In the Northern Thai city of Phrae, David Whitley finally discovers away to wander around the wats without being bored

When travelling in Europe, I always tend to skip through the guide book when it starts reeling off lists of churches. Unless the church is truly spectacular, I’m likely to find it monstrously uninteresting. Any city where the only things listed are churches can happily be skipped.

It’s the same thing in South-East Asia. Unless you really, really like temples, once you’ve seen a few, you really don’t need to see any more. Yes, they may all be done in different styles, they may all have different intricate carvings, but if all you’re doing every day is looking around temples because you feel you ought to, then something has gone badly wrong.

South-East Asia’s guilty secret, of course, is that in many towns and cities there is very little to see other than temples. The region simply doesn’t have the wealth of museums and other obvious tourist attractions that the likes of the US and Europe have.

However, just because the only things listed are temples, it doesn’t mean that you have to go and trawl round them all out of a perverse sense of duty. If going round temples bores you, there’s a high chance that you’re going to feel bored going round those temples.
Temple fatigue, wat weariness, call it what you will – you’d really have to be into your south-east Asian religious architecture to not get tired of traipsing round.

I’m a shocker for it. I tend to have no interest in even the most spectacular temples. Give me more than one and I’m yawning. They can be genuinely amazing on a global scale, but it doesn’t take long for them to send me borderline comatose.

But in Phrae, I found the solution. Phrae isn’t really on Thailand’s tourist trail. It’s a bit of a pain in the nuts to get to, you’ll struggle to find any cafés selling banana pancakes, and when you’re wandering around, it’s fairly obvious that you’re the only Western visitor in town.

I’d picked Phrae as a break in the journey on the way to Chiang Rai. It looked amiable enough, and its role as the old centre of Thailand’s teak industry intrigued me. Throw in city walls, a bit of grown-over jungle greenery and some old wooden buildings, and it seemed like an excellent place to mooch around for a day.

But during that mooching, I found myself doing what I thought I’d avoid: I started wandering into the wats. There are more than enough of them in Phrae, some playing the old card, others being made almost entirely of teak or having unusual Buddhas.
To my complete surprise, I found myself genuinely enjoying the experience. I’d take my shoes off, wander in without much prior knowledge of what I was looking at and focus on something I found interesting. That might be the brick stupa at Wat Luang, the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Non or the gorgeous gold patterns on the window shutters at Wat With A Very Long Name (Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang to the connoisseurs.

But the key thing was that there was no pressure. I didn’t have to be in and out within a certain timeframe, I didn’t have any absolute must-sees to tick off. More importantly, I didn’t have anyone else to battle through. Phrae’s temples are lovely and historic, but they don’t get the crowds because it’s off the usual trail. My sole encounter inside one of the temples all afternoon was a monk.

All of this meant that I could wander in and out as I pleased, deciding what I did like and what I didn’t like with impunity. No timescale, no orders to appreciate anything in particular, no-one to get in the way. And, that way, trawling round the temples wasn’t tiresome – it was a genuine pleasure.