Nestled in the lush valley of the river Yom, the sleepy town of Phrae makes a pleasant pit stop for those on a leisurely exploration of the North.
One of the town’s leading attractions is Khum Chao Luang, the splendid former residence of Phrae’s last independent ruler. It was built in 1892 using a mix of European and Thai architectural styles and a copious amount of teak, mai pradoo and other local hardwood. The lower ground floor-cum-basement was once used as a jail.
Natives of Lampang, which borders it to the south, like to boast that their province produces the best teak in the entire country, but the people of Phrae would certainly challenge that claim vigorously.
"When we get close to a tree, it can get dead all of a sudden," jokes a local lady. "This whole region was once covered in dense forests," she tells me, "but we Phrae people are known for our talent in felling trees!
"We don't get so many tourists here," she continues. "Phrae is really just a stopover for many travellers. They prefer Lampang, where they can go for a jaunt in one of those horse-drawn carriages, or Chiang Mai in the cool season to see all the wildflowers in bloom. Or they go all the way up to Chiang Rai which has lots of high mountains."
So Phrae is a bit off the beaten track, but that can be a definite advantage in this era of mass tourism. For a provincial capital, the town is surprisingly peaceful. It has retained part of its ancient wall and moat, legacies of the period when it was a semi-autonomous muang in the kingdom of Lanna, and around this old quarter a modern settlement has developed. The old town is most atmospheric with alleyways lined with teak houses that are outstanding examples of traditional Lanna architecture plus a number of beautiful temples. Many of the immense teak mansions that have survived to the present day were constructed by European traders engaged in the lucrative logging trade that flourished here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Phrae was one of the last frontiers for the British timber merchants who first exploited the hardwood reserves of India, then moved on to Burma, also part of the British Empire at that time, before crossing the border to Siam to harvest the then-pristine forests of our northern provinces after winning logging concessions.
The village of Ban Thung Hong is famed for its indigo-coloured garments. The majority of the residents are Phuan (aka Tai Phuan), a Buddhist Tai ethnic group that migrated to Laos from southern China, and had by the 13th century formed the independent principality of Muang Phuan in the Plain of Jars, with Xieng Khouang (contemporary Muang Khoun) as its capital. The villagers extract the indigo colouring agent from the leaves of a bush in the genus Indigofera and use it to dye simple, traditional garments known nationwide as mor hom. Nowadays there are over a hundred shops in the village selling clothes, wooden items, souvenirs and other goods.
British firms that did business in Phrae, back when it was the so-called "teak capital" of Siam, included the Borneo Company, Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Louis T Leonowens Co Ltd and the Anglo-Thai Company. The Danish-owned East Asiatic Company also had commercial interests in the area. When the brief logging boom ended and the foreign entrepreneurs closed down their operations, some of them left behind the splendid teak offices and staff villas they had built; these have since been converted to other uses, but they still stand testament to the skilled work of the artisans who erected them.
In fact some 100 period residences (according to one estimate) _ and all largely constructed of now-precious hardwood _ have survived to this day in Phrae, much more than can be found in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phayao or other towns in the North.
A particularly fine example is Khum Chao Luang, the former home of Chao Luang Piriya Theppawong on Khum Doem Road. Built in 1892 using a mix of European and Thai architectural styles, this two-storey "gingerbread" mansion boasts high ceilings, intricately carved shutters and other decorative woodwork and even has a gloomy lower ground floor-cum-basement which once served as a prison.
The chao luang, who was Phrae's last independent ruler, had two consorts who apparently did not get along with each other. The older wife was set up in a separate residence in 1897 called Ban Vongburi (50 Kham Lue Road), another ''gingerbread'' confection with hand-carved wooden eaves and window-sills which is also one of the local sights.
Extensive deforestation caused Phrae to fade as an economic hub in the early part of the last century and while larger population centres like Chiang Mai and Lampang developed as tourism destinations, Phrae was left behind. But this neglect has been benign and has also proved somewhat beneficial, allowing this little town to preserve its essential character and making it far more appealing to stroll around than big crowded sites like Chiang Mai.
I found it very pleasant to explore the tranquil streets of Phrae, admiring its beautiful antique hardwood buildings. Concentrated in the old fortified quarter, many of these well-preserved structures are still lived in, used as business premises or for official purposes and are very much part of daily life here. You can see students playing in a school entirely comprised of teak buildings, government staff working in another fine wooden structure that was originally built as offices by one of the British timber merchants, and Buddhists making merit in ornately carved teak temples.
Various ethnic groups who have settled here over the years add extra colour to the streetscape. Shan people who originally arrived to trade in food and utensils or to work for the logging companies, stayed, set up home and raised the money to erect a stunning teak temple that displays both their impressive craftsmanship and the depth of their Buddhist roots.
A few kilometres north of town, the village of Ban Thung Hong is home to the Puan, an ethnic group who originally hail from Xiangkhuang province in Laos. They brought with them their ancestral skills in extracting a colouring agent from the leaves of the indigo bush and use this to dye traditional mor hom shirts and other garments. On the outskirts of the hamlet you will also find carpenters' workshops and blacksmiths busy in their forges.
Farther out of town, one drives past vast expanses of rice paddy on the way to explore caves, a subterranean stream, ancient gilded pagodas and several hot springs.
Phrae is a wonderfully laid-back spot for a layover, but if you have time to linger, it will be better spent here than in most other places I can think of.
Located about 9km southeast of Phrae town, Wat Phra That Cho Hae is a historysteeped temple that is especially popular with Buddhists born in the Year of the Tiger. Built on a hill about 28m high, it features an octagonal pagoda said to have been completed in 1338. In 1924, this structure was renovated and gilded using funds raised by Kruba Srivichai, a monk who spearheaded a great deal of restoration work in the North. When Phrae local authorities proposed a design for a new provincial seal in 1940, the Fine Arts Department suggested adding the image of an historic building to go with a representation of a horse, traditional emblem of Phrae; an outline of the stupa at Wat Phra That Cho Hae was subsequently chosen as the background for the official seal of the province.
Situated right in the middle of town, Wat Chomsawan is a magnificent teak structure that bears witness to the deep Buddhist faith and excellent craftsmanship of the ethnic-Shan merchants who raised the money to build it in 1894. Practically every square centimetre of the temple’s interior is embellished with decorative carvings. The principal Buddha statue is made from woven bamboo, covered with many layers of lacquer.
Situated in Phrae’s Wang Chin district, Mon Sao Hin Pitsawong is the name of a hill littered with columnar rocks. Some six million years ago, lava from a volcano in the locality cooled down and formed these unusual shapes which can be found scattered over an area of some 20 rai. Some of the stones are triangular, some hexagonal and others octagonal and they range in height from 3m to 10m. Local residents regard the rocks as sacred and believe that anyone who dares to cart one away will be cursed.
Pha Nang Khoi is a limestone cave with a subterranean stream in Phrae’s Rong Kwang district, some 34km from the provincial capital. A lighting system and paved walkway allow visitors to explore this cool recess which is 150m deep.
Situated in Long district, the Komol Antique Textile Museum was set up by antique textile collector Komol Panichpun. Besides rare, handwoven tube skirts from the district and fabric from other villages in the vicinity famous for their weavers, the museum displays a collection of wiang ta paintings on wooden planks created by seasoned artisans.