Everybody wants to escape at some time, even kings – perhaps especially kings, judging by the far-flung palaces they have built. The cares of state have often driven monarchs to flee the capital city for a country retreat – yet that place in the country has often been as palatial as the one left behind in the city.
Or even more so – Philip II of Spain’s enormous Escorial, for instance, or the vast Versailles of Louis XIV. Yet 16th and 17th century Europeans were behind in this sort of thing compared to Oriental potentates such as the Ming and Mogul emperors, who had become quite in the habit of away-from-it-all palace building.
Even comparatively modest Siam had a wealth of regal residences. To the astonishment of Louis XIV’s ambassadors in the 1680s, the Siamese capital Ayuthaya was bigger than Paris and quite as splendid – even if it lacked a Louvre. Its then ruler, King Narai, received the French envoys both at Ayuthaya’s Royal Palace and at his great retreat upriver at Lopburi. He also had a summer palace downriver at Bang Pa-In.
In 1767 the Burmese invaders razed all these glories, and only the least grand one was ever rebuilt. A century later, King Chulalongkorn decided to recreate Bang Pa-In Palace as a retreat from the burgeoning new capital, Bangkok. A great reformer who pushed Siam into the modern age, the progressive monarch was partly educated in Europe, part Chinese in descent, and his architectural taste reflected his cosmopolitanism.
Bang Pa-In Palace is a charming melange of French Neoclassical, Victorian Gothic, Imperial Chinese and traditional Thai forms set in parkland that is by turns formal French, “natural” English and classic Chinese.
Mostly created in the period 1872-99, the buildings span a dazzling range from chateau to summerhouse, from pagoda to lighthouse. All are close to water, the chateau wedged between river and lake, the Chinese mansion standing on an island in the lake, the Thai sala actually protruding from the lake like a mirage. Unlike most royal palaces, all is on a human scale.
Nothing is massive, nothing intimidates, and everything conspires to enchant and relax. In short, it represents the Thai character: easy assimilation of alien forms and a great will to charm.
Immediately upon entering, you see the great vista of a long watercourse flanked by tree-lined promenades. This is part of the Outer Palace, the area formerly given over to public and ceremonial uses. After about 200 metres, the watercourse is crossed by an elegant neoclassical bridge upon whose parapets pose statues of Carrara marble.
From their vantage point, Greek goddesses and nymphs gaze back down the channel and forward across Bang Pa- In’s finest panorama, the central lake dividing the Outer from the Inner Palace. From its midst arises the exquisite Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-art, a Thai-style pavilion with multitiered roofing and much intricate gilding. This shimmering
vision is the motif by which Bang Pa-In is usually known to the world. The combination of style and situation makes it iconic: classic Rattanokosin period architecture surrounded
by water, as if floating. Its name enhances this ethereal impression – the Divine Seat of Personal Freedom.
The Aisawan Thiphya-art is further enhanced by its contrasting backdrop, two neoclassical structures to left and right across the lake. The larger, set between lake and river, is the official royal residence and throne hall called Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman, the Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode. Distinctly European, this mansion glows in the yellow and white paint so characteristic of Tsarist St. Petersburg and Hapsburg Vienna, which King Chulalongkorn had admired on his two European tours.
On the river bank alongside stands the royal landing stage, which recalls a royal tragedy. King Chulalongkorn’s consort, Queen Sunantha, was travelling upriver from Bangkok by barge in 1881. The vessel capsized and the Queen drowned, because not only was she unable to swim, but there was an absolute prohibition on commoners touching a royal person, and therefore nobody dared to rescue her!
King Chulalongkorn, stricken with grief, declared an end to the taboo and built a monument to his wife at Bang Pa-in, where he had been awaiting her, a marble obelisk upon which is inscribed, in capital letters:
“To the beloved memory of Her late and lamented Majesty Sunandakumariratn, Queen Consort, who was wont to spend her most pleasant and happiest hours in this garden amidst those loving ones and dearest to her. This memorial is erected by Chulalongkorn Rex, her bereaved husband, whose suffering from so cruel an endurance through those trying hours made death seem so near and yet preferable. 1881.”
The memorial stands in the gardens of the Inner Palace, the area formerly reserved for the King, his immediate family, and for some honoured guests. It contains further residences and notable curiosities, the most eye-catching being the Ho Withun Thasana or Sage’s Lookout Tower, like a great lighthouse. The most striking residence is the weatherboard Uthayan Phumisathian, painted in pink and white, a great rambling chalet favoured by King Chulalongkorn in the hot season for its openness to cooling breezes.
In the rainy and cool seasons, he preferred the farthest residence, the Chinese mansion named Phra Thinang Wehat Chamrun, Royal Residence of Heavenly Light. The only mansion open to the public, it was a gift from Bangkok’s Chinese merchants, who imported from China the best artisans to work on it and the finest fittings to embellish it.
Prince Ookhtomsky, a Russian guest, loved it, saying, “It is really a palace of romance, with ornamented tiled floors, massive ebony furniture, gold, silver and porcelain freely used for decorative purposes, and delicate fretwork on the columns and on the windows. Evidently we have before us the principal sight of Bang Pa-in. The Emperor of China himself can scarcely have a palace much finer than this!”
Once all this was reserved for royalty alone, but now it is open to all who can make the journey and pay the meagre sum of 100 Baht (Thais, 30 Baht). It is especially pleasant to arrive like the kings and queens of old by river cruise up the stately Chao Phraya. The palace is rarely crowded – you can be a monarch for a day.
BY KEITH MUNDY