Slow Living in Phrae (a.k.a. Khao Soy Heaven)

Phrae is a small town about 3-4 hours away from Chiang Mai by bus, with a reasonable cost of ฿180 for a return ticket. A while ago I joined a Dragonfly English Camp at a remote temple school there, but I decided to stay in Phrae for longer than just the two-day camp, so my partner in mischief could join me for a few days afterwards and have a countryside getaway.

The first thing I noticed was the weather, because Phrae was a different sort of Northern place - it was significantly drier and more humid than Chiang Mai, with a landscape that was quite unfamiliar to what we'd explored already. The feel of the city was much more bare than busy Chiang Mai, and felt quite simple and uncluttered. The best part about our trip was that a short drive outside the city in any direction took you straight into middle-of-nowhere Northern Thailand. Perfect!

This was the real highlight of the place; getting lost out on the open roads alongside lush rice paddies, mountainous backdrops, and long, winding highways to bigger, busier places than quaint old Phrae. As usual, everything I mention is marked on the map below, which you'll need as there is not much English to be found in this tourist-less little heaven.

Concrete Hotels & Slave-lovin' Families

Our English Camp team stayed in the Mark Four Plaza Hotel, which was, disappointingly, out of the way of the city's centre, and awkwardly positioned behind the city's only mall, Mark Four Plaza. Although the hotel lacked personality, it was comfortable enough for ฿450 a night for a twin room, which I shared with another team member. Let's just say the area wasn't great to explore by day or night, and so we spent most of our free time cooped up in our silly twin room playing cards. Oh dear. Anyway, let's move onto the important part... the food!

Our first order of business was to get our hands on some must-have Phrae food, which included Thai desserts, noodles and soups. The Deputy Director of the school took us to the traditional Vongburi House (30 baht per person to enter), which is a museum of sorts dedicated to the Vongburi family's history. I gathered these people were pretty important because they had a museum dedicated to their family and a lot of relatives still in power in the province. 

In case you didn't guess, the Deputy Director's name was Mrs Vongburi, and she explained the artefacts in the house and translated all the bits of Thai writing (they were mainly about slaves - cough - I mean, housekeepers). After the tour, she took us back downstairs to a simple outdoor cafe on the premises, which served amazing Khao Soy complete with perfect crispy noodles on top and all the authentic condiments. And if this is the first post you've stumbled onto in this blog, then let me catch you up: I'm obsessed with Khao Soy. And this one was a great introduction to Khao Soy Heaven, also known to locals as Phrae.

Our twin room at the Mark Four Plaza Hotel.
Mark Four Plaza Hotel: a little uninspiring.

Back to Basics at Bua Khao

Once the camp finished I made my way to the Bua Khao Hotel, which I had easily booked over the phone for ฿450 a night for a double room. When I arrived, I was relieved to be greeted by a friendly young lady who welcomed me upstairs and let me pick the room I wanted on the corner of the building - little did I know this view of the road below would offer me a fascinating insight into daily life in Phrae, with schoolkids squealing outside during the daytime and food carts pottering about during the evenings. The hotel itself is an old traditional Thai building which I will gladly take over a concrete hotel any day, with its walls made of delicately-carved teak wood and adorned with plenty of interesting artwork. Also, it's right in the city centre, which is perfect for exploring the place on foot, which is exactly what I had been dying to do since I had arrived.

Waking up in a cosy room at the Bua Khao Hotel.
Artwork in the bedroom.
Some of the pretty paintings hung around the hotel.

Heavenly Khao Soy at Pun Jai

Phrae is definitely tiny, and I was already confident I'd learnt the basics by that first evening. Once my other half arrived at the hotel later that evening, I tried to convince him we should go and gorge on delicious market treats, but he just passed out with the promise we would buy some more tomorrow. Unfortunately, it rained the next night, so many of the outdoor markets didn't materialise, and I never got to show him the famous Phrae desserts or soups I had been shown by Mrs. Vongburi (a warning to fellow explorers: don't rely on anything to appear again just because you saw it once!) What we did do, however, is discover that the best Khao Soy we've ever had is at a place called Pun Jai Restaurant.

