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The Grand Palace and Dusit halls top many a travel itinerary, but few make it to Bangkok’s other former royal residence: Phaya Thai Palace. Curiously set amid the grounds of a hospital, this regal Romanesque estate tells the story of Thailand’s turbulent transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. It also hosts one of the city’s most elegant cafes.
Seeking a residence with views of the fruit orchards that once stretched over northern Bangkok‘s landscape, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) ordered the palace to be built in the early 1900s. Phaya Thai translates as “lord of the Thais“, a not-so-subtle hint that an absolute monarchy was firmly in control near the end of Chulalongkorn’s 40-year reign. When the king passed away shortly after the palace was completed in 1909, it became Queen Saovabha’s private residence until her death a decade later.
As King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) rebuilt much of the complex in the early 1920s, a handful of wealthy Thai commoners (as in not of royal or noble blood) began to educate themselves on foreign political ideas, including democracy and communism. The king literally played with these concepts by building a miniature utopian city, Dusit Thani, behind Phaya Thai Palace. Although the make-believe city’s two- to three-foot high structures were centred around the monarch, it included newspapers, communal halls for government and even a mini-constitution.
After becoming Rama VII when Vajiravudh passed away in 1926, King Prajadhipok converted the palace into a luxury hotel that catered to well-heeled Westerners. Though this move was probably due to the poor financial situation Prajadhipok inherited from the previous reign, it served as a reminder of how Siamese rulers held on to their sovereignty by walking a diplomatic/economic tight rope between the British and French empires that controlled most of Southeast Asia.
Urged on by calls for change among the Thai people and perhaps his own conscience, Prajadhipok intended to implement an elected parliament to compliment the monarchy. Fearing their grip on power would be lost, the king’s royal-blooded advisers persuaded him to hold off. As a reaction, the People’s Party, led by an elite group of commoners and the military, usurped power in a virtually bloodless 1932 coup. Initially, the king remained on the throne as a constitutional monarch, but he later abdicated in protest of the new government’s authoritarian inclinations. From then on, Phaya Thai Palace was largely neglected.
Despite it being founded on democratic ideals and a new constitution, the People’s Party ushered in decades of military dictatorship in Thailand. Meanwhile, Phaya Thai Palace continued to reflect where Thailand’s true power lied; it was handed to the Ministry of Defence and converted into an army hospital that remains today. When the modern medical buildings arrived, the old palace was reduced to a rundown yet attractive place for nurses and doctors to relax while on their lunch breaks.
The nurses remain today, but the palace has undergone a series of recent renovations that reflect modern Thailand’s revitalised reverence for the monarchy and related historical sites. During our visit, several rooms had been renovated while others were being painstakingly worked on. Although the lesser rooms still have a more neglected air, it’s easy to imagine the palace as a place of princes and queens.
Named Phiman Chakri Hall after Thailand’s current royal dynasty, the palace’s main structure boasts three levels of marble floors, gilt flower frescoes, crystal chandeliers, kingly portraits, original swing-open windows, stately entrance-ways topped by old royal seals and a mezzanine that ascends into a thin, Gothic tower.
Perhaps the palace’s most striking feature is the distinctly Byzantine style Thewarat Sapharom Hall that fronts the grounds. With intricate mosaics and wood carvings leading up to a domed ceiling, the elegant olive green structure is typical of King Chulalongkorn’s favoured architectural style. It’s also the only structure in Phaya Thai Palace that remains from his lifetime.
Connected to Phiman Chakri Hall by a lavish roofed corridor, a front reception hall with dark woods and a high vaulted ceiling remains one of the palace’s highlights. Noble guests once received refreshments here while awaiting an audience with the royal family — or to be shown to their hotel room.
Today, anyone can enjoy the reception hall with an excellent cup of coffee and perhaps an almond meringue or slice of cheesecake in Cafe de Norasingha. While the cafe opened in 2003, it was modelled after an establishment of the same name that served sausages and croissants to Western dignitaries near the Grand Palace in the early 20th century. During our visit, several seemingly esteemed Thai police officials met around one of the old, sturdy tables. The melodies of a talented classical guitarist filled the hall. Though it retains the royal atmosphere, the cafe’s prices are fit for the commoners.
How to get there
BTS: Victory Monument
Phaya Thai Palace is located on Ratchawithi Road, in the Phramongkutklao Hospital complex, a short walk west of more palaces at Dusit, or straight east to some of the great food and bars of Victory Monument.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 12th May, 2014.