Habitually, unfairly, Thai travellers set their sights on nearby Nan. Their foreign counterparts, if they stop at all, swing through Lampang or Lamphun on their way to Chiang Mai. However, the small city of Phrae, with a mere 18 thousand inhabitants, is one of the most fascinating cities in Northern Thailand, blessed with a colourful history, and not to mention one of the best preserved heritages in the country.
Once upon a time, Phrae was the teakwood capital of the world. The industry got unofficial start in 1840, when officials from Siam wrote to the royal administration in Bangkok, telling of local rulers in Chiang Mai and Lampang who were selling teak to British, Burmese, and Mon traders. They were soon to be joined by large, well-organized companies, such as the East Borneo Company, the first to trade in Phrae in 1864. To control the booming demand, Siam and Britain signed the Chiang Mai agreement in 1874 to control concessions in the North. The agreement benefited Great Britian, in particular: the signature of the Bowring Treaty in 1883 gave extra territorial rights to British companies in Siam.
Phrae became the last frontier of the British timber industry. Over the next 50 years, wood concessions were exploited mostly by the East Borneo Company, the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, and later the Louis T. Leonowens Company. In 1897, a concession was given to Captain Hans Niels Andersen, founder of Phrae’s largest wood concession on the left side of the Yom River.
The East Asiatic Company is still in town today, but it has been converted into a forestry school and technical college. A wooden bungalow sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by gardens, is a relic of the company’s domineering presence. Formerly a club for employees, the bungalow features simple architecture similar to European wooden houses seen on Borneo. The director’s house and the administrative building have been turned into the Phrae Forestry and Teak Museum. A bit run-down, the museum contains many old pictures of Phrae during the teakwood boom, as well as a collection of 100-year old teak pieces. It’s all a fitting transformation for the company, from tree-plunderer to preserver.
Beyond these buildings, remnants of the teak boom remain spread out across Phrae. And they take spectacular forms in some cases, with beautiful mansions representing what’s known as the “gingerbread” style for their uncanny similarities to the Christmastime treats. There are two dozen gingerbread houses in town. One of the most striking is the Vichai Racha House, which stands empty, but is nevertheless open to the public. Ban Wongburi, still owned by the same noble family, has been turned into a charming museum. Khum Chao Luang, the residence of Prince Piriyatheppawong, the former ruler of Phrae, built in 1892 in a blend of European and Thai styles, has been entirely preserved. Today, it’s a public museum, offering free entrance to all visitors.
Phrae Khum Chao Luang Museum is found at the city park, in the centre of Phrae. It’s open each day from 8.30am until 5pm, and admission is free.
Ban Wongburi is at 50 Kham Leu Road. It’s opene ach day from 9am until 5pm, and admission costs B50.
The Teak Museum occupies grounds at the local technical college. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 6pm. Call ahead at 0 5451 1048.