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royal abodes of absolute grandure

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 change.

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 he lived.

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 light switches.

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.

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