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ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

Bang Pa-In : the SUMMER PALACE OF SIAM

(SEE ALSO AYUTTHAYA - THE ANCIENT CAPITAL OF THAILAND)

INTRODUCTION


This short article is the story of Bang Pa-In, also known as the Summer Palace of the Kings of Siam, a flamboyantly pretty collection of buildings on the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok in Thailand. It is a story with a romantic beginning in the 17th century, a tragic middle in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now in the 21st century, a continuing status as a royal residence and a newly found status as an appealing tourist attraction for day-trippers from Bangkok.

All photos except one on this page were taken by the author on a visit to Bang Pa-In in 2009

But to really understand Bang Pa-In it is important to appreciate that from its very first origins, the existence of this palace has been inextricably  linked to another, originally much much grander site a few kilometres upstream. That site is Ayutthaya, and so first, we must say something briefly about the history of Ayutthaya.

THE HISTORY OF AYUTTHAYA
 

In the mid 14th century in the heart of old Siam, a new city state began its rise to power. And when it rose, it rose quickly. It was called Ayutthaya, and over the course of the next four centuries, it was to become the focal point of one of the most important city states in the world with trading links across Asia and around the world via the complex river systems of the region and the Indian Ocean to the south. Ayutthaya was a city of great wealth and undoubted splendour, hundreds of glittering temple complexes, and extravagant palaces - the capital of the nation, presided over by the King. Within 300 years, Ayutthaya had through war and power play spread its boundaries to include territory within present day Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia, and the city itself had a burgeoning population perhaps approaching as many as one million. And of course new communities, towns and cities were established during this time, sometimes the result of practical necessity or economic advantage, but sometimes the result of auspicious portents and chance events.

THE HISTORY OF BANG PA-IN

One such event took place in the early 17th century when the then King of Ayutthaya, King Ekathotsarot was sailing on the great River Chao Praya some 15 km south of the city, when his ship got into difficulties and he sought safety on an island in the river called Bang Pa-In. Whilst briefly stranded here he met a local woman. It was by all accounts a very friendly and productive meeting, because he later had a child with her. That child grew up to succeed his father as King Prasat Thong in 1629, and in honour of his birthplace, Prasat Thong decided to build a monastery and a Summer Palace on the island.

 

At this point, unfortunately the story of Bang Pa-In somewhat loses its way in the historical records. Despite its rather romantic genesis, and its prestigious role as a Royal Palace, Bang Pa-In was a small and relatively minor outpost in comparison to the great capital of the Ayutthayan state, and so didn't feature significantly in the major, newsworthy events of the time. Therefore, much is unknown about its development post-1630. Indeed it is not even known with certainty whether the island palace flourished or was neglected at some later point in the next century.

THE FALL OF AYUTTHAYA

 

But what is known is what happened to Ayutthaya one fateful year in the late 18th century. As an empire building city state, Ayutthaya was a very powerful entity, but its core strength came from a very small central stronghold - basically the city itself (much in the way for example that all power in the Roman Empire emanated from Rome itself). Ayutthaya as such was constantly under threat from rival states, because if the central city fell, then the whole empire edifice may also come crashing down. And that is exactly what happened in 1776. Burmese forces had been regularly attacking Ayutthaya and after a long seige and invasion the Burmese finally breeched the Ayutthayan defences and overran the city. And their vengeance after years of war was ruthlessly efficient. Ayutthaya was almost totally destroyed, the temples ransacked and looted and many of the buildings razed to the ground by fire. It was devasting and even though the Burmese were later pushed back out of Siam, the city could not recover. It was the end. Later on a new city would be built further south along the Chao Phraya River - a city which would become Bangkok. But Ayutthaya was abandoned, and today for all it's former splendour, it is today a site of near total ruination. Little remains in pristine condition.

