King Rama V is probably the most revered and well known of
all the Chakri Kings. Coronated as HRH King Chulalongkorn
on 1 October 1868, he reigned for 42 years and during this
time Siam, the ancient Kingdom of Thailand, witnessed great
King Rama V is regarded as the "Father of Modern Thailand".
He pursued a policy of modernizing the country and accomplished
prolific advancement in the areas of science, architecture
and diplomacy. He employed a number of Europeans to oversee
projects such as the construction of the first railway in
Thailand, the introduction of Western fashion for men and
women, the formation of the modern Thai army and perhaps most
importantly, he managed to cultivate the idea of Siam as a
buffer state between the European colonies in S.E.Asia. He
sacrificed a little border territory and his reward was that
Siam was never colonized. Rama V was the first King of Thailand
to travel abroad and through his great diplomacy skills he
formed bonds of friendship with various European royal families
which still continue today.
Like all Thai kings, Rama V lived in the Grand Palace, Pharachuwang;
a building of such magnificence that it must be seen to be
believed. However, because of his frequent travels and international
liaising the King became enthralled with western architecture
and this passion accounts for the ecclectic marvels in which
Located about sixteen kilometres down the road from Ayutthaya,
Bang Pa-In Palace was built as an out-of-town palace and is
known as the jewel in the treasure chest of Thailand's
royal buildings. This palace is in some ways a reflection
of the King's character and obviously reflects his international
exposure. As soon as you walk through the gates you are met
with English country manor grounds that roll around lakes,
follies and tree-lined horse-and-carriage driveways. The buildings
themselves are, to say the least, eclectic; they are scattered
about the walled-in gardens and include a central palace that
is now Georgian in design. This recently replaced the old
palace, which was reportedly a Swiss chalet-style wooden construction
that burned down.
Only a few buildings are open to the public and one is the
Chinese Wehat Chamrum Palace. Presented as a gift from China,
it is constructed of wood and is a brilliant and colourful
edifice; a blaze of red and gold, adorned throughout with
ancient Chinese scripts. The main vestibule can be viewed
through glass walls where mother-of-pearl inlay dark-wood
carved furniture sits on marble floors.
To one side of this is the Withun Thasana building. It resembles
a lighthouse with balconies, a cross between a fairground
attraction and a Moorish steeple. Inside, spiral stairways
lead to checkered black and white marble-floored verandas,
from where one can survey the entire palatial area.
As architecturally fascinating as the palace buildings is
the Wat Niwet Thamaprawat, which is positioned opposite the
Palace on an island between the two banks of the river Chao
Phraya. Reached by cable cars that hoist you across the river,
operated by the monastery's monks, this temple has, for
Thailand, a truly unique building. Within the Wat compound
is a perfect reproduction of a gothic stone church, complete
with slate steeple, buttresses and stained-glass leaded windows.
Entering the arched doorway a Christian will be thrown into
confusion, for instead of being greeted by the normal lines
of wooden pews, pulpit and altar the church is empty except
for a simple shrine to Buddha. Nuns sit against the walls
dressed in traditional white garb offering lucky gifts to
visitors and notes for their future success.
The Palace is very well-preserved and benefits from recent
and careful renovations. The drive there is not arduous if
you know the way, but for the uninitiated it may be wiser
to book a tour. The Chao Phraya River Express Boat Company
runs a boat trip every Sunday from Tha Maharat in Bangkok
to the palace, stopping off at a few other places along the
way. Alternatively, you could take a bus from the Northern
bus terminal or even go on an organised minibus tour.
Bang Pa-In is an intriguing historical site but it is not
the only dwelling that was graced with King Rama V's majesty.
Vimanmek Mansion was originally named the Mantatrattanarojana
Palace and was built in the same year as Rama V's accession
to the throne in 1868 on Si Chang Island. HRH Prince Naris
disassembled the palace and reassembled it at its present
site, within the Suan Dusit palace grounds. It became the
royal residence of H.M. King Chulalongkorn from 1901 to 1906.
The "L' shaped royal building was commissioned
in a Victorian colonial design and resembles the most enormous
of cricket pavilions. Once conceived the structure reportedly
took builders only nineteen months to complete, only one month
more than it took to build the architect's model. What
makes it very special in today's tourist itineraries
of national relics from Monarchies of yesteryear is that Vimanmek
is the largest golden teak wood building in the world.
The mansion is entirely constructed from teak wood; even
the polished floors use teak wooden pegs, instead of nails,
to hold the boards in place. It was originally divided into
a number of apartments named after the colour of their painted
wooden walls that were in blue, green, peach, pink and ivory.
According to the tour guides, 72 rooms make up the building,
although other authoritative guidebooks quote 81. The exact
number is hard to determine for the casual visitor as only
30 or so of them are open to the public at any one time. Renovation
is obviously an endless task for the legions of workers.
Even with limited access, the full grandeur of the structure
is apparent with its maze of corridors, spiral and grand staircases
and numerous inter-connecting chambers. In the past, this
labyrinth witnessed hordes of servants, royalty and high-ranking
officials glided about the royal corridors in hushed silence.
Strict rules defined who could enter certain parts of the
building, which staircase one could use and similar protocol
restrictions, which must have made it an exercise in diplomacy
just moving from room to room.
The original palace boasted one of Thailand's first
ever elevators that took royalty from the first to fourth
floors. This was more a status symbol than a technological
achievement, as servants cranked the lift manually. However,
the newly installed mansion benefited from modern science
with electric lighting. This was provided from a private generator
not from a national grid as Thailand did not generally have
electricity at that time. If you look carefully while on a
tour of the building you can still see the Victorian rosebud
To keep the building cool, the ceilings are of a substantial
height and merge at the top with walls that end in elaborate
fretwork panels, allowing air to circulate. The many hundreds
of windows required for ventilation are shielded with three-quarter-length
blinds that give the palace a distinctly fairytale look. Today
the windows and carved screens are covered by less than aesthetically
pleasing glass and perspex so that the building can be air-conditioned.
This is for the comfort of the throngs of tourists who jostle
and crane at the many fine objects of art displayed in cordoned
off rooms and antechambers. While the items on view are all
elegant pieces, most are gifts of state in glassware, chinaware
and porcelain and do little to colour the picture of the past.
More interesting are the photographs taken by King Rama V,
some sadly faded by sunlight, but still clear enough to give
some insight into what royal life must have been like during
Thailand's transition into the modern world.
Following the death of King Chulalongkorn in 1910, Vimanmek
remained empty until 1982 when it was reopened as a national
attraction. Today it is remarkably intact and it can still
offer a glimpse into the true life of an Asian King. Visitors
can take English language tours for about BHT 50. These tours
run throughout the day, but if you make a visit, as with all
royal and religious sites in Thailand, you must dress respectfully,
which means no shorts or sleeveless shirts.