Back to the past!
So they say that the spirits ofthe northern ladies, Mae Thao Kamdaeng, Nang Saed and Nang Kamthieng still live in the Kamthieng House. These three ladies spent most of their lives in this house and were very attached to it. Many stories have been told about mysterious appearances of ladies in old-style northern costumes and various unexplained incidents related to this house.
About 156 years ago in Chiangmai, Mae (“mother”) Saed, the great granddaughter of the Prince of Chae, built the Kamthieng House on the banks of the Ping River. Constructed in the typical Lanna style architecture, the house has been handed down through matriarchal lineage from generation to generation.
The Kamthieng House was pitched at a turning point in Lanna culture, when the traditional lifestyle was gradually giving way to the prestige of western taste. But this house was to remain a repository of the Lanna spirit. Nang Kimhaw Nimmanhaeminda, a descendant of the original owner, gave the Kamthieng House to the Siam Society in 1963, to serve as a northern Thai ethnological museum. It is one of the oldest surviving examples of traditional northern Thai architecture.
How is the Lanna house different from architecture of the central plains? “It’s lower, larger and has fewer windows than the central Thai house. The northeast monsoon cools the weather whereas in the central plains, the southwest monsoon makes it warmer,” said Naris Srisawang, curator of the Kamthieng House Museum.
“The direction of the house is also different. The northern people build traditional houses in a north-south line to avoid the sun but the folks in central Thailand build theirs in an east-west line, following the sun. Both types of architecture utilize pegs instead of nails and for the roof, wood and ceramic tiles as well as reeds are used,” he added.
“Thai style houses of all regions have a raised floor to protect the family from wild animals,” he noted. This non-partitioned area beneath the house floors is cooler than the rest of the house and is an all-purpose area used throughout the day. Two ponds, one in the front and the other, at the back of the house is part of the landscape, being picturesque, auspicious and cool. The front pond was traditionally used for drinking water while the back pond was used by senior family members for bathing. The younger folk bathed in the nearby river.
In the early days of the Lanna kingdom, the people had no toilets. When nature called, they went to the woods. Later they built squat toilets by digging a hole in the ground and placing two boards beside the hole for the feet. A piece of wood and a large water jar with a small bowl was used to “flush” this make-shift toilet.
As you walk into the Kamthieng House Museum, the first thing you see is an open space located in front of the house, called “Kwang.” This is the area where rites are performed. “The people of northern Thailand have always held nature in high esteem. They believe that there is an interaction between people, places and spirits,” he said. “Most Lanna people believed in ‘Phi pu-ya’ or spirits of the grand parents. Each year, families would get together in the main house to pay homage to deceased grand parents.
The Lanna people walk in their bare-feet and so before they walk up the stairs, they must wash their feet by dishing the water out of the earthen jar at the foot of the stairs. Visitors are required to take off their shoes. Once they reach the verandah of the Kamthieng House, the sound of the “joi” and “pin-pia” courtship music comes up. In the main living area, a monitor displays a brief film sequence on the matrilineal heritage of the house, with old footage of a traditional spirit dance.
At another verandah level, an open space, called “tern” lies right in front of the bedroom. This is a multi-purpose area used for sun-drying fish and herbs, and as a living or dining area. Before stepping into the bedroom, you can see a carved wooden plaque over the door. Called “Ham Yon,” this is considered a protective talisman for the family. Beyond this point, those who are “tang-phi” (literally of a different spirit) meaning of a different clan must ask for permission from the ancestral spirits (Phi pu-ya) to enter. The word Ham means testicles and Yon, the northern Thai derivative of the Sanskrit word “yantr” for magic diagram or symbol. The proportion of the “Ham Yon” is based on the foot of the male breadwinner, multiplied by three or four, depending on their status.
The bedroom is seriously private place for family. They sleep on Salee (thin mattress) with beautiful handmade bed sheet by Tai Leu (an ethnic group in the north) and fold it in the morning to give an extra space.
The kitchen is beside the verandah; staff had changed the position a little bit because the area was limited. When you step in, you will hear Mae Champa’s voice from a monitor displays (a northern grandmother in period costume) teach you how to cook “kaeng khae kob” (northern frog curry.) Sounds of the cooking process are amplified in the space as well, giving you a sense of being there with her.
“Lanna people believed that there are spirits in this room, we called ‘Phi Kon Sao,’it’s a good spirit. It’s a protector of cooking pots and utensils. This spirit is propitiated annually at Songkran New Year. The ‘Kon Sao’ is three stones sit at the center of the hearth, forming a trivet on which rice and food is cooked,” said Khon Naris.
“This spirit is often identified together with the ‘Phi Ya moh neug’ or grand mother spirit of the steamer pot and called the ‘Phi pu dam ya dam’ or spirits of the black grandfather and grandmother. These spirits are supplicated to heal the vital spirits of sick family members, calm crying children at night and give protection during travel. The ‘Phi pu dam ya dam’ spirits are also used in augury, often by pregnant mothers to discover the set of the unborn child,” he added.
The building next to the kitchen is granary. Usually, its located separate from the house but the area was limited, staffs decided to change the position, move it closer to the house. After you get in, you are enveloped by ritual chants performed by “Pho-nan” Praphat, one of the few remaining northern ritual masters, calling the spirit of rice (Mae Kosok) and buffalo. Mae Kosok is a representative of fertilization. Farmers always greet her before planted rice and after harvest to bring a good production.
Even though today, the ancient Thai house style –like the Kamthieng House- is almost disappear by time, but new generations always still learn the past from experiences and ancestor’s lesson, or come to the Kamthieng House Museum. This museum is different from others because it’s a mix style displays with the context and ambience of an historic house. Visual drama, emphasized through lighting design and display styling, is coupled with a sense of place. A 3D animation is also available on the ground floor of the main house. You also hear the natural music and traditional music while you are visiting the house. -- Thannithi Payagkaratchasak
GETTING THERE: Take the BTS skytrain and get off at Asoke Station or take buses no. 38, 96, 136, 185 to Soi Asoke. The Kamthieng House Museum is in the Siam Society compound. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday (except on Thai public holidays) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Call 02 661 6470-7.