The Bangkok National Museum offers visitors a new understanding of Thailand, its culture, and its people
The Prado National Museum in Madrid, the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Louvre in Paris—these are all iconic centres of national culture that attract millions of people through their doors every year. But how many visitors, or residents, in this city seek out the Bangkok National Museum?
For many Bangkok visitors, simply ticking a few boxes—visiting the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho (to see the Reclining Buddha), then wolfing down some Thai street food—is enough. However, I was shamed the other week when a visiting friend wanted to know something about the Bangkok National Museum, which they had seen a mention of in a guide book. Even though I have lived in Bangkok for nearly three decades, I had to come clean and admit that I had never actually visited it. This was an unforgiveable oversight, and I immediately made a plan to go and check it out as soon as possible. And after my visit I found myself enthralled anew by the country I live in, with new knowledge, understanding, and insights into what it is that makes Thailand so special.
There are actually 37 museums throughout Thailand that are considered ‘National Museums’, but as befits Bangkok being the capital, the largest and best is found right here—and it’s right in the centre of the city, only a stone’s throw away from the Grand Palace, facing Sanam Luang. It was Rama IV (King Mongkut) we have to thank for the museum. He had a passion for the history, art, and culture of his country, and he added greatly to the gifts he had been given on Royal Tours and built a private museum within the walls of his own palace compound. This love for his country was shared by his son, Rama V (King Chulalongkorn), who continued to add to the antiquities his father had collected. And because of the rapid growth of the collection more space was soon needed. It was therefore decided, in 1887, to move the whole lot to the Royal Wang Na (Front) Palace at the northern end of Sanam Luang. In 1926 King Rama VII gave over the entire palace to house the antiquities, at which time it came under control of the Department of Fine Arts, and was renamed the Bangkok National Museum.
Some of the museums you can visit around the world have been newly built to house their contents, and this can seem a little incongruous, but this is certainly not true of Bangkok’s National Museum. The fabulous Wang Na Palace was built in 1782, and is the perfect place to showcase the unique character that is Thailand. Of course, it was only a few short years ago that those who chanced through the doors, including many a Thai schoolchild dragged here on a compulsory school visit, would be greeted by dark, dusty, musty smelling rooms, uninspiringly decorated with exhibits in a haphazard scattering.
But no more. The old random gathering of art, artefacts, war weapons, and so much more has now been tastefully arranged and catalogued, and is shown off to the public in three designated areas. The first is the newly renovated Siwamokhaphiman Hall, which now houses the Thai History Gallery. It is a testament to the development of Thailand, spanning the ancient Sukhothai and Ayutthaya eras, through to the Rattanakosin period (1782 to the present). Meanwhile, the Archaeological and Art History collections showcase items from Thailand’s prehistoric times, as well as thousands of interesting treasures in creatively-lit displays, including Chinese weapons, gold and silver ornaments, precious stones, Khon masks, puppets, ceramics, clothing, intricate woodcarvings, traditional musical instruments, and textiles. Also on display is the King Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, a priceless carved stone obelisk which is part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, registered in 2003.
Next up is the Buddhaisawan Chapel, built in 1787 to house the highly revered ancient Buddha image of Phra Buddha Sihing. Once inside the chapel, the thought-provoking mural paintings covering the inside of the building show scenes from the life of the Buddha.
The last area to explore is the Red House. This is a traditional Thai teakwood dwelling that was originally one of the private living quarters of Princess Sri Sudarak, the elder sister of King Rama I. It was moved from the old palace in Thonburi to the Grand Palace for Queen Sri Suriyendra, who was the wife of King Rama II. Today the Red House has been decorated in the early Bangkok period style, along with some of the actual objects that once belonged to the Queen.
The Bangkok National Museum has grown in size to become the largest museum in Southeast Asia, and is a treasure trove of fascinating and valuable artefacts. As you walk through the gallery of Thai history you will learn about the most important periods of Thailand’s development, from ancient times, right up to the present. The English translations on the exhibits are good, and once you have paid your B200 entrance fee (no payment for Thai nationals) the guided tours around the complex are free. English-language tours given by volunteers are available daily, but tours are also available in German on Thursdays, and in French and Japanese on Wednesdays.
By Robin Westley Martin
Bangkok National Museum
Na Phrothat Rd (near Grand Palace)
Open: Wed-Sun, 9am-4pm
Tel: 02 215 8173