Lost between Lampang and Nan, the small and peaceful province of Phrae fiercely protects its teakwood houses
The old lady smiles while looking at the fading picture in her frame. The picture shows a youthful Lanna beauty dressed in a traditional outfit. The lady is the descendant of Chao Phrom and his wife Sunanta Wongburi. This Phrae nobleman was once governor of this small region 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 delicately carved balconies. The house (on busy Charoen Krung Road) is now a museum, one that gives visitors a glimpse into the past life of Phrae.
At first glance, visitors would never 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: teakwood. Surrounded by mighty teak forests, the city became the trading place between British Burma and Siam for the precious forest 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. They brought with them skilled Chinese labourers who 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 have survived, although most are modest in size. However, two dozen spectacular mansions tell of 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 local inhabitants 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 bicycles 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 and proudly show off their unique heritage.
Eight Spectacular Sites
Khum Chao Luang, in the city centre, is the former residence of Lord Piriyatheppawong, formerly a ruler and governor. The proud mansion is surrounded by a garden and 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 nowa mu seum displaying Phrae history.
In the back of Khum Chao Luang, just a street away, stands Baan Wongburi. Still home to the family of Chao Phrom and Sunanta Wongburi, the mansion evokes the “gingerbread” Victorian houses in San Francisco, especially with its fading pink shade of colour. Inside, it’s all about the daily life of this noble Northern Thai family. With a bit of luck, the family’s descendants will be on hand to talk about the place and their history.
Baan Luang Sri and Wichairacha House are both grand mansions with exquisite carvings. The latter seems to have been inspired by late 19th-century gingerbread architecture from the Philippines. Not to be missed are the balconies and verandah shades, done in typical art nouveau style.
Chao Nhan Chaiwong House looks like an abandoned mansion from a fairy tale. Located in a large garden, the house was constructed in the same period as Baan Wongburi (around 1910). It features exquisite carvings and a distinct Thai-style roof. A school fills out the building today.
On busy Charoen Mueang Street—number 361—sits 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 was given to the Shan people living in Phrae. The teakwood used for this beautiful temple was provided by Denmark’s East Asiatic Company as a token of appreciation for their teak concessions.
Finally, the former offices of the East Asiatic Company and the British Borneo Trading Company have been transformed into museums chronicling the history of teak, displaying historical photos and other memorabilia.