A Little Thai Town And Its Vulnerable Fairy Tale Treasure

As COVID lockdowns subsided in Thailand and the nation hesitantly stepped out of its slumber, one early June day in 2020 saw the swift, stealthy construction of a fence around a much loved building in Phrae, in the northeast reaches of the country. An ornate structure with a number of nicknames and origin stories, the Green House aka the Bombay Burmah outpost aka The Forestry Department was suddenly enclosed by a tall barrier designed to keep the public out.

Without any consultation of local architects, before any heritage officials or local campaigners could get to the site, the 120 year old teak Green House was pulled down in a day, gone before anyone could protest, timber in piles. The iconic two story former trading post of an Anglo-Indian corporation, with floral woodwork around the gable, in turquoise and lime, was much treasured, sitting on the banks of the Mae Yom River in a parkland frequented by locals. The destruction came as a huge blow to the network of Phrae conservationists who’ve been working tirelessly to preserve their historic buildings. It was shocking on many levels— historical, ethical and spiritual, intentionally snuck past the townsfolk, with some suggesting it was destroyed by the owners, the Department of Forestry, to sell off the rare wood for profit.

Bombay Burmah site.

Lucie Grace

The local scandal rapidly became of national interest, with politicians weighing in. Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha even commented, stating “This is a historical building with cultural roots. You can’t just bring it down,” telling Thai media that the culprit would be punished and the building restored. “When we found out, we could not sit still. It was like sitting on fire”, says Dr. Patcharawee Tunprawat, Head of Arts and Creative Industries at British Council Thailand. She rushed straight to Phrae from her Bangkok office to witness the flurry; “It became an issue of national arguments, because there were so many different opinions. It became a site of contested views.”

While officials debated, local priests carried out a ritual next to the Bombay Burmah ruin, to apologize to the spirits of the building for its early, untimely demise. Thailand has a strong animistic faith that lives alongside its Buddhism, believing that spirits live in all things, including buildings. Much is done to keep the spirits of structures happy, even making mini houses for them to occupy. The sudden end of a revered house was marked with an apology.

Lucie Grace

The Ancient hamlet of Phrae is tucked away in the hills, shrouded by forest, a lengthy bus ride or rare domestic flight away from anywhere populated by tourists. Settled by the Mons of Burma in the 7th century, before joining the great Lanna Kingdom in 1443, it is surprisingly laden with a high density of European style buildings, the ‘Bombay Burmah’ building was just one of 100 or so teak wood buildings estimated to remain from the decades around the turn of the 20th century. From the remarkably decadent Gingerbread houses to missionary buildings and Victorian era offices of predominantly British and Danish corporations, you don’t have to walk very far in this small town to run into an impressive piece of rare architecture. It seems unlikely, until you do your colonial studies homework.

The town was, at one point, the center of one of the highest grossing industries in the world. Teak wood, the most valuable wood at the time, was in wild demand throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with the teak industry booming as did industrialization. A crucial fabric in the construction of ships and the ever expanding railways world over, the growth of western engineering depended on teak, a strong dark wood that is hard and incomparably durable, which grew in the surrounding forests of Phrae.

The first outposts of the teak industry were developed in northwestern India, where the British pummeled through the forests throughout the 1800s. Once India’s forests were exhausted, the Brits pushed into Burma (now Myanmar) where they deposed the King and colonized the country, boosting their lucrative timber industry. Next, encroaching further westward, they reached Northern Siam in the 1880s, with the Siamese king permitting the Brits to monitor the teak trade. By 1889 The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Borneo Company Ltd, East Asiatic Co Ltd and Louis T Leonowens Co Ltd had all set up shop in Phrae, and with this influx of foreign corporations, foreign money and foreign people came foreign architecture.

Khum Chao Luang

Lucie Grace

Mr Shinnaworn Chomphuphan, who goes by Shin, co-founded the Phrae Architectural Heritage Club in 2007. The architect who turned conservation activist on returning home to Phrae after a career in Bangkok, was saddened to see how many teak buildings of his childhood had been lost during his two decades away—the price of teak soaring since the forests were felled meant many buildings were sold for timber. He resolved to get saving, starting a scheme to award residents who were looking after their teak properties with an “Old Building Flag ” installing a sense of pride. We cycle around town taking in the teak structures which range between 80— 130 years old in age and are everything from sublime to humble.

