For all the attractions the Chao Phraya has to offer, from the verdant Bang Krachiao to the isolated Koh Kret in Nonthaburi, the beating heart of the riverside remains Rattanakosin. Technically an island, although one made by design, this chunk of land contains almost all of the city’s most important temples and cultural attractions—the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, the Royal Theatre, two old forts, the bustling Chinatown. On the other side of the river lies Bangkok’s predecessor as capital, Thonburi, where a litany of communities come together to form a region rich with heritage.
Considering the sheer volume of sites to see in this relatively condensed area, it comes as no surprise that visitors tend to flock here—tourists, locals, and long-time expats alike. Yet even the tightest itineraries and least restricted schedules tend to omit the many museums in Rattanakosin. To draw attention to Thailand’s lesser-visited treasures, The National Discovery Museum Institute has introduced the Muse Pass. The booklet includes tickets to 32 museums, 24 of which are found in Bangkok, for only B199. Considering that entrance to just one museum usually costs B200-300 for a foreigner and B50-100 for a Thai citizen, the Muse Pass is a steal.
The location of many participating museums in Rattanakosin makes one-, two-, or three-day cultural tours quite convenient. Start at Museum Siam, where the Muse Pass is available until the end of October. Exhibitions here, inside a colonial heritage building that once housed the Ministry of Commerce, tend to be interactive and multi-faceted. Video, photography, and sound installations are designed to keep kids—and kids at heart—engaged while learning about Thai history. Temporary exhibitions include such topics as the secret stories of Siamese headwear and Thai food culture while permanent fixtures include the story of the nation, from Suvarnabhumi to Siam and Thailand.
Around the corner from Museum Siam is the Department of Lands Museum, sheltered within a quaint wooden building. The museum charts the history of the Department of Lands, showing objects and information about map-making and land development from the early days of Rama V. Be sure to check out Thailand’s first copy of a land deed, which marked a new era of management. A small place, it makes for a decent warm-up before hiking toward Chinatown and the Krungthai Art Gallery. Part bank, part gallery, part meeting space, the old Yaowarat Branch of KTB opened in 2008, displaying top Thai artwork in the hopes of boosting art education and appreciation in Chinatown.
After a swing through the gallery, hop on the boat at Rajchawongse Pier and ride the waves upriver to one of Bangkok’s weirdest museums, the Siriraj Medical Museum. On display is an array of preserved foetuses and serial killers that blurs the lines between macabre and mysterious. The museum also houses a variety of used murder weapons, as well as copious preserved snakes. At this stage of the self-guided tour, it might be time to call it a day, perhaps picking up a coffee or beer while ruminating on the bizarre sequence of events that led you to the medical museum.
The next day—or the same afternoon, depending on your schedule—swing by the Queen’s Gallery on Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue. This multi-floor gallery regularly shows leading visual art in the Kingdom, including paintings and sculptures. It takes at least an hour to see it all. Before leaving, check out the gift shop, where books, shirts, posters, and other miscellaneous souvenirs are for sale.
Within a city block around the Queen’s Gallery stand a handful of museums, the newest being the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall and the Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center (RCAC). The former is quite an experience. An interactive learning centre, the exhibition hall tells the history of Thailand through music, film, and computer displays that form the backbone of a mandatory two-hour group tour. Two hours may sound like a lot of time, but it’s worth it—the English-speaking guides are full of anecdotes and lesser-known details. The nearby art centre is as billed: a three-story venue showcasing top Thai and foreign art, from paintings and sculptures to mixed media, that can easily consume a couple of hours of your perusing time. It plays host to the occasional event, as well.
After getting your fill of modern art, walk a couple hundred metres to the spearmint-coloured heritage house on the corner of Lan Luang. This is the King Prajadhipok Museum. Spread across three floors, exhibitions detail the life and rule of Rama VII, the last absolute monarch of Thailand, providing historical context to the revolution and subsequent coup that led to the modern-day system of governance. For history buffs, this will be one of the more fascinating museums in Bangkok, and worth the price of admission alone.
From Lan Luang, shuttle over to Dusit, stopping first at the Police Museum at Parutsakawan Palace. With its striking Art Nouveau façade, the palace itself is probably more interesting than the museum, but exhibitions are special, too. They show the social and political transformation of the Thai police since the 16th century—including centuries-old uniforms and weaponry behind glass cases. Be sure to wander the palace grounds, as these two European mansions share snapshots of bygone days.
Around the corner at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University is 3 Silapa Rattanakosin, locatedin the Sai Suddha Nobhadol Building. Explore the life of old noblemen through a series of displays showing turn-of-the-century fittings and fixtures inside a heritage house. Also in the neighbourhood is Phya Thai Palace, a former home to royalty, hotel, and, curiously, a military hospital in its later days. With its jarring architectural contrasts, the palace could keep you occupied for an entire afternoon.
This loose riverside itinerary provides a mere snippet of what the Muse Pass has to offer. It buys access to a handful of other places in town (some in Rangsit), as well as upcountry, including the Phuket Thaihua Museum and the Sub-Jumpa Museum in Lopburi. Plus, it’s a gift that keeps giving. The pass also gives discounts at stores, cafés, and restaurants associated with the museums. Purchases can be made until the end of October, but the pass is good through the end of the year. For anyone with an interest in Thai culture and history, or simply with a thirst for knowledge, the Muse Pass is a must-have.