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Published: January 30th 2018
“Why did you come here?” A young Thai woman asked me that during a tour of the Phya Thai Palace. In fact, she asked me that twice during the tour. “Not many people come here; even Thai people don’t come here.”
It’s a shame, really, that more people don’t come to the Palace – not to be confused with the Grand Palace, where the press of sweaty tourists can try one’s patience. It certainly tried mine; I split off from the crowd before I even got on the ferry to go upriver. The Phya Thai Palace has some interesting stories, and the buildings and grounds are beautiful.
Getting here isn’t that hard, though it takes some perseverance. The directions I had said to take the Skytrain to the Victory Monument, go past the Queen Sirkit Children’s Hospital, and it should be a short distance away, on the other side of the street.
I found the stop on the Skytrain easily enough, and the street with Queen Sirkit Children’s Hospital, easily enough, but I’m not seeing anything that looks like a palace. In fact, I’m seeing a lot of medical facilities – schools, clinics, another hospital – but no
built in the style of the real palace
But persistence is a virtue, or so I’ve been told, and I eventually come across a beautifully kept lawn surrounded by an impressive fence. And, of course, the gate was firmly shut. But I could see people inside looked like they might be visitors. So I followed the fence until I came to a drive that lead to the Thai Royal Army Nursing School. I figured that if I was quiet and as unobtrusive as an older foreign woman could be, I could come into the palace grounds by the back way. Warning: the next several paragraphs contain some (not too boring) history. You may skip ahead if you like.
The Phya Thai Palace was built by King Chulalongkorn, Rama V. He had it built as a place where he could relax and look over the farms and livestock operations of the area. He also set aside land to be used for the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony. This ceremony is a combination of two much older rites, one Hindu, one Buddhist, but both are meant to ensure a prosperous harvest. These rituals were combined into one under Rama IV – King Chulalongkorn’s father.
Chulalongkorn (Rama V) died shortly after the palace was completed, however his son, King Rama VI, happily moved in, and added to the building. He also moved his mother into the palace, where she lived until her death in 1920.
Rama the VI, like his father, was determined to modernize Thailand. He had been educated primarily in Britain, studying law and history. He opened the first university in Thailand – King Chulalongkorn University, one of the first public hospitals - Vajira Hospital, and established the Boy Scouts, called Tiger Cubs, in Thailand. It was also under Rama VI that surnames were introduced in Thailand. Prior to 1913, Thais went by a single name only. Rama VI thought surnames would be helpful in keeping government records of birth, deaths, and marriages.
Rama VI had only one child, a daughter, who was born the day before he died. He was subsequently succeeded by his brother who became King Rama VII (King Prajadhipok ), and this is where things get interesting for the palace. OK
, if you skipped ahead, you can come back now.
The main hall of the palace looks
like a palace, with fairytale turrets and arched
windows. Even the bird house outside the hall is built with a turret and arched openings. Rama VII – King Prajadhipak - turned the main hall of the palace into a hotel in 1926. The palace also has the distinction of being the site of the first radio broadcast in Thailand on February 25, 1932.
The hotel venture did not go well, and the Thai military took it over in 1932 and turned it into a medical clinic. The military still owns it, but now the grounds are used mainly as a shortcut between buildings.
Directly in front of the main hall is the Reception Hall
, where people who wanted an audience with the King would wait. It is sometimes called the Royal Car Boarding Platform; the King got in and out of his car here, protected by the portico that ran from the hall to the palace. Today there is a coffee shop in the building.
One of the most interesting buildings on the grounds is the Mekhala Ruchi
Pavilion, on the banks of the Phya Thai Canal. Rama VI had it built originally as a place where he could plan and oversee the additions to
the palace, and it eventually turned into the King’s “man cave.” On the lower floor, the pavilion was opened up to let the canal flow into a pool where the king could bathe in privacy.
Adjacent to the pool was where the king had his hair cut and was shaved. Thais consider the head to be a sacred part of the body, especially when that head belongs to the king, so only the most senior and trusted members of his court were allowed to shave him and cut his hair.
The Thewarat Sapharom Hall
, commonly called the Throne Room, is a pretty green painted building on the front lawn. Rama VI had it built for his mother to be used for royal concerts and events. Possibly useful information:
* Take the Skytrain to the Victory Monument stop, and turn onto Thanon Ratchawithi. Walk past Queen Sirkit Children’s Hospital and the Hospital for the Study of Infectious Diseases. Look for the black iron fence on the other side of the street, and then a small sign that says “Phya Thai Palace.
*Guided tours available on Saturdays at 9:30 and 13:30. Otherwise, you
are free to walk around. Sadly, the tours are only in Thai, though there are many (but not all) displays and signs in English.
* You must be dressed modestly, meaning no bare shoulders or knees. They do have sarongs to rent for a small fee.
* At the foot of the stairs from the Skytrain stop is a small local market with small stalls selling all manner of things, including food, which is pretty good.
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