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Ban Yai Nang

By Suksawat Sabaijai

Until recently Shan home design predominated among the many styles of residential architecture found in Pai. Given the local abundance of teak and other hardwood forests, the Shan made timber their the first choice of building material, and we are lucky to see many surviving examples of Shan wooden homes in Pai and the surrounding district. Pai is one of the best showcases in northern Thailand for Shan building designs and techniques, and in fact there are still a few chaan (artisans) around who know how to build in this style. Although few new Shan-style homes have been constructed over the last 20 years or so (one exception is the Shan home built two years ago behind Pai Phu Internet cafe), the master carpenters are kept relatively busy repairing and restoring those that have survived the arrival of cement blocks as Thailand's number-one building material.

One venerable survivor known as Ban Yai Nang (Grandmother Nang's House) or Ban Rawy Pee (100-Year House) stands near the centre of town near Wat Luang. No one knows for sure who built the house or in what year it was built, but the current owners claim it dates to the first decade of the 20th century. The current resident, 83-year-old Yai Lao, a Shan originally from Mae Hong Son, says she remembers seeing the house when she was a very young girl.

Yai Nang, the current owner, says the house had been in her late husband's family for three generations, and she inherited the property when her husband died some years ago. Around 10 years ago she moved to Mae Malai to be with her children, and invited Yai Lao and her husband to live there instead. Yai Lao's husband later passed on, and she now lives in the house alone, although her children and grandchildren visit her regularly.

. Ban Yai Nang bears many of the hallmarks of northern Thai architecture in general, beginning with the fact that it is raised two meters off the ground on thick wooden pillars. Such a design first and foremost protect the house and its inhabitants from flooding during the monsoon season. Raising the house high above the ground also protect the inhabitants from roaming wild animals. Thirdly it creates a well-shaded, relatively cool space below the house for working, storing tools and keeping animals. Finally it allows breezes to circulate both around and below the house, thus keeping the home's interior a bit cooler.

The original builders enhanced this cooling effect by orienting the house so that its main length runs parallel to the sun's path rather than across it, thus exposing the greatest measure of window space to the least amount of sun.

In addition to the shaded area beneath the house, raised verandas (chaan in northern Thai) offer places to sit and catch cool morning or evening breezes. Smaller interior verandas (toen) beneath overhanging roofs offer shaded spaces for taking meals or relaxing in on warm afternoons when the rooms inside may be stuffy.

Among the most striking Shan features are ventilated wooden wall systems that can be slid open so that the ventilating slats are fully open, partially open or closed, depending on weather conditions.

Knowing that such traditional homes are becoming increasingly rare in northern Thailand, Yai Lao says she loves living in historic Ban Yai Nang. She hopes the house will remain unmodified, although currently the owners plan to remove the front stairs and veranda of the home-roughly 10% of the structure-in order to make space for a newer house. The Pai Post hopes that, whatever architectural style is chosen for the new home, it harmonizes with beautiful Ban Yai Nang.