A Northern Jewel Steeped in History
The lazy drive to Phrae from Chiang Mai winds through rich forests cleared by smatterings of villages and the occasional standalone lean-to stilted house. As the road curves and the wheels turn, small villages are brought in and out of focus interspersed by flashes of gold demurely shimming from temples and pagodas.
Living in cosmopolitan Chiang Mai, it is easy to forget what the rest of Thailand is like, until you visit somewhere like Phrae. Chic city dwellers arriving in Phrae will feel an immediate nostalgia for Thailand’s predominantly rural past.
Unlike many other towns in Thailand, whether urban or rural, Phrae has yet to have its traditional wooden homes bulldozed to be replaced by ubiquitous concrete townhouses. This pretty little town retains its rural northern charm and remains unspoilt by the plagues of Tesco and Night Bazaar. Often compared to Laos’s uber-chilled Luang Prabang, both towns have been affectionately and favourably compared to Chiang Mai…on Xanex. Tourists have discovered Phrae, but their numbers are still far and few and if you want to see Phrae before it is consumed by urbanity, then this is the time to go.
Phrae is best explored on foot, and if you don’t feel too awkward about having (albeit muscled) grandfather types peddle you around, then hop onto a samlor.
Amidst the sweet scent of warm coconut pancakes wafting through the air, visitors slowly wander around the town. There are no Ankor Wats, Temples of Emerald Buddhas or Night Safaris here, the attractions are not earth shattering, but there is great pleasure to be taken from voyeuristic glimpses of the simplicity of ye olde daily life – doors are left ajar framing snap shots of domestic activity; older gents sit back face wrapped in pink towels for a hot steamy shave, kids play on the floor minded by grandparents and young couples meet for lunchtime noodles.
Like Chiang Mai, Phrae also boasts remnants of its ancient city wall, though the highlights of the town are its well preserved old buildings and homes, mostly boasting beautiful teak, an ode to the town’s logging past.
After lunch at Pan Jai restaurant (next to the post office on Vira Road), which supplies a never ending relay of bowls of noodles, yellow curry, fried eggy bread and somtam, ‘Khum Chao Luang Muang Phrae’ provides a solid cultural interval. Khum Chao Luang Muang Phrae is a historical building that will fill you in on local times past. Built in 1892, the building with 72 windows is painted green and decorated with elegantly carved fretwork. It was previously the residence of past Phrae rulers and has now been opened as a museum of local culture and history. The basement was previously used as the town jail; there are peep-holes in the room above where people upstairs can lift out a square section of the floor to check on the inmates below. In the actual cells there are remnants of torture devices used on the imprisoned. Oh, and don’t forget the local superstition; walking backwards when entering the prison will ensure you will never actually be captured there.
Preserving the Past
We were taken to an ancient teak house which, while appearing traditionally Lanna, oddly enough, reminded me of a fairy tale gingerbread house. This house, named Wichairacha by King Rama V, was built in 1887, as a home for local nobility. This old home has seen some things; Siam’s soldiers were stationed there during the 1902 Shan rebellion and years later, the house acted as a godown, storing weapons and ammunitions used against the Japanese by the Seri Thai movement during the Second World War. Sadly, the past decades have seen the house fall into complete disrepair, ignored by local as well as national authorities.
Thanks to tireless Veera Star, a 66 year old retired war veteran, the house has slowly been coming back to life, though its future prospects remain bleak. After falling in love with the evocative property, Veera bought it in 1992 for four million baht, the magnificent house was dilapidated and needed a lot of TLC. Over the next five years Veera spent a further six million baht on restoration. Sadly Veera went heavily into debt and the house has now been repossessed by the banks. He tried to gain the attention of the Fine Arts Department and the Ministry of Finance to step in and care for the old home, sadly to no avail and with a current debt of 9 million baht, Veera is running out of options. “After all my trials and tribulations, I have learnt that nobody really cares about our national heritage,” he said despondently.
There are other places well worth stopping at in Phrae such as Long District. In Long we explored the well kept – and air-conditioned -Ancient Cloth Museum, which contained antique sarongs woven from colourful silks (081 807 9960).
There is only so much culture and history one can handle without needing a refreshing pit stop, bringing us to the picturesque Phrae Bomb Coffee Shop. It is still impossible to escape history however, as the cafe owner is fascinated by the presence of three WWII bombs found in three temples in the area. Whilst sipping an iced cappuccino you can listen to a short talk given by the cafe owner on the history of WWII bombs in Phrae.
The roads around Phrae are perfect for cruising, and there are various attractions to be found in the surrounding area. If you’re feeling artistic, roll your sleeves up and head to the new ‘creative tourism’ initiative in Ban Thung Hong village (089 851 3048). There is an open workshop where visitors can design and dye their own ‘mohom’, traditional cotton dyed deep blue, that is used to make northern style shirts – often worn during Songkran. We had a good laugh comparing our attempts at blue and white tie-dyed hearts on the fabric, and browsed the abundance of shops on the village strip selling all manner of indigo coloured clothing.
Our trip to Phrae was kindly sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in Phrae.
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