Ruan Galae: Traditional Lanna Architecture

As well as being a basic human need, housing holds a prominent position in the heritage of people groups. Differences in architecture around the world reflect an individuality of culture as each culture seeks a housing style to better conform to the demands of climate, environment, and belief.

Ruan Galae, known to some as Ruan Chiang Saen, is Lanna’s claim to fame in the field of traditional architecture. From its humble and purely pragmatic beginnings, Ruan Galae evolved into a genre of architecture paralleling art itself under the influences of such artistic eras as the Lawa, Mon, Chiang Seen, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Burmese, and Rattanakhosin.

Additional factors such as economy, politics and society must also be recognised when accounting for the development of this distinct architectural style which today serves as an important heritage of the Lanna kingdom and offers invaluable insight into the ways of life of its people.

Ruan Galae’s distinct characteristics extend all the way from its blueprints, building materials, and an easy-going, unassuming structure to its intricate woodcarving craftsmanship found in such parts of the home as the ham yon, ran nam, and galae—each reflecting a facet of the customs and beliefs of the Lanna people. This curious blend of faith and function is what makes Lanna’s Ruan Galae an unmistakable find in the constant search for balance between the aesthetic and the pragmatic.

The house floor, for instance, is raised high off the ground by several supporting pillars in anticipation of flooding in the rainy season and to provide a place under the house for such work as weaving, carving, and textile dyeing during the dry season. The roof is slanted to provide a run off for rain and hosts the distinct galae— from which this Lanna architecture derives its name. An extension of the beams framing the two legs of the triangle forming the roof, the galee is in itself a masterpiece of woodcarving. Some say this obvious protrusion was put in place to scare off crows and ravens— believed by superstition to bring bad luck— from perching on the roof. Others believe it was installed by the Burmese after their conquest of Northern Thailand in order that houses where Thais resided might be easily identified. Still others hold that the galae is but a logical extension put in place to strengthen the frame and only in latter days was it whittled into an object of beauty and fascination under the craftsman’s tools.

Ruan Galae is typically two structures with separate roofs but sharing the same floor. One structure is used as a bedroom and the other a kitchen, the two connected by a walkway called the chan hom. The walls of each structure slant outward as they protrude upward, providing extra structural support as well as unexpected room once inside. This outward slant is termed faa tak in Lanna architecture. At the front of the house is a porch used as a welcome area for guests, among other things. Called the teon, this porch is a raised area on the already raised floor of the entire house. The bathroom, called the tom nam, is a square, roofless structure with woven bamboo walls and is often built away from the house, near a pond.

Above the door of the bedroom, there is commonly a piece of woodcarving called the ham yon. Distinct to Ruan Galae, this piece of woodwork serves as a sacred charm of protection against evil. The length of the ham yon is equal to the width of the doorway and is measured by the foot of the owner of the house. A doorway, then, may either be three feet or four feet in width, depending on how big the owner’s feet are.

At the bottom of the doorway, partially blocking the entrance to the bedroom, there is a piece of wood spanning the a width the doorway. Called the kom pratoo, this piece of wood serves as a boundary marker — a reminder to those outside the family line that they must not enter the bedroom.

In the bedroom, there is a mantle built above the bed on the east wall which serves as a means of worship to a family’s ancestral spirits. By custom, the worship of ancestors takes place twice a year: once during Songkran (Thai New Year) and once during Auk Phansa.

The roof itself is made of krabuang din pao, a fired clay panelling. Each panel measures approximately 10cm wide by 12cm long and is folded slightly to provide for its assembly into the roof as a whole. Because of their thinness, two layers of panelling are used on the roof. Besides fired clay, thatched grass, woven gum tree leaves, and semi-thick short wood panels are also at times used for roofing.

Between the roofs of the two structures forming the Ruan Galae there is a water gutter, inclined downwards towards the rear of the house, to channel the water flowing off the roof away from the house. Called the hang this gutter is more often than not carved of an entire tree.

A famous symbol of Northern hospitality, the ran nam is yet another integral part of the Raun Galae. This raised platform, usually as high as the railing around the raised floor of house is complete with a mini-roof and shelters one or two clay jars in which drinking water is kept. Complete with a ladle for drinking, the ran nam is a an invitation to all who pass by to rest a while and quench their thirst. Tradition has it that after drinking, one must pour what water is left in the ladle into the dish holding the clay jar as a means of keeping the water in the jar cool for the next passerby.

Agriculture being the backbone of Thailand, most Ruan Galae include a separate structure for rice storage. Called the long khaw, this structure is almost a mini replica of the larger house with its raised floor, balcony railing, and slanted roof. Located in front of and slightly to the side of the house, the long khaw is considered sacred and anyone with the audacity to use it for sleeping or living quarters will be cursed and damned.

Ruan Galae are often built according to the rotation of the earth around the sun, with the width facing east and west and the length (which forms the front and back of the house) facing north and south. The most important ceremony in the house building process is the pak sao huan, in which the most important pillars of the house— sao eak and sao toa respectively— are planted. Neighbours with names pertaining to wealth, money, power, or constancy are invited to place the two pillars in their respective holes. Throughout the life-time of the house, the pillars must be treated with special care by the owner of the house in order to ensure safety and protection from evil.

Though Ruan Galae were plentiful throughout the Lanna kingdom in the past, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find today. Those that do exist are often in poor condition due to the transient qualities of wood. Preservation of genuine Ruan Galae, however, still takes place at such institutions as the Chiang Mai Cultural Center, the Bangkok Siam Association, and Muang Boran in Samut Prakan province. In addition, some modified Ruan Galae may be found throughout villages in Chiang Mai’s surrounding districts, albeit lacking in some of the more traditional elements such as the twin structures, the ham yon, the chan hom, and the kompratoo.

The province of Chiang Mai itself has enacted an antique house preservation program with the purpose of encouraging Chiang Mai to retain some of its individuality in an age where the free flow of technology and information is pushing all peoples towards increasing conformity. With its unassuming, simplicity, functional comforts, and compatibility with Chiang Mai’s environment and climate, Ruan Galae is among the twelve houses which have received awards from this program.

Indeed, with its beautiful capturing of the balance between aesthetics and pragmatism, Ruan Galae is an open history book on the lives of the Lanna people and deserves recognition as an invaluable expression of Chiang Mai’s heritage.

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