About 60 km north of central Bangkok, loosely following the meandering course and near ox-bows of the Chao Phraya river by way of AH1, you’ll come across a left turn 6 km away from the river banks which, in turn, leads you onto a wide, three-lane highway that seems to serve a singular purpose – access to the tiny “town” of Bang Pa-In with its very royal summer inhabitants. One fine Sunday morning, as the sane denizens of Thailand slumbered fitfully with the thermo-needle climbing towards Songkran we hopped in our winning blue truck and cantered at an easy lope north. I will say there’s a fine drive-thru Starbucks en-route.
We arrive at what is clearly as close to a British National Trust property as you’re likely to get. Manicured lawns, soft, sighing breezes, hushed Chinese tourists, clickety-clack military regalia-suited guards. Even the insects were in Sunday best. It was all so…genteel. If there was ever a place that needed a darn good tea-room, then this is it. Cucumber sandwiches, scones and cream teas would fit neatly into the jigsaw of this place.
We slide in, the Diplomat has to don a voraciously multi-hued skirt-wrap out of respect, and hire a golf cart. The thing would do 30kmh if you floored it across one of the white bridges, scattering frugal walkers like nine-pins. I see a grin begin to creep across her usually diplomatic features as she weighs up the mischievous value.
Turns out the Royal Palace dates back to the 17th century when King Prasat Thong constructed it on an island in the Chao Phraya river. Legend has his father, King Ekathotsarot, being ‘shipwrecked’ on the islet, rescued by a friendly woman and having a son by her. Said son became King and founded Wat Chumpon Nikayaram, subsequently adding ponds and a palace. Like all these buildings of the period, the tumultuous history of Siam means the place had fallen into disrepair by 1807, neglected and overgrown.
King Rama IV revived it in the latter half of the nineteenth century, constructing a neo-gothic residence. The present day palace dates from 1872-1899 and is used to this day as a residence for royal receptions and banquets.
The Diplomat takes us round at breakneck speed, primarily to create a breeze as the temperature soars over 40C in the sunshine. Joshua and Isla are drinking litres of juice and water. We pull a pseudo-180 on screeching tyres at Ho Hem Monthian Thewat – a small stone structure as you can see – designed akin to a Khmer-style prasat circa 1880 which is dedicated to King Prasat Thong. His name literally means “King of the Golden Palace”.
Beyond we drive past the nine-chambered house – Saphakhan Ratchaprayun – and gaze at the Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-art perched on its white stage in the middle of a pond. The Tevaraj-Kantai Gate is out of reach of the Diplomat and her buggy but we can see it across a rectilinear waterway. Further on is Ho Withun Thasana – a sages lookout (observatory) built for King Chulalongkorn in 1881 so he could survey the land all around.
Two buildings really stand out. The first is the Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun, a two storied mansion built in 1889. At the time Prince Ookkhtomsky (of Russia, visiting with Tsar Nicholas II) observed:
It is really a palace or romance, with ornamented tiled floors, massive ebony furniture, gold, silver, and porcelain freely used for decorative purposes, and delicate fretwork on the columns and on the windows. Evidently we have before us the principal sight of Bang Pa-In. The Emperor of China himself can scarcely have a palace much finer than this.
The prince is right. The garniture is impressive. Isla loves it as you can see…
…it IS spectacular. A lot of historic venues in Thailand I’ve been to have a careworn, faded look about them. Their curators have pride in their charges’ appearance but the tramp of tourist feet erodes the shiny polish faster than the carers can buff them back to a gleam. Not so here. Lacquer, paint, wash, polish, jewels, threads, silks, matting, wood….everything is as it was when the place was first built so I have to agree with Prince Ookhtomsky.
The other place that Joshua likes – because of the deep pile rugs on his 1 yr old battered, crawling knees – is the Phra Thinang Warophat Phimam. Neo-classical in style – we get to it by crossing a waterway over a bridge that wouldn’t be amiss on the Seine with its classical Greek statues nodding to Drama, Harvest and other motifs I forget – it has an audience chamber resplendent with a throne. The walls have memorable scenes from Thai history. We can only see four (huge) rooms as the rest is still in private use, my favourite has to be what I’ll call the “Mint Room”, given its gold, black and pale green themes. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted and whilst that’s hardly ever enforced in most Thai cultural sites, it is here. I am hoping to buy a guidebook to the place for my coffee table but the “gift shop” is another excuse to flog local machine made “crafts”. I do think the Thai miss a massive trick here at their cultural sites. Tourists would definitely buy higher end mementos – jewelry, books, textiles, kids toys – rather than the same old items you can see on most streets in Bangkok. So, the “Mint Room” will have to be a memory only…but I urge others to go see. It’s worth the 100Baht entrance fee. (I had to pinch some photos of both this and Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun off the web – thanks to whomever took them)
There are other gardens, marble memorials, gazebos and houses on the grounds. Each dedicated or given over to a member of the Royal family. The Inner Palace connects to the Outer Palace by way of a louvered wall; there is a set of fine early twentieth century carriages sourced from England, these would be drawn by Singaporean-bred horses.
What’s apparent as we walk around is the Western influence on the architecture. Of course the crowning piece is the Chinese-style Mansion, but everything else is a fusion of Thai and Western design.
All in all, it’s a good place to go. Your children will love the golf-cart aspect, the history, culture, architecture are astoundingly beautiful. It just lacks a fine visitor centre to make it a top ten Bangkok tourist attraction. You can also get here with a half day languid cruise up the river and I can attest a cycle ride is also possible – three casual hours along the river, two if you hurtle up the AH1. Our drive? 30 minutes. Simples, as a certain Meerkat might say.
Go take a look…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?