A community-based preservation program in Phrae raises awareness about the importance of architectural heritage conservation and changes the lives of its participants.by Percy Roxas
It all started five years ago. When his mother got sick, Shinnaworn Chomphuphan (Shin), an architect in Bangkok returned to Phrae, his home province to take care of her. Unfortunately his mother passed away but Shin decided to stay, apparently to rediscover his roots and reconnect with his home province. Shin begun to again explore the town, biking every day just to again enjoy the simple joys of living in a place teeming with history and culture. It was during this early morning rides that he noticed how the unique houses of Phrae were fast disappearing. So fast, in fact, that he called it a “crisis.” Shin felt he should something about the situation and he did. Little did he know that by doing so, he was planting a seed for a community-based cultural preservation program that was to have a big impact in the lives of the people of Phrae.
Phrae was a perfect place to pilot a cultural heritage conservation project. In the old days, it enjoyed relative prosperity, being an area surrounded by green forests and very rich with teakwood, among other natural resources. The elders of Phrae tell stories about how some 60 or 70 years ago, their town center was surrounded by green forests from the where the villagers take wood to build their houses. Teakwood–because of its beauty, durability, and abundance–was the popular choice for building houses; and the way the locals used small planks of wood and small posts suggests an ecological wisdom and understanding of using local resources efficiently even then.
Today, many of these beautiful old houses still stand. There are up to 80 houses – ranging from 50 to 100 years old — in the municipal area alone, and without any preservation effort, they are all in danger of entirely disappearing.
Shin’s contribution started simply. He took photos of the old houses with unique architectural profiles, and then put them on exhibit in the street market. But soon he realized that just taking pictures of the houses and collecting them wasn’t enough. It was only a matter of time that he became a more passionate advocate of cultural heritage preservation. He now heads the Phrae Architectural Heritage Preservation Club.
As if by fate, Shin met a team from the South East Asia Ministers of Education (SEAMEO) Project for Archeology and Fine Arts (SPAFA) who came to the province in line with the organization’s Living Heritage program. The organization has been working with the Luk Lan Muang Phrae Network in many projects concerning local heritage conservation since 2004, and so they visit Phrae on a regular basis.
Shin became involved with the group and had a chance to share his ideas to them. Not only was the SEAMEO SPAFA group — consisting of historians, architects, cultural preservationists, and other volunteers—receptive of his ideas. It was their mission to promote the preservation of cultural heritage, besides advancing Southeast Asian archeology and fine arts.
Thus before long, a proposal was sent to the U.S. Embassy, and soon a “small funding” (from the Ambassador’s Fund) was granted. That gave them something to start the cultural preservation of the houses of Phrae, recalls historian Ms. Vassana (or Noi), SEAMEO SPAFA program secretary.
With the SEAMEO SPAFA now involved, Shin got the backing and support he needed in his personal campaign. In fact, the undertaking became integral to SEAMEO SPAFA’s Living Heritage program, and soon a dedicated team was dispatched to Phrae to work on the project systematically. Noi, whose background is in Southeast Asian Studies, came to Phrae with two other people from SPAFA, namely Jay, a specialist in cultural heritage and project leader; and Priang, a researcher and architect; along with a few volunteers, and some students from the community.
The project looks easy on paper, but in fact it wasn’t. It required expertise, dedication, and lots of time. It would take an entire year before the project was completed. Noi recalls, “We would go to Phrae and stay there for at least one week per month, visiting the houses, taking measurements, studying the architecture, cataloguing minute details, and interviewing the residents and owners for their stories. It was not a bed of roses.”
It should be emphasized that SEAMEO SPAFA had never embarked on a project like this; it took the team three months to collect the date from the first house being documented. This was because the sisters, who owned the house, were already very old and the team can only ‘disturb’ them in the morning. “They have to rest in the afternoon; we have to give them time,” explains Noi. But after that, things got easier. Eventually, the local community became more widely involved. Even children cooperated, helping the team in gathering data.
Five years on, the result of the project is contained in a book released by SEAEMO SPAFA. It’s title, “Houses that Speak to Us — Community-Based Architectural Heritage Preservation in Phrae, Thailand.”
“Our goal at first was to simply collect information that would help us in ensuring the preservation of the houses,” says Priang. But soon, it became obvious why publishing a book about them is important. Their stories have to be put on record. More people should know about how vital these houses were in defining the real Phrae.
The group selected 11 old houses, all 50 years or older, for the book. There was a house that is even older – about 122-years-old – but it wasn’t included because, Priang says, “It was dangerous to measure. Thus we did not make measurements. We just collected its history and took lots of photos. But it was a unique house, probably the only house built in Phrae with Western architecture.” (Eventually the house was measured though and added in another publication, “Development of Wooden Houses in Phrae.”
Houses included in the book represent the four distinct styles of houses found in Phrae. Priang categorized them simply into traditional vernacular style, shop house style, European colonial style (such as those built for the rulers of Phrae), and the mixed style, which is common to the houses of the rich people. (For more detailed information about the development and history of the old houses of Phrae, we strongly recommend reading the book.)
As a representative of the Luk Lan Muang Phrae Network describes it, “the book attempts to portray the Phrae people’s way of life from the past to the present using architecture as a medium. Furthermore, common villagers an opportunity to express their opinions, which are then made into written records.”
As managers of the project, both Noi and Priang agree that doing the undertaking has been a very rewarding experience. And perhaps the most rewarding aspect came not only from the successful cataloguing of the houses or raising the locals’ awareness about cultural heritage preservation, as Noi points out: “We were becoming one with local people; we are becoming part of their stories.” The team discovered many untold stories, and not only about the houses, but also about the people. These are all reflected in the book.
Today, Noi and Priang delight in retelling those stories For example, there was this story of the three sisters, whose amazing house was visited by the U.S. ambassador. Even in old age, the three have decided to live together and keep their house intact. The beautiful house — a large, strongly built house at the back of the Chai Mongkhun Temple built right after World War II. Despite their poverty, their father built this house for them that it became priceless. Priceless, in fact, that before their mother died, she told them not sell the house. Today, the house is the only traditional house in Chai Mongkhun that is in still in good condition.
As an added trivia, Noi described an added incident when she noticed a deer horn hanging where one might put his or het hat upon entering the particular house. Noi complimented the deer horn as a nice piece for hats, and the younger sister replies: “This deer horn is not just for hats; it’s a source of medicine for our family too; our hospital as well.” Many stories such as these made the SEAMEO SPAFA team’s visit to the houses more interesting.
To summarize, the SEAMEO SPAFA project did not only raised the awareness of the Phrae people about their architectural and cultural heritage but also changed lives. The project was able to bridge generational gaps (many younger generation that previously don’t know or not interested in the history of Phrae, such as Charnchai Tuamkaew, manager of the Ban Vongburi, said he now feels more attached not only to the province and the old houses but also to Phrae folks). It has fostered closer kinship within the locality as more and more people became actively involved with the project.
And how about the SEAMEO SPAFA participants feel? “We were immersed in the living heritage of Phrae that will stay with us for the rest of our lives,” says Noi. “When the project was finished, I was really sorry to leave.” Priang credits community participation for their success. “If we didn’t have the strong involvement of the local people, or if the local government didn’t assist us, we couldn’t have completed the project. Doing the project was its own reward. Noi and I were very happy that we became part of it, and we would be more than glad to do something similar to this in another Thai province or elsewhere in the region soon.”
In fact, the group is already going to Vientiane, Laos — for a similar undertaking – soon!