Pun Jai Restaurant Phrae
The Pun Jai Restaurant sign to look out for.
The entrance to the restaurant.
Inside the restaurant.
Plates of fresh thingy-ma-bobs on every table.
These crunchy little fried chillies are excellent!
Delicious oily crushed chillies.
The busy serving table.
Phrae Thai khao soy
The finished product: lovely Phare Khao Soy, topped with fresh crispy noodles and a generous dollop of coconut cream.
Everything you need for a perfect Khao Soy.

The Beautiful Outskirts

Once we'd filled up on Khao Soy, and raved about how great it was again, we decided to make a trip outside the small town, and see what sort of adventures we could make for ourselves in totally isolated and pristine nature. We headed off to find Phae Muang Phi Forest Park, which we'd heard had interesting "mushroom rocks" and other unusual formations.
But first, I should tell you how to find a scooter in Phrae...

Since Phrae is not popular with tourists, there was almost no information available about hiring a vehicle, and we got a little frustrated and sunburnt searching on foot for a good two hours that morning. At some point we got reeled in by a very pushy songteaw driver who promised to take us to a place he knew. "A place he knew" turned out to be an ancient mechanic's repair shop, where he said we could take a scooter for a few hours for ฿300. Uh, no way, josé! This was near the bus station, so we left the songteaw (who had charged us ฿40 each for a 300 metre journey - horrible), and the shady mechanic, and walked back down the main road, Yantrakit Kosol. Ironically, we stumbled upon a bike rental shop a few metres away from where we had first got into the rip-off songteaw (these frustratingly funny things become frequent when travelling). And it was there we met a lovely young Thai student from Chiang Mai University, who had been travelling abroad for the last few years and happily chatted to us in her impeccable English. We ended up hiring a scooter from her for a reasonable ฿200 for 24 hours, and left the place relieved that we could now begin our adventure.

Phae Muang Phi Forest Park
Phae-Muang-Phi Forest Park, home to mushroom rocks and other unusual sights.
Phae Muang Phi Forest Park
The first peek of the strange rocks.

Phae Muang Phi Forest Park rocks

Lost in translation funny sign
Lost in translation.

Phae Muang Phi Forest Park
Forest Park Phrae rocks
The view from the top.

Phrae Thailand strange boxes
Odd boxes with Thai messages inside them.

That night we went out in search of a spot to have a beer and maybe even make some new Thai friends. We found a great little bar called บุหงา near the centre of town - unfortunately I have no idea what it goes by in English, or if there has ever been a need to give it an English name. It was one of the highlights of our trip, filled with interesting pop posters and dim, moody lighting. The beers were cheap, the staff were welcoming, and we enviously eyed all the delicious food being served everywhere around us. By the time we left in search of another bar, the place was completely packed inside and out, filled with pretty people who were all unbelievably friendly to us! We then moved onto the little nightlife strip near the bus station, which was also packed with happy locals, great music and ever-flowing drinks. We were actually ushered into a place by a group of young Thai's who then proceeded to buy us drinks and quiz us all about our lives in Thailand. We ended up having a fantastic time with our new friends and were pretty shocked that Phrae could offer up such a good night out!

The inside of the quirky little bar when we arrived.

The same bar packed with people by the time we left!
One of the places we visited along the strip of bars near the bus station.

Saying Goodbye

The next day we took it easy and wandered around the streets buying little Thai snacks and greeting the lovely locals. We found the lazy atmosphere of the town terribly hard to resist and started to feel the effects of slow-motion living. The hours wasted away as we wandered around and eventually sat down for a quick bite at a lovely little coffee house called Gingerbread House Gallery & Cafe, complete with its own gift shop and art gallery. This was our last highlight in Phrae before grabbing another Khao Soy back at the Vongburi House and heading home.

A huge assortment of cute knick-knacks and thingy-ma-bobs.

Super duper cool postcards.

Lovely pieces of art for sale.
The inside of the cafe.
Phrae was definitely a special place for us, and we hope that more expats in Chiang Mai will take the trip out there for a quick dip into real country living. If you've been to Phrae please share your experience with the rest of us in the comments below!


  1. Beautiful place, I would love to visit.

  2. I like this post, quite different to your others. It looks like it was a real adventure, like a diary excerpt. Phrae sounds very special

  3. Looks nice! You write well about my home town:)