Two Of The Ruined Temples at Ayutthaya

Wat Maha That

Wat Chai Watthanaram

BANG PA-IN REVIVED
 

But what of Bang Pa-In, just 17 km south? Whether this site had already been in decline prior to 1776 or whether it was ravaged by the Burmese forces, it too was undoubtedly in ruin after that date. And it remained so for many decades.

But it's fate subsequently has been very different, because the Summer Palace was not allowed to just die and fade away in quite the same way. Instead, it was revived to live again. In the mid 19th century - nearly 100 years on from the Burmese invasion - King Mongkut (Rama IV) breathed new life into Bang Pa-In with the decision to build a new palace here.

 

But it was his successor King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who is most identified with the revival of Bang Pa-In. Chulalongkorn who reigned from 1868 to 1910 was very much a reforming monarch, in all areas under his influence. He liberalised religion allowing freedom of expression of beliefs other than traditional Buddhism, he abolished slavery, and he modernised the infrastructure of Siam, authorising the first railway in the country which linked Bangkok with Ayutthaya, via Bang Pa-In. He was also the first Thai monarch to visit Western Europe, introduced the Western calendar to Siam and also became enamoured with some of the architectural styles of Europe. And back home he sanctioned the building of several further ceremonial buildings at Bang Pa-In, many of them in styles which reflected his internationalist approach, with Thai styles interwoven with European themed buildings and Romanesque statues.

 

The buildings were laid out around an artificial lake and landscaped gardens - another indication of Chulalongkorn's influence as he was a keen enthusiast of formalised Western gardens. The lake which extends the full length of the complex divided the gardens around the perimeter from the artificial islands in the middle, and in so doing also served as a partition between the outer grounds where there were official state buildings, but where 'ordinary' people could also walk, and the inner island palaces where visitors were not allowed - this area was for the exclusive pleasure of the royal family. An attractive gatehouse connected the two.

Bang Pa-In had once more assumed the status of a royal residence.

THE BUILDINGS OF BANG PA-IN TODAY

 

King Chulalongkorn's re-creation of Bang Pa-In was completed by the turn of the 20th century, and although there has inevitably been some further restorative work since then, the site of Bang Pa-In is essentially as it was in King Chulalongkorn's day, with palaces, temples and other state buildings laid out on the islands in the lake and on the surrounding landscaped gardens.

 

Today it remains an official royal palace, though in practice the King of Thailand will rarely  reside here, visiting usually for official ceremonies and for the reception of high ranking dignitaries. At all other times Bang Pa-In is open to the public, and it is essently historic park and tourist attraction in the 21st century.

 

There follows a brief look at some of the main buildings of the palace complex, to show the eclectic mix of architectural styles on show at the Summer Palace.

Warophat Phiman, the official residence at the Summer Palace of the King of Thailand

Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman

 

First and foremost among the buildings of Bang Pa-In (at least in terms of its Royal prestige), must be the King's residence Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman, shown above. Translated into English as  'Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode' this one storey mansion was originally built by King Chulalongkorn in 1876 to include a throne hall and state reception rooms, and clearly designed with an aristocratic Western influence in its architecture. It is still sometimes used by the Thai king on royal visits to the Summer Palace. A one-story mansion containing Chulalongkorn's throne hall. But when not in residence, Warophat Phiman is open to visitors.

Saphakhan Ratchaprayun

 

This building built in a similar style and colour scheme to the King's residence was built by Chulalongkorn for his brothers' use. A two story building now known as the Exhibition Hall, Saphakhan Ratchaprayun is open to the public and serves today as a royal museum for relics from the palace's history.

Saphakan Ratchaprayun was built in 1879 by the King as a residence for royal relatives

Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun


Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun is another royal palace, located in the north of the complex. But the architectural style is very different from  that of the King's Residence or the Exhibition Hall - not Thai, not European, but very typically Chinese. Wehart Chamrun was built in 1889 as a gift from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to the King of Siam and is ornately decorated externally in red, white and gold.

