Stately European patchwork of Italian baroque and German Jugendstil
Bangkok is the Southeast Asian city offering the largest number of historic stately mansions and palaces, and most of them have arisen either via the will of the Thai Royal family, or from the wealth of hundreds of mighty noblemen who worked with the Monarchy in the past. Many are not open to the public whatsoever, but many others have been converted into ministries, and even hospitals—most often visible to casual observers only from the outside.
However, one of the most intriguing royal structures open to, but often ignored by the public, is Bang Khun Phrom Palace. Its location on the northern outskirts of Dusit and Phra Nakhon districts might explain the relative absence of visitors, but travellers going by boat up the Chao Phraya River may at least notice some monumental mansions facing the river.
Just past King Rama VIII Bridge, in the district of Bang Lamphu, a large meadow opens up in front of the Chao Phraya with a couple of magnificent European style structures, which seem to emerge directly from a fairy tale book (they are especially beautiful at sunset when the sun turns the yellowish façades of the three mansions dark gold).
Originally, the Bang Khun Phrom Palace was built—on orders from King Rama V—to serve as the palatial residence of one of his sons, Prince Paribatra Sukhumband (not a bad deal for a lad who was only 33rd in line to the throne). Today, however, it is part of the Bank of Thailand complex.
In contrast to other royal palaces, Bang Khun Prom Palace is a unique blend of many European styles as two different architects contributed to its creation. Three buildings were constructed on the grounds, the main mansion being Tamnak Yai. Designed in 1906 by Bangkok’s most prolific architect, Italian Mario Tamagno, the palace’s design harkens back to the eras of baroque, rococo and classical European style. Its large windows, underscored with elegant stucco accents, give the building its specific charm.
The interior here offers viewers an extravagant abundance of stucco ceiling designs, velvet curtains, frescos—painted by another Italian, Carlo Rigoli—and crystal chandeliers. The main showpiece of the palace is a majestic grand staircase in the middle of the mansion, which is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the opulence of the rococo palaces in Austria or Southern Germany, with their grandiose marble stairs, statues and chandeliers.
Next to Thamnak Yai, stands another mansion, crafted in a complete different style. The building known as Tamnak Somdej is the masterwork of another architect, German Karl Döhring, a fervent adept of Jugendstil (the popular artistic style in Germany between 1890 and 1910). This second residence was built as a complement to the main mansion, but it is certainly as majestic and imposing as its counterpart, especially with its huge symmetrical façade. The mansion was offered by Prince Paribatra in 1913 to his mother, Queen Sukhumala Marasri.
A third palace, Thamnak Tamnak Ho Residential Hall—conceived as a wooden pavilion—was also built in 1903 on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Paribatra and Princess Prasongsom Chaiyant. Nicknamed the ‘Newlyweds Residential Hall’, it was a temporarily structure that met a sad fate. The charming pavilion was dismantled and rebuilt at the Vinmanmek Mansion complex at Dusit Palace in 1998. It is unfortunately now surrounded by parking lots and looks lost, far from the splendours that it probably witnessed a century ago.
A fourth grand mansion, Devavesm Palace, was built by British architect Edward Healey and served as the residence of King Rama V’s younger brother, Prince Devawongvarophakarn. It stands opposite Tamnak Yai, across the Bank of Thailand’s compound. It’s neo-classical in style, with Greek columns characterizing its façade, however it is only occasionally opened to the public.
After the Constitutional Revolution of 1932, Prince Paribatra left Thailand and the complex was used by the new government. Finally, in 1945, Khun Phrom Palace finally became the headquarters of the Bank of Thailand.
Today both Tamnak Yai and Tamnak Somdej host the collections of the Bank of Thailand. A museum was inaugurated back in 1993 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and visitors can see displays of ancient Chinese coins, Siam’s first currencies (made of sea shells), along with the currencies used in the old kingdoms of Dvaravati and Srivijaya, as well as the first modern coins and notes, dating back to the 19th century. There are also special rooms dedicated to the legacy of Prince Paribatra Sukhumband and the palace’s musical activities. Bang Khun Prom Palace was once a well-known place for music, just like at the Royal courts in Europe.
VISITOR INFO: The Bank of Thailand Museum on Samsen Road (next to King Rama VIII Bridge) is best accessed using the Chao Phraya Express Boats, with the closest piers being Rama VIII Bridge and Thewes. The museum is open weekdays (except bank holidays) from 9:30am till noon, and from 1:30pm until 4pm. Visitors are allowed inside the museum in groups only and admission is free. Contact at least one week before to reserve a visit. Email [email protected] or call 02 228 5353. Taking photographs inside is strictly forbidden, and is only allowed at a few designated areas outside.