One of the first things visitors will notice while in Northern Thailand is the unique traditional houses and buildings that can be seen everywhere – still as abundant as modern houses and buildings which gradually infiltrate the landscape.
The Lanna house, or Ruen Ka-lae is similar to the Thai traditional (central) house in that it was originally constructed completely from teak wood, and built elevated from the ground to protect from flooding during the wet season. It is important to understand that this type of house was owned and lived in by the wealthy, as the process of building and carpentry was extensive. Slaves and peasants would live in much less sophisticated make to do huts.
What makes the Ruen Ka-lae distinguishable from other Thai traditional houses is the two V shaped, hand carved ‘ka lae’ at the sloped roof’s front and back, of which the house takes its name. There are different beliefs as to the purpose of the ‘ka lae’ Some believed that the Ka Lae represented a pair of birds perched on the roof to scare away crows which are believed to bring bad luck, while others insist it is buffalo horns. One account claims that during the Burmese occupation, all the Thais houses were forced to add it as to discern who was Thai and who was Burmese. Still others claim that the original purpose was simply part of the structural integrity design of the house.
Typically, a Ruen Ka-Lae consists of two rectangular rooms sharing the same elevated floor, yet with two separate roofs. The bedroom or main room is the larger room and is connected to the kitchen structure by a walkway called a chan hom, or alternatively, the front veranda-porch, called the teon, which also serves as a guest welcoming area. The bathroom was generally a roofless bamboo-woven-walled square, usually built away from the house.
Perhaps, most interesting detail of the ruen kalae is the practical and simple, yet genius construction methods used. While glazed clay tiles are used for the roofing, absolutely no nails, natural stone-concrete, or glass were to be used. Instead, traditional wooden jointing methods were used to construct a sturdy and comfortable dwelling that was cool, cozy, and dry when need be – harmonious with the natural environment, lanna’s prime heritage.