Inside there is a throne room, with deep red lacquer decoration, ornamental tiling, heavy dark ebony furnishings. Gold and silver ornamentation, delicate fretwork with inlaid mother of pearl, colourful murals and porcelain exhibits, and an intricately carved camel-bone dragon sculpture, all add to the opulent aura and distinctive appeal of this Chinese palace. 

Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun is open to the public but unfortunately photography inside the building is not possible.

Wehart Chamrunt Royal Palace and Throne Room

The Royal Floating House' on the Chao Phraya River - not the most elaborate or important building on the site, but with a quaint appeal all of its own

Phra Thinang Wehat Chamrun - the romantic Chinese Pavilion - has ornamental tiled floors, massive ebony furniture, and displays of gold, silver, and fine porcelain

Thewarat Khanlai

Thewarat Khanlai translates into English as the 'God King Goes Forth' Gate - a highly emotive title which really is indicative as the role of this elaborate gatehouse on the pond at Bang Pa-In. It served as the connection between the outer palace and the royal inner island and the inner royal residences.

The 'God King Goes Forth' Gate which leads from off the island to the royal palaces, one of which can be seen on the left

Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), the pavilion in the middle of a pond. Phra Thinang Aisawan Thipaya, probably tghe most photographed building at Bang Pa-In

The Gate - seen from the other side of the pond, with the Aisawan Thiphya Pavilion on the left

Aisawan Thiphya

 

The royal residences may be the most important official buildings at Bang Pa-In, but there is no doubt as to the Summer Palace's greatest attraction. That is Phra Thinang Aisawan Thipaya, the 'Divine Seat of Personal freedom' and it is perhaps the only truly authentically Thai-style building in the palace, a beautifully ornate pavilion sitting on a platform in the middle of the lake.

Although little is known about the buildings of Bang Pa-In prior to the revival of the site in the 19th century, it is known that a pavillion of this kind was built soon after the Summer Palace came into being, in the year 1632 on the occasion of the birth of  King Prasat Thong's son, the future King Narai. However, that pavillion had long since gone before the current structure was deigned in 1876 under the reign of Chulalongkorn. A bronze statue standing in the middle of the pavilion represents King Chulalongkorn.

 

This type of ornate pavilion designed as a meeting place, shielded from sun or rain but with open sides is called 'sala Thai' and they are something of an iconic Thai design found throughout the country mostly in temples but also at other sites. The Aisawan Thiphya really is the archetypal example and may be considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Thailand.

The Memorial to Queen Sunanda Kumariratana


Bang Pa-In has many statues, monuments and sculptures within the grounds of the Palace, and all of course have a significance in commemorating some person or event. None however, is as poignant as the marble obelisk shrine to Queen Sunanda Kumariratana. In 1881 a royal barge was carrying the Queen and her only daughter Princess Kannabhorn Bejraratana along the Chao Phraya River to Bang Pa-In when it capsized, and the two royals found themselves struggling for their lives in deep water. Queen Sunanda was just nineteen years old and Princess Kannabhorn was not even two.

However - and this will seem truly bizarre in the modern world - the reverence for the monarchy was such that commoners were forbidden to lay a hand on a member of the royal family, on pain of death. Onlookers watched but did not intervene because of fear of the legal constraint on touching the Queen. What's more, they were positively instructed not to touch her by the Chief Attendant to the Queen who was on an accompanying boat! So it was that they all watched helplessly as Queen Sunanda and her daughter drowned. 

 

On hearing the news, a grief-stricken King Chulalongkorn was horrified that the law had been carried out to the letter. He jailed the Chief Attendant, and the law was immediately repealed. The memorial contains a poem written by the heart-broken King.

The Memorial to Queen Sunanda

(ScorpianPK - Wikimedia Commons)

Ho Withun Thasana

Ho Withun Thasana

 

One other building cannot be ignored at Bang Pa-In, if only because of it's gaudy red and yellow striped decoration and because it towers above all the others.

