Friday, December 17, 2010

Bangkok Museums & Historical Buildings

Bangkok and its surroundings are home to scores of museums catering to various interests, including the history-filled National Museum, modest but sombre war memorials, and the charming, architecturally rich Jim Thompson House Museum located in a cluster of traditional Thai houses. Here is a list of some of the top ones you won’t want to miss when visiting the City of Angels.

Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ayutthaya Historical Park; 84km north of Bangkok; daily 8am-5pm; entrance charge; go by train, bus or boat.
The old capital of Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful city, founded in 1350, was built by 33 Ayutthayan kings over 400 years. Although it is in ruins, impressive remnants of it rich architectural and cultural achievements can still be seen today. As fast as it rose to greatness it collapsed, suffering destruction so complete that it was never rebuilt. Burmese armies had pounded on its doors for centuries before occupying it for a period in the 16th century. Siamese kings then expelled them and reasserted independence. In 1767, however, the Burmese triumphed again. They burned and looted destroying most of the city’s monuments and enslaving, killing and scattering the population. The royal court resettled south near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in what is today’s Bangkok. Even after the Burmese were defeated, Ayutthaya was beyond repair, a fabled city left to crumble into dust. Today, the ruins, collectively known as the Ayutthaya Historical Park, stand on the western half of the island, with the modern city of Ayutthaya on the eastern side.
Death Railway Museum
Kanchanaburi; 130km west of Bangkok;; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge; go by train or bus.
Opened in 2003 and founded by Australian Rod Beattie, the local supervisor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Death Railway Museum at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre has eight galleries that trace the history and recounts the sufferings of the people involved without making biased judgement (of particular note is reference to Hell Fire Pass). It even has a full-scale replica of the original wooden bridge. The Japanese began work on a railway between Thailand and Burma in 1942. For most of its 400-km length, the railway followed the river valley because this allowed its construction to take place simultaneously in different areas. The Japanese forced some 250,000 Asian labourers and 61,000 Allies POWs to construct 260km of rail on the Thai side, leading to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burma border. An estimated 100,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allies POWs lost their lives in 1942-5 from beatings, starvation and disease. Adjacent to the museum is the Allied War Cemetery (daily 7am-6pm; free). Lined up row upon row are the graves of some 7,000 Allies soldiers from Britain, America, Australia, Holland and other countries, representing less than half of the soldiers who perished.

Jim Thompson’s House
Thanon Rama 1;; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge includes compulsory guided tour; BTS: National Stadium.
Standing on the bank of the Khlong Saen Saep canal is Jim Thomson’s well-preserved Thai house. An architect by training, Thompson arrived in Thailand at the end of World War II, serving as a military officer. After the war he returned to Bangkok, where he became interested in the almost extinct art of Thai-silk weaving and was credited for reviving the industry. The compound comprises six teak structures that were transported from Ayutthaya and elsewhere to the silk-weaving enclave of Ban Khrua, just across Khlong Saen Saep, before being reassembled at its current spot in 1959. The structures, making up the various rooms of the house, are painted the red-brown hue characteristic of Thai houses. They feature dramatic outward-sweeping roofs covered with rare tiles designed and fired in Ayutthaya. The entire structure, enveloped by lush tropical greenery, stands elevated a full storey above the ground as protection against flooding. Thompson also made design choices that departed from the conventional Thai style. Instead of laying out the rooms in a cluster, he opted to have them in rows, adjoined to one another or linked by raised corridors. The buildings are now a museum housing Thompson’s collection of Thai artefacts. His assemblage includes precious Buddha images, porcelain, paintings, and finely carved furniture and panels collected from old homes and temples throughout Thailand. Next to the old house is a wooden annex, housing a pond-side cafe with an elegant bar and restaurant, while opposite is the Art Centre, a contemporary gallery that holds regular exhibitions of local and international art and crafts. Before leaving, be sure to stop by and pick up some silk accessories from the branded Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company.

