Thai elegance meets European grandeur
Published/Last edited or updated: 13th September, 2017
No single building in Bangkok displays the extravagance of Siamese royalty during the early 20th century stronger than Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall.
Update: Anananta Samakhon Throne Hall will close for restoration on 1 October 2017, and a reopen date has not yet been released.
Commissioned by King Rama V in 1907 and completed eight years later during the reign of King Rama VI, the dramatic edifice was crafted from Italian marble and other pricey foreign materials in the Italian Renaissance and Neo-Classic styles. It’s now one of two major drawcards, the other being Vimanmek Mansion, found in Dusit Park.
From outside, the hall could pass as the capital building of a European nation with its dozens of pillars supporting a broad central dome and marble statues of children with Caucasian features dotting the rooftops. But instead of hosting a room for parliament, the whole structure revolved around a throne for a king who held absolute power in Siam.
The impressive scale and richness of the hall may make it seem like Rama V was a narcissist, but it did have strategic value. This king spent his entire reign walking a tightrope of diplomacy to keep Siam independent from the colonial powers pressing in on either side of his kingdom—Britain to the west and France in the east. Constructing great halls fit for European royalty helped to show the colonialists that Siam was not a backwater kingdom, but a modern and innovative nation that deserved to preserve its sovereignty.
The interior has only two floors and the upper one, housing the throne room itself, is simply magnificent—forget the longwinded audio tour guide for a moment and just pause in a corner to soak it all in. High above on the ceilings, exquisite frescoes painted by Italian artists Galileo Chini and Carlo Riguli display Thai-style designs framing a vivid pictorial history of the Chakri Dynasty. It’s a striking juxtaposition of East and West.
One scene displays King Rama I returning home victorious on elephant-back after a military victory against the Khmer. Another spotlights the religious freedom that was so important to King Rama IV, depicting him in a discussion with leaders of different religions. Rama V is shown standing at Bangkok port after decreeing slavery illegal in 1905. In more recent times, the late King Rama IX stood high up on an upper terrace and gave his birthday speeches to tens of thousands of Thais squished into the royal plaza that fronts the hall.
The throne hall doubles as a museum of traditional Thai arts supported by the Queen Sirikit Institute. Along with models of thrones used by various kings, the main throne room features exquisite woodcarvings, models of royal barges and wall-size works of silk embroidery that are as intricate as fine temple murals. On the ground floor, smaller pieces include gold and silver images of celestial beings and characters from Thai literature. Altogether the works combine to form one of Thailand’s finest collections of traditional art.
One thing you won’t learn about here is the role of the hall in Siam’s transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. After seizing power in a coup in late 1932, a group of military and civilian leaders announced their new form of government in the hall, and Rama VII later revealed Siam’s first constitution here under threat of removal (he later abdicated on his own terms).
To this day, sensitivities persist at a site that’s symbolic for both Thai royalists and supporters of democracy. In 2017, a plaque that had been installed in the road fronting the royal plaza to commemorate the 1932 abolishment of absolute monarchy was quietly removed late at night and replaced by a new plaque praising the monarchy. The fate of the old plaque remains a mystery, and many observers view its removal as an attempt to erase a chapter of Thai history.
Note that all visitors must wear long pants or skirts past the knees and shirts covering shoulders; otherwise you’ll have to rent a sarong to cover up. Photography is prohibited inside and handbags and even cellphones must be left in lockers at the gate.
A visit to Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall takes less than an hour, though you could easily lose half a day combining it with visits to Vimanmek Mansion and other related sites such as Dusit Throne Hall, Dusit Zoo and Wat Benchamabophit. There’s also a large statue of King Rama V on horseback standing at the centre of the royal plaza.
Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall is located in the Dusit area, more than three kilometres north of Khao San Road. City buses 5, 18, 56, 70, 72, 503 and 515 all pass within walking distance of the entrance, which is just east of the hall off Soi Uthong Nai near Dusit Zoo. Otherwise the closest public transport option is the Phadung Krung Kasem canal boat that stops at Government House Pier, less than a kilometre south of the hall. Thewet Pier off the Chao Phraya river ferry orange flag line is 1.5 km to the east, and Victory Monument BTS Station is two km to the west.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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