Phrae - The Town Made of Teak
Published by Asahi, Japan, 2022
The town of Phrae – in northern Thailand – is seldom visited by foreign tourists, and even less so during a global pandemic. Yet it boasts one particular feature that distinguishes it from other provincial capitals: its number of old teakwood buildings, some of which date back a century or more.
Teak is a deciduous hardwood found in only four countries: India, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Its natural resistance to water made it invaluable in the construction of ships and furniture and by the late 19th Century several British firms had set up logging operations in northern Thailand, having exploited reserves elsewhere.
These companies included the Bombay-Burmah Trading Company, the British Borneo Company, the Anglo-Siam Company and the Louis T. Leonowens Company (the latter owned by Louis Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame).
At its peak some 70,000 tonnes of teak was exported annually from Thailand – or Siam as it was then known – and the trade would continue until the 1950s, when the foreign logging concessions would eventually expire.
Today, little remains of Thailand’s once-abundant teak forests. Yet memories of the past live on in the various buildings scattered throughout the towns and cities here. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Phrae, capital of Phrae province, which was one of the headquarters of the trade.
‘One of the reasons Phrae has so many historical buildings compared with other regional capitals, is that it has been largely overlooked for development by Bangkok,’ says Teerawut Klomlaew, a local architect and president of the Association of Phrae Old Town Preservation.
By accident then, more than design, Phrae has been awarded the label of “Historic Old Town”, although there are no actual laws to protect the city’s buildings. Their fate is therefore entirely up to the buildings’ owners, as Teerawut explains. With the high cost of maintenance and a dwindling number of teak craftsmen, it is easy to see why the buildings here are at risk.
Still, Teerawut estimates some 500 buildings in the old town are of historical interest. And while many are clearly showing their age, others have been restored to their former glory, something that is particularly true of Phrae’s “Gingerbread Houses”.
The term “Gingerbread House” refers to a type of decorative cake, once popular in 19th Century Europe. It was the preferred architectural style of Thailand’s royalty at the time and by the turn of the century, the governors of the semi-independent northern provinces – or Chao Luangs – adopted this style for their own homes and palaces.
Vongburi House is one such building and perhaps the most eye-catching example of the Gingerbread style in northern Thailand. It was built in 1897 by Chao Piriyatheppawong – the last Chao Luang of Phrae – as a private residence for his wife. Designed by a Cantonese architect, it boasts ornate gables and overhanging eaves and is today painted a bright, candy pink. The many windows, Teerawut says, would have kept the building cool.
The Governor’s House – or Khum Chao Luang – is another impressive building in the European style, with its louvre windows and high ceilings. Like Vongburi House, it is today a museum replete with 19th Century teakwood furniture. Less attractive is the dungeon where the governor’s political enemies were once imprisoned.
The building was attacked in 1902 during a Shan Burmese uprising, which led Chao Piriyatheppawong to flee to Laos. Although the rebellion was primarily aimed at growing Siamese influence in the region, the counterforce from Bangkok had the effect of bringing the northern “Lanna” provinces more firmly under Siamese rule.
There are several other impressive buildings from this period, such as Wichairacha House, once home to a local aristocratic family, and the former offices of the East Asiatic Company (a Danish logging firm), now a museum dedicated to the teak trade. Beyond these attractions, there are the homes and shop-houses of the ordinary townsfolk, most of which are occupied by the descendants of the very people who built them.
While these buildings have been maintained to a greater or lesser extent, sadly this is not always the case and in June of 2020 one of Phrae’s most famous buildings was demolished.
The Bombay-Burmah Building was the British company’s headquarters in Phrae. Situated by the Yom River, the 127-year old teakwood structure would have once overseen transportation of teak logs downriver to Bangkok.
Thailand’s Park and Forestry Department – which owns the land – ordered the building destroyed during a site “renovation”. Outcry among Phrae’s residents swiftly followed, the government apologized, and plans were put in place to rebuild it—a tricky prospect, given that no apparent documentation was taken prior to demolition.
Reconstruction was set to begin in June of last year, but despite much fanfare in the Thai press, there is, as yet, nothing to see but the building’s ruined foundations.
Teerawut believes the building was destroyed because it was not considered important enough to be saved. Even allowing for the fact that the teak trade is synonymous with Western imperialism, Teerawut believes the building was of both artistic and historic value and should have been preserved.
Yet given the public’s anger, Teerawut hopes for a renewed drive for heritage conservation. “A wake up call” as he describes it. And given teak’s famed longevity, one hopes that Thailand’s remaining teakwood buildings stay standing for years to come.