Wongburi (or Vongburi) House is a beautiful two-storey teak mansion built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and now open to the public as museum. Phrae royal genealogy has us somewhat confused but, if we’ve understood correctly, the mansion was the home of Luang Phongphibun and his wife Chao Nantha. Nantha was a princess of the Phrae royal family and Phongphibun was a noble who’d made a lot of dosh out of the profitable teak trade.
The spectacular and beautifully preserved residence, set in manicured gardens, is a classic example of turn-of-the-century Northern Thai style. The architecture isn’t classically Thai but shows European influences, as the French, British, Dutch and others were heavily involved in the teak business in northern Thailand during this period. The two-storey, tile-roofed, high-ceiling and wide-balcony style is somewhat reminiscent of colonial buildings you may see, for example, in Burmese hill stations but the intricate wood carving on gables and balustrades harks back to traditional Lanna style. It’s a Thai take on the ‘gingerbread’ form, a late 19th century colonial invention thought to have originated from French mansions in Haiti. Its elaborate, flamboyant features and use of bright colours is said to resemble model houses formerly built by children out of gingerbread dough.
The same goes for the interiors, which are a fusion of Thai and European, since clearly at the time if you wanted to display your wealth and sophistication you integrated the latest foreign elements while demonstrating the obligatory Thainess. These mansions actually can be seen across North Thailand: Chiang Mai, Lampang and Phayao for instance, where European traders and wealthy locals displayed the profits of the lucrative teak trade. Phrae however probably boasts the best stock of all of these colonial fusion buildings.
One special Thai addition to the style are the dungeon-esque basements frequently found in these buildings but these are generally off limits to the public. The ground and first floors are open and display the furniture and contents of the house as it would have been a century ago as well as plenty of photos and family heirlooms. Explanations in English are in short supply but exhibits largely speak for themselves and demonstrate the luxury and wealth of these noble families.
Certain parts of the house — the kitchen and living room for example — show more recent fittings (the residence remains in the family’s hands and was lived in until recently), including an old black and white TV set, which adds to the effect. The interior is fascinating and make sure you do a circuit of the outside of the building, too. A souvenir shop and cafe serving locally sourced coffee and traditional North Thai dishes were under construction when we visited in late 2015. Wongburi is not a vast house, so around 30 minutes is probably enough time to allow for a visit. We suggest visiting during our recommended walking tour of old Phrae.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 24th February, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.