The ho trai is the library of a Buddhist scripture library in Thailand. It is always included as part of a larger ensemble of buildings in a Buddhist monastery. Its primary function is to store the sacred books or palm-leaf manuscripts of the monastery. In the past, they were often built on stilts above ponds, as this would help to protect the manuscripts from rats, insects and other vermin.
In Northern Thailand- the territory of the former kingdom of Lanna- ho trai on stilts are less common than they seem to be in Central Thailand. Here the most common form of ho trai is a narrow two-storey structure with a brick and mortar base and a wooden superstructure. While they are rarely the focus of much attention in travel writing, some of them are aesthetically impressive buildings which a history or architecture buff might get some enjoyment from. On a recent trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, we encountered a number of historic ho trai. This article will cover a couple of notable examples from Chiang Mai and a later article will focus on the examples we encountered in Lamphun, just to the south.
If you were only going to see one ho trai on a trip to Northern Thailand, the obvious choice would be the one on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. A fine example of Lanna architecture, the library dates back to the fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest monuments in Chiang Mai. It is built on a high stone base, which would have put its sacred manuscripts safe above the periodic flooding of the Ping River. Apart from its functionality, the base of the monument is a thing of considerable beauty, with beautiful, stucco figurines of devata, a kind of heavenly being. The devata on this ho trai are female, with elegant proportions and the elaborate head-dresses and garments associated with royalty. The ones on the corner of the base are performing the wai, the prayer-like Thai greeting, which is performed with palms pressed together. The base is also noteworthy for its long, narrow staircase which is flanked by a pair of guardian figures. The upper story is made from timber, with a multi-tiered, Lanna-style roof. This upper section is decorated with glass mosaics and gold lacquerwork, which greatly adds to its charm.
For a point of contrast, you could also check out the simpler ho trai on the grounds of Wat Chiang Man, which is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This ho trai is set over a pond, which would help to deter termites and other unwanted pests. The wooden structure reflects in the waters of the pond below, not only protecting its treasures but enhancing the aesthetics of the scene. The structure itself has a simple fretwork balcony but a subdued elegance is achieved through the foliate gold lacquerwork which adorns the front of the building. The roof, in the Lanna style, features steeply upturned chofah decorations. It appears this structure is much more recent than the one at Wat Phra Singh, but it still offers a modicum of old Lanna charm.