Wanderings along Thailand’s most “Un-Thai” avenue
For most Bangkok natives, and residents, Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue is probably considered the most iconic place to recommend for a sight-seeing tourist. It is a large avenue, lacking the typical Thai style that is preeminent in Bangkok (which tends toward the extremes of either well-manicured streets boasting palaces and temples, a mess of charmless concrete buildings from the 70s and 80s with cables everywhere, or a dense pathway of ultra-modern contemporary shopping malls and condominiums).
Ratchadamnoen Klang—not to be confused with Ratchadamnoen Nok—is the city’s ultimate expression of the “new” Thailand, which emerged from the 1932 revolution in which the nation’s absolute monarchy was turned into a constitutional one. In power then was the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) under Prime Minister Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who wanted to transform and modernize Siam along a path taken by authoritarian regimes in Europe at that time.
The architecture of this era draws largely on the then popular construction styles from Germany, Italy and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union. Massive formal structures with a minimalist geometric layout, as well as large statues and monuments, were constructed in Bangkok to assert the new power. Architecture in the 1930s was, above all, a reflection of ideology and politics.
With respect to Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue, the Field Marshall took his inspiration from the Champs Elysées in Paris. It had been a similar case for the first part of Ratchadamnoen Nok, where one finds shady parterres with large trees and palaces which were built mostly during the reign of Kings Rama V and VI. The extension from the Phan Pha Lilat Bridge into Sanam Luang is in total opposition with the other part of the avenue. Work started in 1935, three years after the Siam Revolution, and it was a complete physical transformation of the avenue. Mahogany trees were torn down, the road enlarged, and new buildings erected.
What characterizes the avenue is its unity in style. Ratchadamnoen Klang was constructed in a blend of Art Deco—international and fascist styles—with most of the structures along the avenue being rectangular blocky forms arranged in geometric fashion, then broken up by curved ornamental elements or corners. They all give a sense of grandeur and monolithic style, despite their simplicity in forms. This “simple” architecture was deliberately chosen as the new buildings were reflecting the established principle of equality within the society, opposing the opulent palaces and villas built during the previous reigns. It is probably one of the world’s most impressive examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne architectural styles. The new structures were first designed to accommodate shops, offices, hotels, and government administrations, but unfortunately they never proved very popular with locals.
In the midst of the avenue, a monument dedicated to the newly acquired democracy of 1932 was created. For Phibunsongkhram, the height and the shape of the monument was to be a visual point in the avenue—like the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Highly symbolic, with many numerical symbols, Democracy Monument was finished in 1939, the year the term “Siam” was officially replaced by the moniker “Thailand”. The monument itself was a cooperative project between Thai architect Jitrsean Abhaiwongse and Italian Corrado Feroci (Silpa Birasri). The involvement of the Italian explains the strong similarity with monuments from Mussolini’s Italy.
The triumphant structure was constructed in a lotus-shape, with four wings surrounding a turret which integrates six gates representing the six principles of the People’s Party (freedom, peace, education, equality, economy, and unity). The 24-meter high wings represent the guardians of the new constitution. They honour the army, the navy, the air force, and the police. Bas reliefs on each wing highlight the role played by the armed forces in protecting and giving democracy to the Thai people.
Another memorial, on the corner of the Khok Wua intersection, was officially inaugurated in 2001 to commemorate the students’ revolt and massacre of October 14th, 1973. The memorial provides explanation about the event and pays homage to the dead. Maybe this tragic event contributed to the long period of neglect of Ratchadamnoen Klang, a decline due also to the fact that in the 80s many offices moved to Bangkok’s new commercial centre on Sukhumvit Road. The only passers-by left along the street were beggars and homeless people, hanging around the Government’s Lottery Office in the hopes of scoring a winning ticket.
The run-down buildings were ignored until the early 2000s, when a study was commissioned to transform Ratchadamnoen Klang into a cultural street with a new promenade and new shops and attractions. In the last five years, the project picked up its pace with many buildings been renovated, or on the verge of being revitalized. Most received a fresh coat of yellow or beige paint.
Following the renovation, former shops and offices have been turned into cultural institutions. Next to the renovated Loha Prasat temple and its newly shiny golden spires is the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, a very good interactive museum telling all about Bangkok’s history and development. It’s open from 10am to 7pm daily (except Monday), and admission is B100. Also worth a look is the Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center & ASEAN Cultural Centre, which features regular painting exhibitions and is open 10am to 5pm daily (except Monday). Admission is free.
Nearby, across from the October 14th Memorial and close to Khao San Road, stands the newly opened Bangkok City Library. Housed in a beautiful restored building, the library—currently open daily till 9 pm (except Mondays) and scheduled to eventually be open 24 hours a day—boasts almost 5,000 sq.m of space, split over four levels, with books in both Thai and English. A temporary permit to enter is available free of charge.
Last but not least, it is fun to look in on the Royal Hotel at the corner of Ratchadamnoen Klang and Sanam Luang. This old style hotel is one of the oldest surviving accommodations in the Thai capital. Built in 1940, the hotel was considered one of the best in Bangkok until the 1970s when new hotels in Silom and Sukhumvit took over. Today, the hotel looks run down but the main staircase, with its frescoes and bas reliefs, retains its sense of grandeur from the old days.