Bangkok Stories and Tips

The National Museum - Royal portraits, serpents and chariots

You will never see so much respect in the world as the Thai's have for their royal family. The family is so revered that to insult it is a criminal offence and the positioning of a portrait of the King in a Bangkok office is a contentious debate. They still command alot of respect from the Thai populace. I met a British couple in Chiang Mai who had actually seen the royal family, they could not gain access to Wat Phraeo Kao as the King was visiting. They actually saw him leave in his official car and were much more impressed seeing him then they were with seeing their own royal family. Perhaps it is the veneration the Thai's have for him which wins people over.

There's plenty on the Thai royal family in the National Museum. This collection of antiquities is very good and slap bang in the tourist mecca of Sanam Luang and a few hundred feet from the bedlam of the Khao San Road. It houses the chief artistic treasures of Thailand and is housed in a large teak building built in the traditional Thai style. It is exceptionally popular with Thai and foreign visitors and if you want a dose of culture in this fast buzzy city then this place is for you.

I visited on my last day in Bangkok to kill time before I caught my bus to the airport. I had unwisely got very burn't on the beaches of Phuket and at that point could not wear my shoulderbag due to singed shoulders and chest. The idea was to keep out of the sun on the last day as my face was peeling and looked exceptionally red, and the fan-coolled rooms of the museum would protect me from the sun and I would learn more about Thailand at the same time. And did I learn? - yes I did - I learn't the names of the last Khmer Emperor's, I learn't what masks depicting the Ramakien looked like and that only the medieval Thai royal family had the luxury of an indoor toilet and bathroom.

The Museum stands on the western side of Sanam Luang. Next to it and to the north is the National Theatre and Gallery as well as the Chakrabongse Road leading to the Khao San Road. Traffic hurtles onto the Sanam Luang from the speeding Ratchadamnon Road in the northeast of the square and most famously the golden spires, gaudy colour and curled eaves of the Grand Palace adjoin the southern part of the square. To get there take a tuk-tuk or air-conditioned taxi to Sanam Luang, or waterbus to Tha Maharat or Tha Chang piers. The walk from the Khao San Road can be very quick but you may dice with death under the Prao Pinklao bridge or choke to death due to bus exhaust on the western side of Sanam Luang. Sanam Luang is also a good place for festivals and you may see the famous Thai 'kite-fighting' which goes on there.

The Museum itself costs only 40 baht and is open from 9.00am to 4.00pm. You are given a free map and guide but I must stress this is not a high-tech museum, in fact I suspect the museum has not been updated in decades. It is beautifully laid out in a number of viharn's built to resemble the classic Thai monastery or Wat. Spacious buildings are interspersed by green lawns and overlooked by palm trees. And of course it contains the mandatory platoon of Thai schoolchildren trooping through who are more interested in the farang's (foreigners) then the exhibts.

The first section concentrates on Thai history and the kingdom of the Thais which appeared in about 900AD. The first great cities were Sukhothai and Ayutthaya (see other entry) whose citizens numbered over one million people each. There were also maps showing the ancient trade routes stretching from Siam to Western Europe. Then it moved on to a very respectful history of the Thai monarch's and the fan-coolled galleries showed portraits of King Chulalongkorn and King Ananda. There were photo's of the current King - Bhumibol and his Queen Sirikit and a winchester gun used by King Rama V given by Theodore Roosevelt.

Alot of the museum was given over to mannequins dressed in Thai military dress and there were models and pictures of ancient Ayutthaya and it's royal elephants. Outside in the green grounds there was 'The Red House', a traditional mohoghany Thai house built on stilts. To enter you had to remove your boots and step delicately on the teak floor. The cooller air was most welcome and the traditional furnishings and carvings were very impressive. In one of the outer buildings was the main collection. This was a tumble of swords, statues, chariots ceramics, furniture and gigantic royal elephant howdah's. The best exhibts were definitely the royal funeral chariots - fronted by the writhing heads of twenty serpents covered in gold leaf.

If you need a bit of peace and contemplation after the National Museum then cross Sanam Luang to the Luak Muang shrine. The pillar is Bangkok's own personal shrine and is a green garden with pond and gazebo. Tens of worshippers were burning incense or praying in quiet contemplation. Even in the middle of busy Bangkok everywhere I go smiles and polite interest greets me. This is a city with a big heart.

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