Architectural splendour

For the first time in decades, an old palace-turned-central bank museum has attracted scores of visitors since its opening to individuals

Every Saturday morning, hundreds of people form a long queue for a visit to Bang Khun Phrom Palace. Once the home of Marshal-Admiral Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand of Nagor Svarga (1881-1944) and now the Bank of Thailand Museum, the handsome residence has become a new attraction that draws huge interest of cultural tourists, local and international. Some of the visitors are late to the queue and have to return on another Saturday, since only 400 tickets are issued each day. From last month until the end of this year, the palace, normally open to group visits only, welcomes the public on an individual basis for the first time in decades.

Nestled on a large land plot in the Thewet area on the east bank of Chao Phraya River, Bang Khun Phrom Palace is rich in history, architecture and art, particularly famous for its exquisite stucco art and baroque, rococo and German art nouveau decoration.

"The Bank of Thailand is in charge not only of national monetary affairs but we also take care of conserving national heritage," Panuwat Putpruek, educator of the Bank of Thailand Museum, said. "Bang Khun Phrom palace also serves as a centre of knowledge and learning about the work of the 75-year-old central bank."


The palace comprises Tamnak Yai, the mansion of Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand (who was King Chulalongkorn's 33rd son) and Tamnak Somdej, the mansion for the prince's mother, Queen Sukhumala Marasri. Tamnak Yai is in the Neo-German Baroque and rococo styles with splendid stucco art while Tamnak Somdej is in the German Art Nouveau fashion.

Designed by German architect Carl Sandreckzki and Italian architects Mario Tamagno and Paolo Remedi, Tamnak Yai was constructed during 1901-1906 on King Chulalongkorn's command. It has a two-tiered roof in the Mansart shape and dormers on the lower layer of the roof for better ventilation and light in the attics. The roofs of both mansions are made of diamond-shaped tiles, known as krabuang wao.

The main staircase of Tamnak Yai. Photos and video: Jetjaras Na Ranong

Tamnak Yai is outstanding for sporting sublime stucco art on its reliefs, walls and the square, oval and round-shaped windows. The curvy lines of the roof and exterior eastern walls and certain stucco motifs reflect the influence of baroque and rococo art. The main marble staircase is acclaimed as one of Bangkok's most beautiful stairways. Stucco design on the tops of the columns and other parts above the columns is baroque art. The decoration of the ceiling above the main staircase mixes S- and C-curved and shell motifs that were popular during the baroque and rococo periods.

The Pink Room is the finest room of Tamnak Yai. Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand welcomed kings and foreign dignitaries in this room. King Rama VI announced his engagement to a princess here. For years until today, the room is reserved to welcome numerous monarchs and country leaders. Among the royal visitors here was Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.

The Pink Room's stucco decoration around the oval-shaped light spaces above the doors and on the walls, curvy lines, the tops of the columns, gold-adorned stucco and motifs on the carved wooden door panels resemble baroque architecture. Motifs on the ceiling are neoclassical art. The portraits of the prince, his royal parents, sister, aunt and consort are also highlights. The room is mostly in the pink and green shades according to the colours of the birthdays of the prince's father and the prince respectively.

Adjacent to the Pink Room is the Blue Room, now in the green shade. The prince's consort Princess (Mom Chao) Prasongsom Paribatra received her guests here. Currently, this chamber is full of old photos of royal visitors, including King Rama VIII and King Rama IX.

Nearby is the Wiwatthachai Jayant Room. It used to be the bedroom of the prince's consort and later the office of 10 former central bank governors, including Prince Wiwatthanachai Jayant, the first governor.

Opposite the Blue Room to the west is the Paribatra Room formerly called the "Ma Son" or "Kim Tueng" Room since the palace owner kept his collections of Chinese blue and white porcelains and the Chinese-style paintings of horses -- his favourite animal. At present, the room is an exhibition room on the life and work of the prince.