Kamthieng House
Sukhumvit Soi 21;; Tue-Sat 9am-5pm; entrance charge; BTS: Asok
On the grounds of the Siam Society is the Kamthieng House, a small pocket of northern Lanna culture transported to the heart of Bangkok. The 150-year-old wooden home, originally from the banks of Chiang Mai’s Mae Pink River, was reassembled here and is now an ethnological museum presenting audio-visual displays on northern folk culture and daily life. The home is reputedly still inhabited by the ghosts of three former residents.

MR Kukrit Pramoj’s Heritage Home
Soi Phra Phinji; Sat-Sun 10am-5pm; entrance charge; BTS: Chong Nonsi.
Born of royal decent (signified by the title Mom Ratchawong – MR), the late Kukrit Pramoj had a brief stint as prime minister during the disruptive 1970s, but is better remembered as a prolific author and cultural preservationist. His splendid traditional Thai home comprises five single-room stilt buildings that were brought over from separate locations in the central plains over a period of time, beginning from the 1906s. Three of the building are more than a century old and are linked by a raised verandah with an open living space beneath. The buildings are now a museum, enlivened by antique pottery, memorabilia and photos of the famous statesman. The ornate garden adds a sense of serenity.
Museum of Forensic Medicine
Siriraj Hospital, Bangkok, Mon-Sat 8:30am-4:30pm; entrance charge; pier Tha Wang Lang.
Within the Siriraj Hospital complex is the Museum of Forensic Medicine, frequented by medical students. Green arrows point the way from the hospital grounds to the museum, located on the second floor of the Forensic Department. The stomach-churning exhibits are definitely not for the queasy. Mummified corpses of Thailand’s most notorious criminals, deformed foetuses in formaldehyde and a gallery of disturbing post-mortem photographs are among the exhibits here.

Museum of Old Cannons
Thanon Sanam Chai; daily 24 hrs; free; pier Tha Chang.
Across the street from the Lak Muang is this remotely interesting battalion of antique armoury belong to the Museum of Old Cannons. In front of the 19-century European-style former barracks are displays of battle-worn and bulky cat-iron cannons.

National Museum
Thanon Na Phra That;; Wed-Sun 9am-4pm; guided tours Wed and Thu 9:30am; entrance charge; pier Tha Phra Ahtit.
To learn about Thai history and culture, the national Museum, located between Thammasat University and the National Theatre, is a good place to start. Besides housing a vast collection of antiquities from all over Southeast Asia, the museum has an interesting history of its own. Its grounds and some of the principal rooms were part of the former Wang Na (Front Palace) of the king’s second-in-line, the Prince Successor, a feature of the Thai monarchy until 1870. The oldest buildings in the compound date from 1782. These include the splendid Buddhaisawan Chapel, built by the Prince Successor as his private palace of worship within the palace. In contains some of Thailand’s most beautiful and best-preserved murals, depicting 28 scenes from the Buddha’s life. The Sivamokhaphiman Hall, originally an open-sided audience hall, is devoted to Thai history, covering everything from the Sukhothai period to the present Rattanakosin period. Then there is the Prehistoric Gallery, with 5,000-year-old exhibits excavated from the Ban Chiang archaeological site in northern Thailand. Also on site is the Red House (Tamnak Daeng), an old golden-teak dwelling that once belonged to King Rama 1’s elder sister. Built in Ayutthaya style, the house has an ornate wood finish and elegant early Bangkok-style furnishings. The central audience hall of the Front Palace is divided into rooms containing various ethnological exhibits of elephant howdahs, woodcarvings, ceramics, palanquins, khon masks, musical instruments and other treasures. Most exhibits are weak on contextual information, so buy a copy of the museum guidebook or join the excellent guided tour.

National Museum of Royal Barges
Thanon Arun Amarin; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge; go by boat.
On the northern bank of the Khlong Bangkok Noi canal is the national Museum of Royal Barges. Its dry-dock warehouse displays eight vessels from a fleet of over 50 that are rarely put to sail except on auspicious occasions, such as the anniversary of King Bhumibol’s 60th year on the throne in 2006. During the royal barge procession, barges sweep down the Chao Phraya River in formation with stretched nearly 1,200m wide. The 52 gilded barges were manned by 2,200 oars-men while the king watched and entertained visiting royals from 25 nations from the old palace of King Taksin. The current fleet was built during the reign of King Rama 1 and originally numbered over 100. Half of these were destroyed in World War 11.

