used for the beautiful temple was provided by Denmark’s East Asiatic Company as a token of appreciation.