Mapping Siam's history

A museum in the heart of Bangkok is a hidden gem waiting for people to explore and learn about the development of cartography in Thailand

Most tourists do not want to miss the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho when in Bangkok. However, very few people know there is a map museum at the heart of Rattanakosin Island.

Behind this European-style building of the Royal Thai Survey Department is a map museum.

Located at the Royal Thai Survey Department on Kalayana Maitri Road near the palace, the museum is called the Therd Phra Kiat Room.

Displaying map-making tools and old maps, it provides a clear picture of the history and development of cartography in Thailand since the reign of King Rama V in the 19th century.

Stepping into this room, visitors will first see a special section showing map-making machines inspected by His Majesty the King during his visit to the department in 1980 and later by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

With help from officers here, visitors can look at maps through mirror stereoscopes which provide three-dimensional images. Group visitors who make advance reservations may be allowed to try using certain survey tools and see how a map is produced and printed.

On view are plane surveying, chain surveying and compass surveying tools, old-style stationery and passometers (step counting tools). Also there are modern machines, such as mirror stereoscopes, aviagraph stereoplotters, colour separation tools and computers.

Through the map-making equipment and old maps, visitors can learn about the evolution of map production in Thailand. The modern science of cartography from the West was introduced to Siam after King Rama V's visit to the Malay peninsula, Java and India in 1873 when the monarch decided to hire Henry Alabaster (1836-84), former deputy British consul to Siam, as his personal adviser. Alabaster suggested the use of modern sciences in developing the nation.

In 1875, the king established the map-making division and Alabaster was nominated to head things up.

His team surveyed certain areas of Bangkok and produced maps for constructing roads and telegraph systems and protecting territorial waters.

The Royal Thai Survey Department was established on Sept 3, 1885, under a royal command. James F. McCarthy, a British expert on map-making, was appointed the director-general and given the title of Captain Phra Wipakphuwadon. This early period of map-making in Siam lasted until 1909. Information was gathered and maps were mostly used by the military to survey and monitor borders and by the Land Department to issue land ownership papers. Maps of particular interest include one for building a telegraph system between Rahaeng and Moulmein and the map of a disputed border area between Pattani in Siam and the Perak River in Malaysia.

The second period lasted from 1909-1952. In 1909, the main objective of map-making was changed and importance was placed on geographical details for military and civil affairs, while the task of surveying land for the issuance of title deeds was transferred to the Agriculture Ministry in 1911. During this period, 40% of the total area of Thailand was surveyed and recorded onto 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps in the traditional way. In 1929, Maj Gen Phraya Sanlawithannithes introduced aerial photography into the process of map-making.

The contemporary period of map-making began in 1952, when Thailand and the United States reached an agreement to produce the L708 set of 1:50,000 maps for the whole country using modern technology. This approach has been applied by the Royal Thai Survey Department until today. In 1963, the department was transferred to the auspices of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. Since then, it has produced all maps for military and government agencies.

The large collection of map-making tools on view in Therd Phra Kiat Room portrays how hard cartographers in the past worked to produce each piece.

According to museum guide Jitrawadee Sribenjarak, before aerial photography, it took a year or more for each team to produce each map. They would have to survey designated areas carefully on foot or on an elephant or horseback, count steps and draw maps in the traditional style. Highlights include a number of century-old maps, including a strategic map from the Ayutthaya period and a map of Siam in the Fifth Reign.

Before their departure, visitors should not miss the rare opportunity to see Asia's biggest film camera, which is in another building of the department. Before digital photography, this camera had been used to photograph large maps and objects.

Last but not least, the main building of the department is an impressive sight in its own right. This two-storey complex is in the European style and has five porches, each of which is decorated with beautiful stuccos. It was opened by King Rama V in September 1892. It first served as the building of Saranrom Military School, a pre-cadet school, and later as the office of the Royal Thai Army's Joint Staff Department before the Royal Thai Survey Department was moved there in 1931. In all, a visit to the map museum reaffirms the importance of cartography for preserving national sovereignty and developing the country for the future.

Therd Phra Kiat Room is open from 9am-3.30pm on weekdays. Admission is free. Individual visitors may walk in while group visitors must make reservations. Contact the Royal Thai Survey Department on 02-223-2837 or visit for more.

About the author

Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer