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Ancient Siam

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Known as Muang Boran in Thai, Ancient Siam is an open-air museum south of Bangkok that features replicas of Thailand’s most important historical sites along with sculpture gardens and mini museums. Though the replicas are a far cry from originals both in scope and craftsmanship, Ancient Siam earns points for its relaxing atmosphere, impressive scale, creative vision and dedication to preserving Thai culture.

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A monk strolls through one of Ancient Siam's many passages.

A monk strolls through one of Ancient Siam’s many passages.

This grand project began in 1963 after being dreamed up by the late Thai businessman/philanthropist/visionary, Lek Virayabhun, who also brought Erawan Museum just north of Ancient Siam and the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya to fruition. Ancient Siam was Virayabhun’s most ambitious project; billed as the world’s largest outdoor museum, it occupies some 240 acres and required hundreds of artists to create no less than 115 individual sites, many of which are continually being worked on while others are planned for the future. Above all else, we were impressed by the sheer magnitude of the project.

The grounds were designed roughly in the geographical shape of Thailand, divided into South, Central, East, Northeast and North, with each correlating in location to the Thai regions they represent. The park’s peaceful grounds are spread out, with streams, ponds and plenty of trees interspersed among each section. Even during peak tourism season the park feels near empty due to its vastness; plan on spending the better part of a day here to see everything by bicycle.

Lots of birds, fish and even a petting zoo too.

Lots of birds, fish and a petting zoo too.

A great many of Thailand’s most prominent historical sites are replicated at Ancient Siam. Among the most impressive are the Grand Palace of Bangkok, Wat Mahathat of Sukhothai and especially Preah Vihear of northern Cambodia (although many Thais still dispute which side of the border it’s on). Ancient Siam’s Preah Vihear is built atop a high human-made hill which affords sweeping views of the entire park and beyond.

As we explored the replicas up close, it became obvious that many skilled artisans have devoted immense amounts of time and effort to their construction, but the artists were perhaps hindered by the behemoth scale of the Ancient Siam project as a whole. We wouldn’t quite write off the replicas as kitsch — there’s just something far less inspiring about a monument built from cement in the 1980s than the original carved from stone a thousand years ago. Still, each site includes detailed descriptions in English and collectively Ancient Siam is a great place to learn about the history of Thailand.

A replica of Saraburi's Buddha footprint temple.

A replica of Saraburi’s Buddha footprint temple.

Rather than the replicas of existing monuments, the most interesting sites are perhaps those relating generally to Thai culture. Elaborate central plains and northern mountain “villages” feature actual “villagers” who display how traditional farming and cooking equipment were used centuries ago. A Northeast Thai folk museum includes an interesting outdoor spirit house exhibition that spotlights Thai animist beliefs. Nearby sits a countryside “meditation retreat” with simple wood kutis that monks would use for long-term sessions of non-self-discovery. And back in the central zone, you can stroll through the house of a wealthy 19th century Bangkok merchant or purchase a bowl of noodle soup from a “traditional” boat vendor in the “floating market”.

A variety of spirit houses in the

A variety of spirit houses in the “Northeast”.

Ancient Siam also left room for the artists to produce something entirely new. Several sculpture gardens based on regional mythology include a “Garden of the Gods”, which is a stunning melange of sculptures depicting Hindu and Buddhist deities riding bulls and elephants and scaling human-made waterfalls on horse-drawn chariots. Other installations, like the “Sala of 80 yogis”, border on the cheesy.

Your correspondent during a serious assessment of Ancient Siam.

Your correspondent struggling to mimic one of the 80 yogis during a serious assessment of Ancient Siam.

Parting ideological ways with the many museums in Thailand that cast a purely “Thai” ethnocentric (and historically inaccurate) blanket over sites and artifacts, Ancient Siam is mindful of the many diverse cultural influences that have shaped Thailand over the centuries. Posted info on monuments built by Khmer hands doesn’t attempt to mislead visitors into thinking otherwise, and several sites are devoted to the importance of ethnic Chinese people in the history of Thailand. One of the park’s most impressive features is the Chinese-style “Pavilion of the Enlightened.”

The hall of the enlightened.

The hall of the enlightened.

Overall we found most of Ancient Siam’s replicas to look better in photos than they do in person. We learned a lot about Thai history and culture and enjoyed the experience, but Ayutthaya is a much better bet if you have limited time for a culturally inclined day trip out of Bangkok.

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