The Café de Norasingha is an architectural jewel in the heart of the Thai capital
Wooden panels, painted ceiling, bookshelves, old wooden chairs and tables, and deep sofas—all these things make Café de Norasingha a unique institution, distilling the atmosphere of Mitteleuropa in the heart of Bangkok. The café is also unique indeed for its history. It stands within the compound of Phaya Thai Palace, which was originally conceived by King Rama V back in 1909 as a royal farm with a residential pavilion. The architectural design was put together by the chief architect of Siam Department of Public Works, the Italian craftsman Mario Tamagno.
With his colleague Annibale Rigotti, the pair expanded the palace step by step following the wishes of the king. Following the death of King Rama V in 1910, King Rama VI completed the construction of the palace, giving the royal residence its current layout. He demolished some of the first structures, leaving only the exquisite Thewarat Sapharom Hall, which served as an audience hall and then as a theatre. Thewarat Sapharom stands today as one of Bangkok’s most remarkable Oriental-style structures, with its delicate wooden panels and columns. It bears similarities to the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall (see our story on pages 16-18).
Around 1922, the palace had been transformed into a kind of “fairy tale” castle, blending various European styles. A main tower had been added echoing those of German castles, while the main residential hall was rebuilt in a mix of neo-renaissance and art nouveau styles. Outdoors the backyard of the palace was redesigned in Northern Italian style with flower beds, bushes, fountains, and its unusual Roman-inspired loggia—a gallery or room with one or more open sides. Thankfully the garden has recently been restored in its original glory (after a period of neglect).
Phaya Thai Palace later became the main residence of Queen Mother Saovabha until her death in 1919, and served also as a residence for King Rama VI. By 1926, the palace was transformed in a hotel for the Royal State Railways, but the economic crisis of the late 1920s forced management to close the once opulent residence. In 1932, it then became a military hospital and is still today part of Ohramongkutklao Medical Centre.
The pavilion of the Café de Norasingha had been built to serve as a royal lounge for the King when waiting for his car. The interior design is totally inspired by Vienna’s secession movement (Art Nouveau) with its sculpted wooden panels, and delicate paintings on the ceiling with their floral motifs. Painted monograms of King Rama VI can also be seen on the ceiling.
A stop at Café de Norasingha is like taking a break someplace far away from Bangkok’s hectic pace—it’s as if time suddenly came to a halt. The draw of the café is, in fact, all about this Viennese style and atmosphere rather than for any unforgettable culinary experience. The coffee is good, although plastic cups for iced drinks do not really match with the intimate historic atmosphere. Best is to just sip a cup of hot coffee and dream of Phaya Thai Palace’s good old days.
Café de Norasingha is open every day until 6pm. Phaya Thai Palace guided tours are offered during the weekend. Nearest BTS station is Victory Monument.