In the mid-nineteenth century growing European influence in Siam resulted in a new style of architecture for wealthy families. Using traditional materials such as teak, houses started to be built following European style floor plans which called for formal reception rooms and dining rooms. The distinguishing characteristic was the use of highly ornate (and highly expensive) fretwork to decorate window frames, balconies and roof gables.
At this time gingerbread was a popular type of cake in Europe and using it to make houses elaborately decorated with icing, fruit and even gold leaf had became a Christmas tradition. In 1812 the Brothers Grimm had published their tale of Hansel & Gretel in which the two children had discovered a full sized gingerbread house in the woods. This famous tale helped increase the popularity of gingerbread houses.
So this new style of house appearing in Siam with its ornate fretwork decoration soon became nicknamed “Gingerbread Houses” and this style remained popular for several decades.
In the twentieth century the costly gingerbread style fell out of fashion and many of the old houses fell into disrepair and were torn down. But some have survived and now in the twenty-first century these old buildings are finding a renewed appreciation. Many splendid examples are being restored and opened to the public.
Gingerbread House Cafe
One fine example of the ginger bread style can be viewed at the Ginger Bread House Cafe located near the famous giant swing in Bangkok.
This house was built by Khun Prasert Tabian in 1913 and has remained in the family since that time. Recently carefully restored it is now a delightful cafe where one can admire the beautiful interiors and read about its history over some coffee and cake.
Louis Windsor House
Other examples of the gingerbread style are in desperate need of the love and attention seen at Gingerbread House Cafe. The Louis Windsor house is one of Bangkok’s most visible gingerbread houses but in great need of restoration. Located just 500m down river from Wat Arun within the Kudee Jeen community, this house is probably seen and ignored by thousands of locals and tourists every day as they pass by on the river.
This house dates back to the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV) making it over 150 years old. The original owner Louis Windsor was a wealthy British resident of Bangkok who owned the luxury Windsor Store located on Charoen Krung Road. The large house he built with its elaborate fret work was a display of his wealth and success. Within the local community it is still known as “the blue house” although any trace of this original paint colour is long gone.
Although protected now by government regulations there still appears to be no plans or funding to initiate the restoration work that is urgently needed to save this beautiful piece of Bangkok history from further deterioration.
Perhaps the greatest and certainly the largest of all the gingerbread houses is Vimanmek Mansion located in Dusit area of Bangkok. Originally built on Koh Sichang this large palace was moved to Dusit on the command of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1900. Built from golden teak it comprises 72 rooms over three floors. King Chulalongkorn himself lived here between 1901 and 1906 and after extensive restoration work in the early 1980’s it became a museum displaying many of the King’s personal effects.
At the time of writing however Vimanmek Mansion is closed and has been completely dismantled to allow for renovations to its foundations. Unfortunately current indications are that it will not be reopened to the public even after the renovations have been completed.
Wong Buri House
For those on the trail of Thailand’s gingerbread houses a trip north is sooner or later inevitable. In the northern provinces the wealth of the teak industry resulted in the construction of some of the finest gingerbread houses in the country. There is no better place to start than Phrae, where several beautiful houses can be found.
One of the finest is Wong Buri House built in 1897 as the residence of Mae Chao Bua Tha, the first wife of Phrae’s last traditional ruler Chao Luang Phiriya Theppawong.
The house is now open to the public as a museum of Mae Chao Bua Tha’s personal effects showing what the life style of the ruling family was like over one hundred years ago.
Wichai Racha House
Another splendid gingerbread house, Wichai Racha, stands only some 300m from Wong Buri House in Phrae. Dating to 1880 this house was originally owned by the ruler of Phrae. It was famously used by members of the Free Thai Movement as they plotted against the Japanese during the Second World War.
In later years Wichai Racha fell in to considerable disrepair until in 1992 it was bought by Khun Veera Star, who embarked on a long and expensive restoration. Unfortunately the costs have out stripped Veera Star’s resources and after declaring bankruptcy the house is now held by his bank as a non-performing loan. In this legal limbo further restoration work is blocked and the future of this beautiful house is currently unknown.
Kad Kong Ta Street, Lampang
Lampang was a significant town in the days of the teak trade and this history is still evident from the large number of teak houses found there. Of particular interest is the old market street, Kad Kong Ta, which is lined with old teak buildings. One of the finest is the award winning Moung Ngwazin Building, built in 1908 for Moung Ngwe Zin a wealthy Burmese lumber merchant. Originally serving as both company offices and living quarters, it was later converted into a hotel then a bar and finally used as a warehouse. Moung Ngwe Zin’s great-grand son still owns the building and he led the way for the local community by restoring this magnificent building. Today it is open to the public as a cafe which also houses an interesting display describing the buildings and history of Kad Kong Ta.
Beautiful as the teak buildings are during the day, at night on the weekend Kad Kong Ta comes alive with a bustling arts and craft market and the decorative craft work of the gingerbread houses is lit up for all to admire.
Looking to the Future
The houses above are just a very small sample of Thailand’s gingerbread heritage. In recent years there has been increased appreciation for the old decaying gingerbread houses. Visually appealing for tourists they also remind the local communities of their own rich history. One can only hope that with this renewed interest money can be found to rescue more of these charming buildings from decay.
Where to Go
Zoom in on the above map to see the locations of every house featured above