Seven trips to any city should be more than enough to explore every corner, But Bangkok had yet another treasure to leave me spell bound.
I thought I had seen it all. With innumerable stopovers plus a holiday of serious sightseeing, I was sure that every landmark had been covered and photographed…From the Royal palaces to the magnificent Buddhist temples, their golden steeples reaching to the sky, the charming floating market, lively stalls, and if you are a determined shopper the miles of stores and immense malls to help you spend. Then, there is the ultimate prize for determined buyer and collector: Chatuchak the weekend whole sale market, where arriving with a trolley is the only way to carry off the day’s bargains.
On a recent trip to Bangkok for a destination wedding, left with a free day at the end of the celebrations , while others were snoozing off their exhaustion, I checked with a guide if there was any sightseeing to pass a few hours, she came up with the ‘Renaissance Palace’
I thought I had heard wrong. A European medieval palace in a city of oriental palaces, gilded spires and Buddhist temples?
A Medieval Palace
The Dusit palace is one of Bangkok’s best kept secrets and should feature high on every visitor’s ‘must see’ list. It has obviously been discovered by the Chinese as on the day, (actually every day as my guide told me), and there are just hordes of chattering visitors most of them more interested in selfies than admiring the golden treasures.
Reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, the magnificent palace is set in a sprawling area of more than 64,749 sq metres. It was constructed by King Chulalongkorn (RamaV) and originally called the Dusit Garden Palace (Wang Suan Dusit) and has over time become a complex of 13 palaces, throne halls, mansions and museums.
King Chulalongkorn’s old palace had been built around 1782 when the city of Bangkok, capital of the Kingdom of Siam, was constructed. Over the decades, the palace as the seat of the Royal Government became crowded with a growing family of many wives and many more children, plus courtiers, officials and other minions.
The king, an outdoor person who enjoyed sprawling lawns and gardens, had also taken to the fashionable pastime of cycling. He was the first Thai King to visit Europe and he came back very impressed with what he saw: marble palaces, lifestyle et al.
He also found his old palace small and restrictive for his lifestyle despite the fact that more and more buildings were built for the growing needs of the Royal family and the King’s court.
King Chulalongkorn, fresh from his trip to Europe in 1897, was particularly impressed with the marble palaces of Italy. On his return, he established a new royal compound near the original palace and named it Suan Dusit (Celestial Garden). It began with a single storeyed structure and over the years became the royal residence and was renamed Wang Dusit (Celestial Dwelling) After his second trip to Europe, he expanded the greenery adding a private garden: Suan Sunandha, in honour of his first consort, Queen Sunandha Kumariratna.
Artists and artisans were summoned from Italy to build an exact replica of a Renaissance palace and fill it with frescos and mural. The Italian architects were Mario Tamago and Annibale Rigotii, and all the marble came from Carrara, Italy. It was constructed between 1908-1915. King Chulalongkorn lived here till his death in 1910.His son Vajirudh ensured the completion of the palace and added to the gardens.
In 1932 absolute monarchy was abolished and a part of the Dusit palace was transferred to the government.
During the reign of the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Chitralada palace remained the royal residence, a separate Parliament house was built and the Ananata Samkhoun Throne Hall was returned to the King as part of the original palace.
The Ananata Sama khom Throne Hall
This impressive marble palace, is a double storeyed majestic building with an equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn just outside. It is the formal reception area within the Dusit Palace complex which is now a museum but is occasionally still used for ceremonial events. Crowned by an immense central dome with six smaller ones, it now has a permanent exhibition of golden treasures from the Royal collection. This includes the King Bhumibol’s golden throne and howdah, the Suphannapetra golden junk, a palanquin, and many more used by the royal family for ceremonial events. Each one is crafted from gold wire mesh and embellished with gems.
Visitors are always spell bound by the immense ceiling and were it not for the Thai figures in traditional clothing; one could be at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Stories of King Rama I to King Rama VI, adorn the ceiling and walls. Also recorded in paintings are historic events and the history of the Chakri dynasty.
The artists were Galileo Chini and Carlo Riguli who had been appointed by the King Rama V to mark important events like victory in wars, construction of royal temples, abolition of slavery, and bringing together by debate many religions.
Arts of the Kingdom
The Throne Hall has an array of the finest handicrafts of Thailand and the display is aptly billed as ‘The Arts of the Kingdom’
In 1976, Queen Sirikit established the Support Foundation to promote Thai traditional arts and crafts which apart from continuing a legacy would also provide income to underprivileged families. Talented artists would be sent to train in Bangkok and the finest examples of their handiwork were exhibited.
Amongst the traditional arts being revived are intricate gold and silver jewellery, Yan Lipao basketry, weaving, especially silk, painting and wood carving.
An exceptional example of wood carving is an enormous teak divider, each side covered with legends and religious stories. What makes this even more spectacular is that the stories on both sides are intertwined.
Also on display are tapestries depicting religious scenes and events. One example covered an entire wall, done in tiny overlapping stitches and hues to perfection, it must have taken years to complete.
A remarkable craft is the use of beetle wing decoration used in paintings, textiles and jewellery. The wings of the Sternocera beetles, which have died of natural causes (which ensure that the brilliant green remains iridescent), are meticulously intertwined even in textiles, a skill imported from India in the 19th century. A superb example of beetle wing painting is a splendid portrait of King Bhumipol and Queen Sirikit which is at the entrance of the Throne Hall.
There reaches a stage when a tourist can absorb no more and by the time I had had gone though the Throne Hall, I was totally overwhelmed by the magnificence of the display and needed time to absorb the splendid and harmonious blend of Italian structure and Thai craftsmanship.
“Would I like to see any of the other major buildings in the complex: The Vimanek Mansion, Abhisek Throne Hall or Chitralada Royal Villa”, asked my guide?
“ Let’s just save it for my next visit to Bangkok” I replied.