Royal retreat retains an air of romance
Located 60 km north of Bangkok, and 28 km south of the famed Ayutthaya Historical Park, stands Bang Pa-In, a glorious palace that definitely proves that Thai people can also be romantic.
The first mention of Bang Pa-In is found in the chronicles of Dutch merchant Jeremias van Vliet. He reports about an illegitimate son of King Ekathosarot (1605-1611), who was shipwrecked on an island along the Chao Phraya River. He met a woman living on the island and from their union a son was born—who eventually became Chief Minister and then monarch by usurping the throne. Under the name King Prasat Thong (1629-1656), this new monarch decided to build a monastery, and later a palace, with construction starting around 1632. The devotion of the King towards this small piece of land—the birthplace of his mother—changed the destiny of the island, which eventually became an official royal residence.
Bang Pa-In palace did not escape the terrible fate of the nearby royal capital Ayutthaya. Attacked and ransacked by Burmese troops in 1767, the palace was left in shambles and abandoned. It remained liked this for almost a century, until King Mongkut (Rama IV) decided, around the year 1850, to rebuild part of the palace.
Bang Pa-In was thus back on the map, but it was under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) that the palace would experience the most dramatic transformation. King Rama V’s love for European architecture gave to the monarch the idea of turning the entire royal compound into a summer residence, inspired mostly by summer castles existing in England or France. Gardens became the heart of the new palace concept with residences for the King and his consorts being constructed around the newly created green spaces, with manicured lawns and statues inspired from the palace of Versailles in France, and Palladian villas in Italy.
Construction stretched from 1872 to 1889, and it became probably the largest collection of European-influenced palaces in Thailand. The various buildings dispersed in the gardens offer a curious diversity of all styles—blending Chinese, Thai, and European architectural styles (German, Greek, Italian, French, and Portuguese). Relatively small in size, all these pavilions appear like exquisite architectural miniatures.
Strolling around the gardens reveals many charming details, such as wooden verandas, a Venetian or Portuguese style gothic tower, statues and bas-reliefs, ponds, and cottage houses which were once used for domestics. From the top of Ho Withun Thasana, a tower resembling a Portuguese lighthouse, visitors can look out over the entire park and its palaces. In its royal days, the tower was actually used as an observatory to scrutinize skies and the surrounding countryside.
Among the not-to-be missed structures, Warophatphiman Hall is a beloved photographic backdrop for visitors. Exquisitely restored a few years ago, the small palace, with its Greek-style inspired peristyle, served during King Rama V as a throne hall and as a royal living quarter. Saphakhan Ratchaprayun is another two-storey building which was a residence of relatives of the King and is now an exhibition hall displaying the history of Bang Pa-In Palace.
But not all the buildings are European-inspired. The Aisawan Thiphya, also known as the “floating’ pavilion”, is a tribute to the first palace of Bang Pa-In. It stands in the middle of a pond with its traditional Thai spires and gables reflecting in the water. By contrast, Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun is the only structure at Bang Pa-In being entirely open for visitors. It is a munificent Chinese-style palace with its throne, carved columns, lacquers, and furniture in gold and ebony. Most of the materials were imported from China.
Romance is often associated with tragedy, and Bang Pa-In is no exception to that cliché. In 1881, a royal barge carrying Queen Sunanda Kumariratana, along with her son, capsized on the river next to the palace. As the royal rule was that commoners were not allowed to touch the royal family, on-lookers saw the Queen and her son drowning without making attempts to rescue them. Heartbroken, King Rama V had a commemorative marble obelisk built in the garden, with a poem written by the King integrated into the memorial.
Finally, across the canal delinitating the palace compound is Wat Niwet, a must-see attraction. The temple is the work of Austrian-Italian architect Joachim Grassi, and has been built like a Gothic church, with decorative heraldic symbols, stained-glass, and a high wooden ceiling. It epitomizes the fascination of Siamese kings for European architecture some 130 years ago.
By Luc Citrinot
VISITOR INFO: Bang Pa-In is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Tickets are B100, and proper attire is required (no short skirts, short pants, or sleeveless shirts). Tel: 03 526 1548.