The oldest secondary education institution in Thailand
For tourists, the area surrounding Bangkok’s Memorial Bridge offers much. The bridge itself was the city’s first iron bridge (built by the same British company that erected the Sydney Harbour Bridge), and in the same vicinity sits the Bangkok Flower Market, with its incredible pageant of colours and skilled florists shaping garlands and assembling elaborate floral decorations. But there’s another notable landmark nearby, squished between the market and the bridge, that tourists quite wrongly neglect to investigate—the Suankularb Wittayalai School.
This yellow painted, neo-classical building bears reminders of Italy, and this is no coincidence. When the school was founded by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1882, the craze in Bangkok was all about European architecture, particularly from Italy. The current building was designed and erected in 1910 by the Siam Public Works Department, which was headed at the time by Italians. The school itself is the oldest secondary education institution in Thailand, and the school compound used to be part of Wat Ratchaburana, which now stands across Tri Phet Road.
This graceful structure bears many architectural surprises. From the front road, the building looks very classical—a bit severe on first glance—with its well ordered façade stretching around the main gate, built in Palladian style with a majestic portico. However when examining the façade along the road, there are many details to be discovered, such as windows hidden behind loggias, gables on the corner, and large baroque style windows.
Visitors should not be intimidated by the large main gate, but instead should stroll inside and around the courtyard. Especially as security guards are rather relaxed and even invite visitors to take a look. The loggias and arcades stretch over 200 metres, which explains the building’s Thai nickname of Tuek Yao (“long building”). There is also a slight curve to the building, offering wonderful perspectives, and a great background for photos—especially with its regular succession of arches. Overall it evokes Renaissance palaces in Northern Italy with their arcade inner-courtyards.
The school was bombed during World War II, as it stood next to strategic military targets such as Memorial Bridge and a power station, but was rebuilt in the years following the war, as close to the original design as possible. However, that was not the case for the green building that once stood next to Suankularb Wittayalai.
Originally called the Poh Chang School, the building served as an educational institution for traditional arts under Rama VI. It was constructed in 1913, but wartime bombing erased all traces of this equally architecturally interesting property. It was rebuilt in the late 1940s and early 1950s following the principles of Khana Ratsadon (“People’s Party”) of former Prime Minister Field Marshall Phibul Songkhram. Largely inspired in the 1930s by nationalist or fascist architecture from Europe, the new school building is a “light” version of the former Supreme Court, and/or the Grand Central Post Office. It is less massive in its shape, and carries along its façades allegoric figures of Thai arts. The six columns of its main hall even finish in the shape of a lotus flower.
The six columns are an ubiquitous character of any official building built during the reign of Phibul Songkhram, as they represent the People’s Party principles. Each column, respectively, symbolizes freedom, peace, equality, economy, education, and unity. Today part of Rajamangala University of Technology, the structure is a last remnant of the tumultuous years of nationalism in Thailand, and stands in sharp contrast to the neo-classical style of its neighbour.
Considered as the most prestigious institution for secondary education in Thailand, Suankularb Wittayalai School can also be visited by the public and it has a (free) small museum dedicated to Thai education. However, opening hours are rather unpredictable, as it is still a boy’s school and has some 3,500 students enrolled.
Since its opening, it has played an important role in the development of the Kingdom, as many of its students have gone on to be involved in politics. It probably has the highest number of students who went on to become Prime Ministers, with such prestigious personalities as Pridi Bhanomyong, Maj. Gen. MR Kukrit Pramoj, and Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. The school has also produced a high number of Supreme Commanders and Commanders-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, as well as many prominent businessmen.
Meanwhile, for those who are simply wondering about the meaning of the school’s name, suankularb means “rose garden”, but not in reference to its blossoming famous alumni, but to the fact that the school was first opened near to Suankularn Palace, in the vicinity of Vinmanmek Mansion.