Phrae is full of success stories such as the Vongburi House; a house museum now painted in enjoyable shades of baby pink, lovingly maintained by its owners, appearing in many Thai movies and TV shows, a prime location for shooting period dramas. A few hundred yards away on the same street lives its partner, Khum Chao Luang, the first Gingerbread house to be built in Phrae in 1892. Both were commissioned by the last regional governor of Phrae, the Chao Luang and the latter is also a house museum, owned by the local authority. There’s an impressive number of Gingerbread houses in the town, known as such for their ornate woodworked details, large gabled roofs and embellished carved trim, quite literally looking like homes from a Scandinavian fairytale.

Gingerbreads aside, there’s the sprawling office headquarters of the Danish East Asiatic Corporation, a cluster of 120 year old buildings that survive intact, much thanks to the site being adopted by the National School of Forestry that moved in from the 1930s to 1990s. The school has since departed but the site is still utilized, and includes the informative Teak Museum, full of historic photos of the area and teak wood examples.

The Teak Museum

Lucie Grace

On our tour there’s no mention of colonial issues, no resentment of the occupation, then abandonment of the town by international corporations who exploited the local forests and then left. Shin sees all of the buildings as part of the multi-faceted, multi-cultural history, alongside the Lanna kings, Chao leaders and Siam governance. It’s a rare, complex, colorful history and it’s Phrae’s.

After taking in ten or so of the greats, we cycle to the site of the torn down Bombay Burmah house and it’s a sorry sight. The concrete foundations hint at the size of the revered hub, but are overgrown with weeds now, 20 months on. A few hundred yards away, hundreds of beams are piled up next to the stacked eaves and staircases, stored and loosely covered with tarpaulin, seemingly numbered, as the promised rebuild is yet to start.

Dr. Patcharawee Tunprawat, or Jay to her friends, believes the destruction was well meaning, if misguided and that reconstruction is on the way, explaining that “they felt that they were doing it properly. I feel quite sorry for the constructor. They separated and saved the parts that were still functional and just threw away the ones that were already eaten by termites. It was a good wake up call for everyone involved in Phrae at every level, to learn about conservation, and the meaning of heritage.”

Jay’s been working alongside Shin and the Phrae Architectural Heritage Preservation Club for 20 years and has been consistently impressed with the small town working collectively to save its rare buildings. Over the decades there have been school workshops on the architecture, a book published and regular walking and bike tours, pre-pandemic. The efforts have been supported by national organizations such as the Fine Arts Department, which comes under Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, as well as international institutions including ICCROM in Rome, Italy.

The River Rom

Lucie Grace

Despite all of this intervention, the nuances of heritage preservation remain knotty, with Thai laws maintaining something of a gray area. Thailand’s 60 year old Antiquities Act indicates that historically important buildings must be preserved but does not clearly define what makes a building ‘historically important’ leaving the preservation of old buildings as something entirely subjective. To the untrained eye of some building owners it’s quite confusing, as intangible heritage is not easily defined.

Its demolition was not the end of the Bombay Burmah building’s story, with a plot twist edging in, in late 2020: a six month archaeological project and aerial photography revealed that the destroyed green house wasn’t the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp outpost after all. The original had, in fact, been destroyed by river erosion in the 1950s. This building was actually a local office for the Forestry Department, built in the early 1900s. “It was the oral history that told us otherwise,” Jay explains, “which I think is really interesting”. The origins of the green house, which company owned it and whether it’s 10 years older or younger are inconsequential factors in the uproar following its demolition. It was a community hub, it was the site of gathering, leisure and education, laden with memories. It was an elegant structure that symbolized Phrae’s hey-day, Shin ruminates “it was valued by the local people. It was a source of pride.”

Almost two years after the scandal, there’s overarching positivity in Phrae. Young people and young entrepreneurs returned home to the town in the pandemic, the brain drain is quelling as a modern incarnation of the indigo industry rises and there’s vibrancy and nightlife in the town again. One much celebrated cafe, Cafe de PhraeRis, draws in visitors from as far away as Bangkok, selling some of the best pastries in the country. Conservation efforts continue with additional support from the government as Phrae has joined the Old Towns project, sponsored by the Ministry of Natural Resources, as well as the Creative District Project, led by the Creative Economy Agency, presenting Phrae as a creative economy zone. Tax breaks, support networks and other friendly incentives look set to draw more creative businesses in, all the while using the town’s length and breadth of culture as a springboard for its regeneration, a model we’ve seen work in towns and cities across the world. The future of Phrae’s heritage is looking bright, it just took a loss to get here.

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