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For 90 years, the Neilson Hays Library has encouraged English-language readers to expand their minds while enjoying a slice of peace and quiet in hectic Bangkok. A library may not sound like the city’s most exciting attraction, but those seeking culture and sophistication won’t be disappointed by the soothing atmosphere, elegant architecture and formidable collections of words and art found at Neilson Hays.
The library first sprouted roots back in 1869 when the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association was formed by a group of American and European women living in Bangkok. Though it began as little more than a book club, the organisation flourished under the guidance of Jennie Neilson Hays, a Danish-Protestant missionary who lived in the US for several years before arriving to Bangkok in 1881, where she met her husband, Dr Thomas Haywood Hays. As the makeshift book club grew, a plot of land was purchased at the corner of what’s now Surawong Road and Silom Soi 20 to build a library.
Before the library came to fruition, Mrs Neilson Hays succumbed to what’s thought to have been cholera in 1920, but her husband opened its doors in honour of his late wife two years later. The doctor must have been one classy guy; he hired the famous Italian architect Mario Tamagno, co-designer of the stunning Ananta Samkhom Palace, to design the building. With a flush white exterior, high ceilings, hardwood floors, a sweeping Italianate domed room, teak wood trim, forest green shutters and hand-carved card-catalogue cabinets (say that one three times fast), the library is a picture of elegance.
Inside you’ll find one of the most extensive English language collections in Southeast Asia stowed thoughtfully in the original wooden shelves. Browse through contemporary fiction, childrens’ books, travel guides and a fine assortment of academic volumes with a special focus on the history and cultures of Thailand and Southeast Asia. With spacious wooden tables amply laid out amid the gorgeous air-con hall, there’s no better place in Bangkok for a few hours of casual reading or study.
Although many of the library’s most prized possessions disappeared after Japanese imperial army troops occupied it during World War II, history buffs can still appreciate hand-written letters from Dr Neilson Hays to Thai royalty that date from the early 20th century. Officially recognised as a historic landmark by the Association of Siamese Architects, it’s easy to picture cultured colonial era Westerners sipping tea and reading in the library courtyard, which at that time was surrounded by fruit groves and swamp.
While Neilson Hays is best known as a centre of learning, it’s also an important venue for the arts in a city currently experiencing an artistic renaissance not unlike it did during the era when the library was founded. The distinctive circular dome-roofed room that faces Surawong Road was once the library’s main entrance way, but it has more recently been transformed into Rotunda Art Gallery, which shows paintings and photographs by a rotating mix of Thai and foreign artists.
Outside the library’s new front doors, the branches of old tamarind trees almost sweep the ground of a courtyard next to the attached Garden Gallery Cafe. Built in more recent years, this bright and spotless space boasts wall-length windows and feels like a plush railroad dining car that would have been lounged in by brandy-sipping movie stars during the roaring 1920s.
After perusing the art exhibitions that continue here, sit back with a good book, a glass of wine or excellent espresso and a slice of cake, cup of clam chowder, Australian beef burger, full English breakfast or any number of Thai dishes provided by the neighbouring British Club. Look no further than Garden Gallery if seeking a refined but casual spot for a brunch date.
Neilson Hays Library has stuck to its original “ladies club” theme by keeping its 12-member board, reputed to be the oldest non-profit in Thailand, entirely staffed by women. However, anyone is welcome to peruse the books and galleries or settle in for a few hours of reading, and donations are appreciated. If you’re in Bangkok long term, year-long memberships run a reasonable 2,400 baht for single adults or 3,300 for families. The library also offers free story-telling and crafts for children every Saturday at 10:30 and organises special family events throughout the year.
How to get there
The library is about a 15-minute walk from either the Chong Nonsi BTS station or the Sala Daeng BTS/MRT station.