Famous for its motley crew of free-range monkeys gallivanting down the streets of the city centre, Lopburi holds a wealth of heritage sites that often fly under the radar. It starts with Wat Prang Sam Yot, one of the most beautiful Khmer-style temples in Thailand, and continues with the ruins of King Narai. Even lesser known, however, are the magnificent Art Deco buildings, all ordered by one of Thailand’s most controversial figures in contemporary history, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram.
Thailand has sometimes had trouble confronting the ghosts of history. That maxim holds true when talking about Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram. The Kingdom’s strong man became prime minister in 1938, holding office until 1944 and again from 1948 to 1957. Some historians look at him as the man who tried to reproduce Siam — which he renamed Thailand, meaning “the country of free men” — in the form of a European fascist state. Others justify the Field Marshal’s political action as that of a true patriot who had the best interests of the Kingdom at heart. “He was dedicated to keeping Thailand independent and free at a time when the country was surrounded by colonial empires and communism was advancing in China,” explains Ambassador Pradap Phibunsongkhram, grandson of the former ruler.
Political controversy aside, Phibunsongkhram’s legacy paints him as one of the most passionate promoters of modern architecture in Thailand. During his tenure, many imposing structures were built in Bangkok and the up country surrounding provinces, each reflecting the new societal principles of Phibunsongkhram’s People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon). The style that swept the land rested on straightforward, geometrical motifs and the presence of six columns on main facades, each representing a principle based on the People’s Party ideology and programme.
Bangkok has managed to preserve just a few of these classic structures — the latest to vanish was the Supreme Court near Sanam Luang, razed at the end of 2014. Lopburi, on the other hand, has been spared similar destruction, retaining large parts of the Field Marshal’s architectural heritage. And, fortunately, it is even being recognized as a potential tourist attraction by local authorities. In 2013, the Tourism Authority of Thailand issued a free guide to Thailand’s historical cities with a chapter entirely dedicated to architecture in Lopburi in the 1930s, when this sleepy provincial town, whose glory days date back to the 17th century under King Narai, became part of a grand plan to establish a model city, including educational institutions for the military.
“According to accepted convention, the urban development of modern Lopburi owes its origin to its strategic geographical importance. Located at the heart of Thailand, the city has been seen as a second stronghold since the Ayutthaya period. More recently it has hosted the country’s major combat units, including the Army Air Division, Army Special Warfare Command, and Army Artillery Training Centre. Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram knew full well that a second military sanctuary was crucial to the survival of his regime. Hence he began to construct army barracks at Lopburi, which became a full-scale urban development project under his premiership,” explains Koompong Noobanjong, Associate Professor at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, and author of Power, Identity, and the Rise of Modern Architecture: from Siam to Thailand.
“While Lopburi’s modern architecture is remarkable, my fascination does not dwell so much on the stylistic expressions of the buildings as on the fact that they once collectively served as a material manifestation of Phibunsongkhram’s vision of Thai identity, or Thainess, as promulgated by his Nation Building Program,” he adds.
But thanks to that singular vision today Lopburi offers travellers Thailand’s finest Art Deco buildings, constructed in pure, minimalist style. The new town was built around a central thoroughfare, Narai Maharat Road. With its large lanes and grand roundabouts graced by fountains and commanding monuments, the street adhered to the popular aesthetic of totalitarian countries of the era, evocative in some ways of Berlin, Moscow, or Rome. It may have been out of place, but it was beautifully built nevertheless.
Along Narai Maharat, buildings indicative of the style remain open to the public. The only difficulty is locating them — foreign visitors will notice a lack of signposts and directions written in English. Architecture buffs with a sense of adventure should look to the backgrounds of lawns and public squares; the buildings are easy to identify, thanks to their smooth and even construction. Most impressive are the elegant buildings of the Phibul Wittayalai School, located within a large, leafy compound. Its main building and two secondary structures exude the simple elegance of Art Deco with their symmetrical lines.
An exceptional ensemble of period buildings can be found at the Ananda Mahidol Hospital. The main building TRAVE L up country escape has been carefully restored — it even earned an award from the Association of Siam Architects — the structure looming over the grounds with a distinctive elegance that has no equivalent in regional architecture. Just behind the main pavilion, the former radiology centre stands regal with large stained glass windows and a proud rotunda. Along the main street, back toward the city centre, the main hall of Thepsatri Rajabhat University and the nearby Military Bank round out the neighbourhood with dignity.
The ‘Chateau,’ a modernist villa erected in 1934, lies further afield, against the backdrop of Nam Jone Mountain. In its day, it served as a training premise for the Artillery School as well as a reception villa for visiting foreign dignitaries. The builders used natural materials to give the Chateau an appearance similar to chalets in mid-century Colorado. In 1958, the villa was turned into a free-ofcharge museum, primarily to display Phibunsongkhram’s personal belongings; however, strange though it may sound, written permission is required for entry.
The last stop on the Art Deco tour of Lopburi is Thahan Bok Theatre. Built in 1941, the old cinema was part of the propaganda puzzle for a government that sought to provide rest and relaxation for its servicemen. Still property of the military, the theatre has been closed for over a decade, waiting for a revival. It remains a great subject for amateur photographers, though, with a fitting statue of the late Field Marshal out front scanning the horizon.
Lopburi is located northeast of Ayutthaya, roughly two hours from Bangkok. Lodging is scarce, however. Your best bet might be to stay in Ayutthaya, just 45 minutes away. Distances within the city are relatively short. Narai Maharat Road is only 5 minutes by foot from Lopburi Wat Prang Sam Yot. A car is necessary to visit Mahidol Hospital.
By Luc Citrinot