…meanwhile, back at the Bangkok ranch…it’s time to complete my tour of the National Museum in Bangkok. If you recall, I was leaving the Sivamokhaphiman hall with its history of Siam from prehistory to present day and sauntering out into the beating sunlight. I’ve noticed there is a real dark to light transition here in Thailand. Interior places are dark to encourage coolness. Of course, a museum is going to have controlled lighting, temperature and humidity given the need to preserve artifacts; yet it is marked here. The threshold of light can disturb the retinas for a few seconds, you need time to adjust, to focus.
Having done this I turned left, across the face of the previous building towards a building that may, originally, have been intended to be a Wat, but now is a vast atrium entrance-way to a rectilinear building constructed around two narrow open air courtyards. Before we go in there, to the left is a renovated traditional Thai house. Four steps up into the burnished teak wooden abode – Tam Nak Deang – and you are in a bedroom as you can see. Off it is an antechamber with the usual glass cabinet presentations of bowls, on the outside is a very tiny room housing what looked like a bronze bathing pot – sized for one.
Back outside there is a chapel – Buddhaisawan – just before the next stop on the Museum tour. A quick removal of shoes, a hushed entrance and I was able to go around the central Buddha and examine the rear part of the space. Of course, in all these Wat the primary focus is the Buddha. Normally huge, golden, with a glittering array of ornament around them, it is easy to focus on them and give a cursory glance at the wall murals. But I find those walls the most fascinating because they all tell a story. When you go around Western Museums everything is in marble white or pottery brown/red. Here there is less a state of “whitewash”. Possibly because the walls are younger, but the point is that the paints, the colours that breathe vibrancy into the walls remains. I’ve come to realise that the colours on statues, on walls is a valuable tool to understanding the story therein. That is, unfortunately, lost in many Western Museums, but not here. So, if you ever go into a Wat, I encourage you to spend time looking at the pictorial history on the walls. It’s easy to get lost in them.
Having just said all that…to your left’s a fascinating example of a plain stone metope. Fairly unique of my experience of Thai pictorial history – to date – to find this kind of thing. I saw more in the Jakarta Museum Nasionale. Anyway, I shuffled off swiftly as I noted I was being caught by three sunburned twenty-something Americans, resplendent in their Khao San McHammer pants, braided hair, and glittering array of beads dangling from both neck and wrists. I do find that attire a case of:
<Befuddled young westerner> “Isn’t this what all people in Thailand wear?!”
<Less befuddled Thai resident> “Er, not really. Bit like the fact that all Italians don’t wear togas to parties, do they now? Still, so long as you’re happy.”
I blame….well, no one really.
I stepped over the door jamb, into the vast coolness of the next building, as you can see. At the far end (go on, click on the picture and have a zoom in) is the Bussabok Kroen throne. Crafted during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809), it is a carved wood throne, overlaid with gold leaves, decorated with polychrome glass. It was used for both State occasions and legal hearings. During the time of King Rama III (1824-1851), Prince Maha Sakdiphonsep had a hall built around it – Issarawinitchai. Restored about ten years ago, the base of the throne is square with a pyramid roof supported by pillars. Each of the three levels of the base has carved demons, garudas and deities. The sides of the base were extended to allow multi-tiered shades which were decorated in wooden flames.
It sits there in regal solemnity, the only object on display in the hall, a palpable sense of authority getting stronger with every step you take towards it. Once you reach the throne you are directed to the left through a small archway and into the building behind with its double courtyard. This building is on two levels but the entire upper level seemed to be under renovation. It was here I encountered a swarm of school children on a cultural day out.
I think there were about twenty rooms on the ground floor. Each aged, each kept clean against the onset of decay, each housing large objects. Palanquins sat along side pikes. Swords propped against masks. Pottery nudging votive offerings. There were vast wooden frames, extremely heavy statues; in one a pulpit, in another ornate textiles, in yet another exquisite vases. Oddly, yet fascinatingly, I came across a wall chart listing all the Chinese dynasties. Whilst I am proud to say I can reel off all the monarchs of England/United Kingdom from 1066-present day, this was new and I spent more time studying that than anything else. Here are some examples of what I saw:
Moving swiftly around, pausing in the courtyards for a couple of “selfie shots” (just to prove I’d been there) – you can see a view of the courtyard to the right. I eventually emerged on one side and started tracking the perimeter of the site, moving anti-clockwise. Here it was quiet, the odd clarion call of a Thai lady suggesting people take lunch, a stray cat lying indolently in the shade.
I saw some steps and cautiously ventured up them to find Issaretracha Hall which was built in the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868). The style was distinctly European. Moving onwards I located the first of a pair of buildings. Seventies in style – that wide staircase, sterile flooring, slightly blue-washed walls – there were two floors. These housed Buddha and other relics from Ayutthaya and Bangkok. On the opposite side of the grounds was an identical building, this time dealing with more images of Buddha and the influences of the Khmer and Javanese cultures on Thai history. compared to the first part of the Museum in this blog they were more advanced in their lighting, presentation and preservation techniques. But it could do with an update, be made more digital.
Here’s some photos:
I’d completed my loop, emerged to find the three young Americans clicking away behind cameras, whilst meandering around the site with no obvious plan in mind, which is totally fine. It was a hot day, not the kind to be on a forced march itinerary. The gift shop isn’t bad at all. Almost to the level of a National Trust place (most in Thailand are not) so you could get an eclectic mix of books, paraphernalia, souvenirs, and food/drink as you so wished. I glanced, grabbed some nam plow, hopped aback on my bike and headed out into the bustle of the Thai traffic.
Oh, lastly, The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00pm. Wouldn’t want you to turn up on the wrong day and be disappointed. You can get there either by taxi to Sanam Luam Park or ferry to Phra Chan Pier, by Thammasat University. If you’d like a layout of the grounds and buildings you can find it here: http://www.bangkoksite.com/nationalmuseum/MuseumMap.htm
Is this what diplomacy is all about?