A Travel Guide to Phrae in Northern Thailand
Discovering the ancient architecture of the peaceful town of Phrae.
Phrae, a province in northern Thailand, hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar since its glory days as one of the largest centers of the teak trade in the kingdom. Nowadays, the town is normally used by tourists as a stop-off on the way to the popular heritage and cultural center of Nan. But with Nan starting to suffer from its own success and becoming rather flooded with visitors, Phrae is rising as a unique destination offering a charming and authentic blend of beautiful architecture, historic religious sites and traditional lifestyles.
Most of the historic buildings that paint a picture of the story of Phrae are located within the old town, making it pretty easy to explore all of them on foot. Still, if you don’t want to do the hard work, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) offers a guided tour in the back of a three-wheeled rickshaw (contact 086-587-2759, 081-673-9841, or TAT Phrae 054-521-118/127). You have the choice between two routes: a two-hour trip (B250/person) and a slightly longer two-and-a-half hour route (B300/person) that lets you explore more sites.
Both trips begin at Khum Chao Luang (the Prince’s Residence) on Khum Doem Road. This Victorian-influenced teak mansion was built in 1892 during the reign of Prince Phiriyachai Theppawong, the former ruler of Phrae, and is now where visitors can brush up on the history of the province. Before the formation of the modern state of Thailand, provinces in the North (like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan and Phrae) were individual states governed by their own princes. After the unification of the country during the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910), these city-centric states turned into prefectures, and later provinces, under the control of the central government but the princes and their families remained revered by the people. Prince Phiriyachai Thepphawong was ultimately accused of being involved in the Ngiao rebellion against the central government in 1902, which saw the governor of Phrae killed, and the prince ended up fleeing to Luang Prabang. However, the story is told differently by locals in Phrae, who claim the prince was actually a hero who saved the city from the rebels. Now, the magnificent colonial-style building, which is decorated with hand-carved wooden eaves, and intricate shutters and doors, showcases how the former prince used to live. Note that Khum Chao Luang is undergoing some renovation work which should be completed in October.
The next two stops also have a regal connection. Ban Wongburi (50, Kham Lue Road, 05-462-0153. B20 entry. Open daily 8am-5pm) belonged to Mae Chao Bua Tha, the first wife of Prince Phiriya Theppawong, and her nephew, Chao Sunanta Wongburi. This century-old pink-colored teakwood house is still home to her descendants who have now converted part of the building into a museum letting visitors view old documents (including an old slave contract) and get an insight into how people used to live. The house is also famous as being the setting for several Thai television series. Nearby Wat Sriboonreung is Ban Wichairaja, which was the former residence of the Phra Wichai Raja, a member of the Phrae royal family and previously a base for the Thai resistance movement (Seri Thai) under the Japanese occupation of WWII. It lay abandoned for years until an old war veteran Veera Star discovered it a few years ago and decided to spend all his money restoring the teak house to its former glory. The renovation is still ongoing and Veera will happily accept donations to continue the work.
The Museum of Forestry Training Center (Training Center1, Kumderm Rd., Mueang, Phrea, 054-5111048.) is also an interesting place to visit due to Phrae’s central role in the Thai teak trade for over a hundred years. It showcases a wide variety of pictures, inventions, and equipment related to the teak timber business.
Perhaps the clearest sign of Phrae’s distinct local culture, which combines central Thai, Burmese, Lao and Tai Lue beliefs, is through the old town’s collection of temples. Wat Luang (Kham Lue Road, Soi 1, Tambon Nai Wiang) is probably the most important buddhist temple in Phrae, built back in 829, it is home to priceless artifacts including a collection of old Lanna (northern-Thai) buddhist images and a 500-year-old stone inscription. Within the temple compound you’ll also find the Phrae Museum and the 200-year-old Phrae Culture Hall, which offer a variety of antiques and artifacts relating to the town’s past. Wat Phrabat Ming Muang (Charoen Mueang Road) was a result of combining two old temples in 1937: a Lanna-style ordination hall home to the sacred Phra Buddha Kosai Sirichai Mahasakaya Munee Buddha’s image and an old pagoda containing a replica of the Buddha’s footprint. The final stop on the tour is Wat Sa Bo Kaew (aka Wat Jong Klang) which features beautiful Burmese-style architecture and houses a sacred marble Buddha’s image.
If you head a little further afield, around 9 kilometers from Phrae’s old town, Wat Phra That Chor Hair is believed to have been built in 1336-1338 to store various Buddha relics. Phra That Chor Hair is regarded as the chedi of people born in the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac and will bring them good luck and prosperity if they come here to pray.
Nok Air (www.nokair.com) operates direct flights from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to Phrae four times a week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 11am-1pm (B2,414-2,460)
Where to Stay
Huern Na Na is the newest and classiest boutique hotel in Phrae. The 28-room hotel sits in the center of town, close to the main tourist attractions and the business district. The building and rooms are decked out in a minimal style with touches of Lanna art including paintings by local artists, pottery, textiles, and cotton linens. 719 Sasibutra Rd., Nai Vieng, Muang, Phrae, 054-524-800. www.huernnana.com
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