"The Ma Son Room, or Paribatra Room, tells stories of the chao fah [highest-ranked princes] of administration. The prince worked from the late years of King Rama V to the reign of King Rama VII. His last position was a regent," Panuwat, the museum's educator, said.

Bang Khun Phrom Palace. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand was the chief-of-staff of the Royal Thai Army, commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy, Naval Minister, Army Minister, Defence Minister, Interior Minister, Privy Councillor, Supreme Councillor and Regent of Siam.

He was distinguished in numerous aspects, especially military, administration, art and music. He composed 73 traditional Thai and modern songs, including Khaek Mon Bangkhunphrom, March Paribatra and Maharuek, and wrote the country's first book on orchids.

The prince once said: "If I had had choices, I would have chosen to study music and languages. But, I had not, as I must serve the country."

Throughout the 30 years of the prince's stay here, the palace was called Bang Khun Phrom University thanks to the gatherings of artists and masters in various fields, especially music, ancient Chinese ceramics and a kind of ornamental trees called mai dud in Thai, and orchid plants that the prince loved.

On June 24, 1932, a group of revolutionists stormed into his palace to hold the prince hostage since he was a highly respected and powerful figure of Siam. After the revolution, the prince went into exile in Bandung, Indonesia, where he enjoyed gardening and music until his death in 1944.

The palace was turned into government offices after the revolution that ended absolute monarchy and became the headquarters of the central bank in 1945 and the abode of the Bank of Thailand Museum in 1992, with exhibitions on the prince's life, the history of the central bank and Thai and foreign currencies.

In the Paribatra Room, visitors will be able to see the wax statue of the prince in the marshal-admiral's uniform. Must-sees are the prince's personal belongings, including his clothes, hats, pipes, letters, books and old photos, models of a warplane and a warship built on the prince's command as well as the rare Chakri porcelain tea sets and a set of Chinese blue and white ceramics with King Rama V's abbreviated name Jor Por Ror.

On the way from the Paribatra Room to the northern wing of Tamnak Yai to the exhibition room on the history and work of the Bank of Thailand, visitors will see Tamnak Somdej of which entry is not allowed for outsiders since it is a workplace of central bank employees.

Built on the prince's command for his mother seven years after the opening of Tamnak Yai, Tamnak Somdej was designed in the German art nouveau fashion by German architect and engineer Karl Dohring. Tamnak Somdej has a high ceiling in the main hall, long staircases linking parts of the building together, mosaic decorations and finely carved wood. The highlight is a fresco, created by Italian artist Carlo Rigoli, whose pieces can also be found in the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.

In the exhibition room on the central bank, visitors will be able to see the reproduction of a gold palace key as well as the signatures of His Majesty the late King Rama IX and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit who opened the Bank of Thailand Museum on Jan 9, 1993. The exhibit also portrays the life and work of Puey Ungphakorn, a renowned economist and former central bank governor recognised by Unesco for his ethics.

Before bidding farewell to Bang Khun Phrom Palace, visitors should not miss the opportunity to spend some time cherishing the aesthetics of the exterior of both royal mansions. A stroll to the palace's main gate, which is hailed as Thailand's most beautiful stucco entrance, is a must-do; otherwise, you have not really been to this palace.


The public is welcome to walk in to visit the Bank of Thailand Museum on Saturdays at 10.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 2.30pm (about 80 persons per session). Only pre-arranged groups of at least 20 can make visits on weekdays from 9.00am to 4pm. Advance booking of at least one month for group visits is required via 02-283-5286 or 02-283-6723. Admission is free. The museum is closed on Sundays and public holidays. Photography is prohibited inside the palace buildings. Visit bot.or.th for more information.

The main staircase of Tamnak Yai. Photos and video: Jetjaras Na Ranong

The Pink Room.

The main staircase of Tamnak Yai. Photos and video: Jetjaras Na Ranong

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer