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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.

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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?