Jarring architectural contrasts are common enough in Bangkok, but even so Phaya Thai Palace, with its elegant Sino-Portuguese-style frontage and gothic turret surrounded by drab hospital buildings, is a shock to the system. A fading expression of stately European design in an area seemingly little concerned with history, the natural response when you lay eyes upon it is “what, when, why and how?”
For the story of how this oddity, located a short stroll west of the Victory Monument roundabout, came to be you need to go back to the reign of King Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V. Back in 1909 he found himself drawn to the area’s natural beauty and so procured about 100 rai (or 40 acres) of land from local farmers. On it he had built a residence where he could relax when not out experimenting with rice crops. After his premature death in 1910, it went on to serve as the residence for his widow, Queen Siphatcharin, for the rest of her days before his successor, King Vajiravudh, then remodeled it into something resembling the palace visitors still enjoy today.
Some years later, in 1926, it found new life as the Phaya Thai Palace, a luxury hotel catering to well-to-do foreigners. Not for long, however: by 1932 it had fallen on hard times and was taken over by the medical division of the Ministry of Defence. Today, all these decades later, the military still own it but the hospital departments have relocated to the surrounding buildings, the nurses who work in them using it merely as a pretty conduit between them.
Guided tours, given on Saturdays and Sundays at 9:30am and 1:30pm, offer visitors detailed insight into this crudely abridged history – not to mention the many unique architectural features of Phaya Thai Palace’s interlinking buildings and outhouses.
Highlights include the Thewarat Sapharom Hall, the striking structure that sits to the right of the front lawn. Featuring vaulted ceilings, a central dome, and some of the most striking and well-preserved of the many quaint painted frescoes scattered throughout, this fine example of Byzantine architecture is the only building still intact from the original 1910 incarnation.
Other notable spots in the complex include the grand main hall on the second floor, where King Rama VI gave private audiences or informal meals, and a room on the third where Thailand’s first ever radio broadcast (of King Prajadhipok, King Rama VII, giving a speech on 25 February 1931, the anniversary of his coronation) was aired.
Another still houses a small model pavilion, a reminder that the palace was once home to one of the world’s quirkier expressions of political thought – a miniature city that served as a fully-functioning model society. Within this one acre metropolis known as Dusit Thani and occupying the lawns out back, there stood palaces, private houses, Buddhist temples, hospitals and many more buildings, all of them two to three feet in height. Administering it were around 200 ‘citizens’, including its founder, King Rama VI, all with the right to vote. So exhaustive, in fact, was this edifying democratic experiment that it even had its own constitution, not to mention two daily newspapers (the King also had high hopes for Thai journalism).
Sounds interesting but not up for spending two to three hours on a room-by-room tour? Quite honestly, unless you’re deeply fascinated by the minutiae of Thai royal history or love gawping at European-style period motifs, it’s not a must.
Come on any given day and you can still admire the frontage, stroll along the first floor’s evocative frescoed corridors, or explore the grounds out back, which include a neo-classical Roman garden of marble statues and geometric Corinthian columns, and separate animist and Buddhist shrines. You’re also free to enjoy a good cup of joe in what is surely the city’s most historic coffeeshop, Café de Norasingha. Located in front of the main building, the grand room it occupies used to accommodate guests while they waited for an audience with His Majesty. The snacks and cakes are good, the evocative old-world atmosphere and vaulted ceilings even better.
Tours in English require a written request at least seven days in advance and cost B500. Tours in Thai are held on Saturdays at 9:30 or 3pm and by donation only (note: if there are enough English speakers one of the guides may conduct a tour in English). Call for more information.
Phaya Thai Palace
Phramongkutklao Hospital, 315 Rachawithi Rd, Ratchathewi | BTS Victory Monument | 02-354-7987 |phyathaipalace.org