 

Ho Withun Thasana, or the 'Sages Look-Out', was erected close to the Chinese Palace to survey the area in the vicinity of the palace grounds. But its function was never intended as a watch tower for defence. Rather, it was used by royal parties as an observatory to view the surrounding countryside, or indeed the heavens above - because King Chulalongkorn who built Ho Withun Thasana in 1881, was also reputedly a keen amateur astronomer.

 

Today, visitors can climb the stairs and enjoy the views from the top.

It's not only the buildings which attract visitors to Bang Pa-In. Landscaped gardens and flowering shrubs also abound in the parkland around the palaces

Ayutthaya

 

If one is thinking of visiting Bang Pa-In, one must also visit Ayutthaya, because that ancient city is one of the great sites of Thailand. Ayutthaya is a huge complex of ruined temples, restored temples and active temples. Literally hundreds of temple complexes exist in and around the ancient city, and all cannot be visited in a day. But a representative selection can be, and that is the purpose of the article which is linked to here. A more detailed history of Ayutthaya is given, and eight of the more interesting sites are described with photos.


Ayutthaya - The Ancient Capital

VISITING BANG PA-IN

Bang Pa-In may have been a royal palace in the past, and indeed is still a royal palace today, but in the 21st century it is rather easier for us commoners to visit today. The obvious link between Bangkok, Bang Pa-In and the ancient city of Ayutthaya is the Chao Phraya River which passes through all three. What most tourists will do is to take a day trip to Ayutthaya and stop off en route at the Summer Palace, or on the way back from Ayutthaya. Many organised tours offer this as an option, and many will include the option of a boat cruise along part of the route.

 

If you are travelling independently, train or bus connections are a good option. You can take the train from either Bangkok's Hualamphong Station to the Summer Palace, or from Ayutthaya if you visit the old city first. Train fares for a trip such as this are very cheap, and the Summer Palace is within walking distance from Bang Pa-In Station. Bus services go more frequently from various terminals in Bangkok, and may therefore be a more convenient option.

If you prefer a more personalised service, taxis can also be hired from Bangkok, or minibuses or tuk-tuks can be hired from Ayutthaya.

 

Within the park one can hire electric golf carts to drive around the grounds though for most people the palace can easily be explored in its entirety on foot.

One last point - although rarely used as a royal residence, the status of Bang Pa-In means that there are etiquette protocols in place with regard to dress code.regulations in place for visitors. You may not be allowed entry to the site if your clothing is not appropriate. That means not wearing shorts or very flimsy T-shirts. However, if your dress sense is deemed inappropriate, there are garments such as wrap-around skirts available for hire at the entrance.

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SUMMARY

A visitor to Bang Pa-In can take what they wish from a tour of the palace grounds. For some it will simply be a pleasant day out from steamy Bangkok City - a chance to walk in nice gardens, and around an array of beautiful buildings.

For others it will be the architectural styles and decor of those buildings - Thai, Chinese and Western - and what that says about the time when King Chulalongkorn was sovereign of Siam, and the changes which he brought to his nation during one of the great modernising eras in the country's history.

And for others, including the author of this article, Bang Pa-In offers a tantalising glimpse in Microcosm into the wonders which were lost just 20 km further north in the great city of Ayutthaya in the year 1776. Of course Bang Pa-In is in no way comparable to Ayutthaya. Bang Pa-In was just a small Summer Palace for the King of Siam, whereas Ayutthaya was the centre of an empire building city state. What's more, the buildings of Bang Pa-In represent a different period of time. With the possible exception of the Aisawan Thipaya Pavilion, the edifices in this place are indicative of Siam's developing role in the wider world at the end of the 19th century, rather than the period between the 14th and 18th centuries when Ayutthaya was at it prime. But what Bang Pa-In does amply illustrate is the opulence and extravanance of royal palaces in a bygone age. Looking at Bang Pa-In, one can only try to imagine what a wondrous sight Ayutthaya itself must have presented in its hey-day.

I’d Love to Hear Your Comments Thanks, Alun