On Saturday, I visited Phya Thai Palace (point B on map below), which is located about 5 miles north of the apartment (point A) near the Victory Monument. The former palace was at one point a luxury hotel and is now part of Phramongkutklao Hospital. Tours are only available on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and I was the only farang in the afternoon tour that was given entirely in Thai. While I understood none of the spoken details, I was provided with an English-language pamphlet and the woman giving the tour always had a few words of English for me so that I could understand what the rooms were that we were seeing.
In the early 1900s, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) bought 40 acres of farm land on the Samsen Canal in an area called Thung Phya Thai. Although just 4 miles from the Royal Palace (point C), at the time this area was highly agricultural and on the outskirts of Bangkok. Rama V enjoyed relaxing at his farm and he used it to experiment with rice farming and with raising chickens. In 1909, he had a royal residence built on this land and he frequently stayed here until his death in 1910 at the age of 57.
After Rama V’s death, his widow (and half-sister, Queen Saovabha, then the Queen Mother) moved to Phya Thai. She lived there with an entourage of 150 people until her death in 1919. After his mother’s death, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) had most of the buildings demolished and replaced with a European-styled palace that he named Phya Thai Palace. The only major structure that remained from Rama V’s time was Thewarat Sapharom Hall, the former throne hall.
Rama VI died unexpectedly in 1925 at the age of 44. In 1926, his brother and successor, Rama VII, turned the palace into a first-class hotel. At the time, a room would rent for 120 baht per night, the equivalent of about $350 today. The hotel operated until the bloodless revolution in 1932 that changed Siam from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The new government closed the hotel and the Ministry of Defense began using the premises for its medical division.
Thewarat Sapharom Hall
Thewarat Sapharom Hall was constructed in the Byzantine style with a large central dome and a vaulted roof. The hall is one large room with an interior balcony and French doors along the entire perimeter of the structure. King Rama VI was an actor and playwright, so he frequently used this building as a theatre.
Mekhala Ruchi Pavilion
King Rama VI had a two-story wooden house with a ceramic tile roof moved to Phya Thai from the Suan Dusit Palace so that he would have a place to live while planning and supervising the construction of his new palace. The house, called the Mekhala Ruchi Pavilion, was reconstructed on the banks of the Phya Thai canal. While small, the interior is quite luxurious; the bathroom even contains a small pool (or else the world’s largest bathtub).
Main Palace Buildings
Although the palace looks like one huge building as you approach from the front, there are really three separate buildings linked by walkways. The central building is Phiman Chakri Hall, where the King lived, worked, and received visitors. To the west is the Sisuthaniwat Building that served as a residence hall for the female members of the royal family. To the east is Waikun Thepayasathan Hall; originally just a two-story structure, a third floor was later added to provide another bedchamber for the King.
Phiman Chakri Hall
Phiman Chakri Hall is a two-story brick and mortar building that combines Roman and Gothic architecture. Its major architectural feature is a round turret at one corner over which is a steep red conical roof. During my visit, the tour leader took us up a series of tight stairways to get to the room in the top of the tower that contains a number of Buddha images.
The reception area for tourists is on the ground floor as is a large conference room. A grand staircase in the rear of the building leads up to the royal residence on the second floor. There are large, open corridors throughout the building and the rooms are all very European in design.
The second floor contains the King’s bedroom, his writing room and a Main Hall in which he would receive visitors and have informal meals. The ceiling in the King’s bedroom and in the Main Hall were painted by Italian artists. In the Main Hall is a large fireplace over which a portrait of Rama VI hangs. Outside the back entrance of this building is a fountain above which is a sculpture of a dragon, to commemorate the Chinese year in which Rama VI was born.
The Sisuthaniwat Building was the residence for female members of the royal family and the reception are for female guests. The building was constructed in the English Gothic style and it has a small squarish tower. Many of the floral designs that decorated the ceilings and walls of this rooms in this building are still visible although most are quite faded.
Waikun Thepayasathan Hall
Udom Wanapon Building
The Udom Wanapon Building was a late addition to the complex and is much simpler in design. It is located to the east of the Waikun Thepayasathan Hall and these buildings ultimately were connected by a long bridge of reinforced concrete. This building served as the royal residence of Phra Nang Chao Suvadhana and Phra Sutcharit Suda, consorts of Rama VI.
Behind the main palace buildings were several gardens including a Roman Garden that still remains today. The Roman Garden was designed in an Italian Renaissance style and it contains a pavilion with a domed roof supported by Corinthian columns. There are marble steps leading up to the pavilion and two marble statues. On special occasions, the pavilion was used as a stage for open-air performances.
Behind the Roman Garden, King Rama VI created a small city called Dusit Thani, or Heavenly City, that was designed to help instruct people how a city should be run. The city covered a full acre and it was filled with scale-model buildings that were two to three feet tall. The building included houses, palaces, temples, retail stores, banks, offices, hotels, etc. and they were built along roads and miniature canals. The model city had electric power, two daily newspapers, and a weekly magazine. The 200 residents were allowed to self-govern and the city was divided into six administrative zones, there were two political parties, and women were allowed not only to vote but also to hold office. Dusit Thani existed from 1919 until Rama VI’s death in 1925. While most residents took their buildings off the property, several still exist and one was displayed inside the palace.
At the rear of the property are two shrines, one to Tao Hiran Phanasun and the other to Buddha. Tao Hiran Phanasun was a spirit of the forest who was sent to protect Rama VI when he was a crown prince. Once Phya Thai palace was built, Rama VI had a large bronze statue of Tao Hiran Phanasun cast and placed in the north end of the garden next to an ancient banyan tree. The belief is that Tao Hiran Phanasun resides in the statue and that he will forever guard the palace.
On Tao Hiran Phanasun’s right is a small shrine called Phra Maha Nagjina that contains a statue of a seated Buddha encased to his shoulders by a seven-headed naga. The story is that a naga named Mutchalin coiled himself seven times around the Buddha to protect him from wind and icy rain for the seven days and nights that Buddha sat outdoors.
Royal Car Boarding Platform
Directly in front of Phiman Chakri Hall is a former carriage house and waiting hall. This neo-classical building was added after the palace was completed as a place where Rama VI could enter and exit his car. There is a covered walkway between the carriage house and the palace. Today, this building houses a coffee shop, and I enjoyed a refreshing iced latte and a scrumptious slice of Oreo cheesecake after my tour of the palace.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.