Prasert Museum
Thanon Krungthep Kreetha; Thur-Sun 10am-3pm only by appointment; entrance charge.
Although little visited, partly because of its rather remote location in the Bangkok suburban of Huamak, this museum makes for a worthwhile excursion. Set within a garden, it displays a Thai antique arts and crafts collection that belongs to the private collector Prasert Vongsakul. The artefacts are contained in several magnificent buildings, all of which are replicas inspired by the region’s architectural classics. These elegant structures include a European-style mansion, a Khmer shrine, and teak houses from Thailand’s northern and central regions.

Royal Elephant Museum
Dusit Park; daily 9:30am-4pm; entrance charge, or free with Grand Palace ticket.
This museum was formerly a stable with three very rare white elephants. It now displays a large model of one of the present king’s prized living pachyderms, tusks and other paraphernalia. The white elephant is regarded as Thailand’s national symbol, and every white elephant found in Thailand rightfully belongs to the king. White elephants look nearly the same as common grey ones. It is only by a complicated process of examining skin colour, hair, eyes and genitalia that an elephant’s albino traits can be determined.

Suan Pakkad Palace
Thanon Si Ayuthaya; daily pam-4pm; entrance charge includes guided tour; BTS: Phayathai.
The name Suan Pakkad, meaning ‘Cabbage Patch’, refers to the ground’s former use as farmland before the palace was constructed in 1952. The former residence of the late Prince and Princess Chumbhot, who were prolific gardeners and art collectors, Suan Pakkad comprises eight traditional teak houses sitting amid a lush garden with a lotus pond. Converted into a museum, the wooden houses display an electric collection of antiques and artefacts, including Buddha images, Khmer statues, paintings, porcelain, musical instruments and ancient pottery from Ban Chiang. At the rear of the garden stands the Lacquer Pavilion, which dates to the mid-17th century. Prince Chumbhot discovered it in a temple near Ayutthaya and restored it as a birthday present for this wife in 1959. Depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, the Ramakien and the vernacular life of the period, the pavilion’s black-and-gold leaf panels are considered masterpieces.

Vimanmek Mansion
Dusit Park;; daily 9:30am-4pm; entrance charge, or free with Grand Palace ticket, with compulsory tours every 30 minutes.
The Vimanmek (meaning ‘Palace in the Clouds’) Mansion is billed as the world’s largest golden-teak building, originally built, without the use of a single nail, in 1868 as a summer house for King Chulalongkorn on the east-coast island of Ko Si Chang. The king ordered the three-storey, 72-room mansion dismantled and reassembled on the Dusit grounds in 1901. The gingerbread fretwork and octagonal tower look more Victorian than period Thai. The king and his large family lived here for only five years, after which it was occupied on and off over the next two decades before being abandoned and later restored for the Bangkok Bicentennial in 1982. Vimanmek offers an interesting glimpse into how the royal family of the day lived. Only 30 of the rooms are open to the public. A highlight is the king’s bedroom, which has a Europeans-style four-poster bed and what was probably Thailand’s first bathtub and flushing toilet. Among the porcelain and hunting trophies are rare find such as the first typewriter with Thai characters.
Wat Phra Kawe Museum and Coins and Decoration Museum
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew;; daily 8:30am-3:30pm; entrance charge for Grand Palace; pier Tha Chang.
The Wat Phra Kaew Museum, located in the Grand Palace complex, showcases seasonal costumes of the Emerald Buddha and a superb collection of small Buddha images made of silver, ivory, crystal and other materials. Next to the ticket office is the Coins and Decorations Museum, which has a collection of coins dating from the 11th century and also royal regalia, decorations and medals made of gold and precious stones.

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