Vimanmek Mansion, Bangkok Thailand
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Vimanmek Mansion

 The Royal Gem of Palaces

Being the King of Thailand at the turn of the 19th century must have been a fine experience. The entire resources of the realm were at the disposal of a monarch unconstrained by a republic. At the same time, the King could avail himself of modern science and engineering from Europe, the World's economic powerhouse of that era and home of his many allies.

One beautiful consequence of having an absolute Thai monarchy in modern times is still to be seen in the many mansions within the Suan Dusit palace grounds off the U Thing Nai road, between Si Ayuthya and Ratwithi roads and across from the western side of the Dusit zoo in Bangkok. One of these mansions, now named Vimanmek, was originally the Mantatrattanarojana Palace built in 1868 on Si Chang Island. HRH Prince Naris disassembled the palace and reassembled it at the present site. It then became the royal residence of H.M. King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V, 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, a mere 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.

Vimanmek mansion is entirely made from teak wood; even the polished floors use 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 gliding about the royal corridors in hushed silence. Strict rules defined who could enter which part of the building, use which staircase and so on, which must have made it an exercise in protocol 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. However, the newly installed mansion benefited from modern science with electric lighting. This was not provided from a national grid, Thailand did not then have electricity generally, but rather from a private generator. If you look carefully while on a tour of the building you can still see the Victorian rosebud light switches.

To keep the building cool, the ceilings are of a substantial height and join at the top with walls that end in elaborate fretwork panels allowing air to circulate while also keeping bugs at bay. The many hundreds of windows required for ventilation are shielded with three-quarter-length blinds that afford 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 insights 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 despite the surrounding commercial atmosphere, it can still afford 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.


- June Issue, 2002

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