Published/Last edited or updated: 30th January, 2017
A fascinating new museum in Phrae’s old town, and one which complements neighbouring Wongburi House Museum, Khum Chao Luang is the former residence — palace if you wish — of the last lord (chao luang) of Phrae, Piriyathapawong.
Phrae city was originally established as a province of the ancient Mon kingdom of Haripunchai (now Lamphun), and despite being at various times dependent on the more powerful kingdoms of Phayao, Nan and Lanna (Chiang Mai) — even for a time Burma — it did maintain its own royal family and, during certain eras, a semblance of independence. The last lord finally gave up in 1902 when the city was sacked by Shan invaders and he fled to Luang Prabang.
The residence was built in 1892, during Phrae’s teak heyday, when the province, and the royal family, were rich on the timber trade with the European powers. Among the town’s fabulous array of late 19th and early 20th century trading magnates’ mansions, Khum Chao Luang is the grandest of them all and takes centre place in the heart of the old town.
Apparently the Shan occupiers were merciful to the palace and while painstaking renovation of the exterior has occurred, the interior of the residence appears, or has been recreated to appear, exactly as it was left. The contents are all in place, right down to the ornaments on the sideboards and table settings for dinner, giving it something of a Marie Celeste feel. Incidentally the Phrae royal family silverware and jewels were also saved and are now to be found in Chiang Rai’s excellent Oub Khan Museum.
Other than clothes, furniture, ornaments and general household items on display, there are also plenty of turn-of-the-century photographs, illustrating the teak industry, former life in Phrae and the history and personages of the ruling family. Not many of the displays have English language information, but most of it is self explanatory really.
Khum Chao Luang provides a charming encapsulation of a somewhat obscure slice of history. It’s all very exotic and romantic, with faded photos of beautiful but long-dead princesses, elephants hauling logs through forests, quaintly dressed locals performing traditional tasks and smartly dressed dignitaries with their parading, toy-town uniformed bodyguards. Romantic for some — although it is officially off-limits to the general public, bear in mind the basement is where slaves and misbehaving staff were punished and hidden away.
This is a fascinating house to visit though do tread carefully — this fine museum has extremely wobbly glass cabinets housing their priceless exhibits. The teak floorboards cause severe rattling of the cabinets and not only is it noisy, we think it’s potentially dangerous — you’ve been warned!
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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