Saturday, 10 January 2009

Teak Town

Say a little Phrae for you

One in Four Buddhas
One of many Buddha images in a Phrae wat

We moved on south from Chiang Rai and the tranquillity of the Akha Hill House on Wednesday 7th January. Our next major destination was Sukhothai with the ruins of the 12th-15th century Thai capital. We decided not to bash on down the road in one 7 – 8 hour bus journey but to stopover midway at the small town of Phrae, pronounced Prayer. We were attracted to the guidebook description of a walled town comprising mostly traditional Thai teak houses, a scattering of historical wats and a place rarely visited by tourists. Phrae sounded like a town away from the main tourist hotspots that might give us an insight into normal Thai life. Another attraction was the promise of a vegetarian restaurant, which we decided we would head for as soon as we checked-in to our hotel. This was something of a departure for us because we rarely head for any guidebook listed restaurants, usually just wandering out to find a night market or street food stalls.

Another thing about the non-tourist towns is that they tend not to have backpacker or other visitor guesthouses which means the chance to stay in a normal hotel. We checked into the Paradorn, a typical Thai business hotel with dozens of rooms on three soulless corridors, because an ensuite room was going to be about 300 baht and they advertised free wifi. This is where I am now, having just skyped friends in UK over the din of the late night karaoke from the adjacent Japanese Steak House. The over-ampilifed hits of yesteryear and flat crooning of a group of Thais is a bit of s shock after the total nighttime peace and quiet of the Akha Hill House.

We have just reeled back to the hotel totally stuffed after going crazy in Yota Vegetarian Restaurant - complete vegetarian heaven – for the second night in a row. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we walked in to the restaurant on our the first to find a buffet of dishes that were all veggie versions of the many Thai dishes we have so often seen but not been able to eat in the night markets we’ve visited. They may still be talking about the greedy farangs who had two rice plates each piled with three dishes each, four big, fat spring rolls, and a serving of mock duck with hoisan sauce. I’ve only seen mock duck and mock chicken sliced and in tins but here it was displayed as large wads of the stuff, next to the mock beef, mock fish and mock hotdogs. Every dish we tried was absolutely delicious, and we must have got through 75% of what was on offer. We baulked at the latter and the mock tripe with boiled eggs in oily gravy. We left with full bellies and plans, happily fulfilled, for our return visit the next night.

In between stuffing ourselves at Yota’s we walked around compact Phrae for a day, calling in to all the old wats and a birthday-cake pink historical wooden house called Vongburi.

Light of Ages
A gable end glitters in the morning sun

The wats in Phrae are worth a day to visit. They are all traditional wooden temples with dark red painted columns, tiled roofs, beautiful glittering gold and coloured glass gable ends and golden Buddhas. Architecturally, they are northern Thai Lanna and Nan styles as well as Burmese and Lao. Northern Thai wats tend to go in for very elaborate yet graceful entrances. Like the old wats of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, each temple has its own personality. One very dark wat becomes brightly illuminated like a fairground organ in the late afternoon when the monk arrives to receive and bless evening observants. Another is a monk university and cagey groups of 20-something orange-robed monks can be found after classes hanging around the gates in groups and clouds of cigarette smoke or poring over manga comics.


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