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
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
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.