Solid Thai history
Ever hear the word "Thainess"? The vague but in-vogue concept is often mulled by Thai citizens trying to clarify their cultural identity, and cited by nationalists bent on an “us and them” approach to outsiders. The Museum of Siam demystifies Thainess by way of interactive exhibits and straightforward historical facts.
The experience begins with a five-minute film that blurs images of modern Thailand together with portrayals of its ancestors. In one scene, a snobby woman yells into her phone, "No, we won’t accept anything that detracts from our culture and traditions!" Next instant, the same actress appears in an ancient village performing a bizarre ritual of spitting up some kind of liquid on a baby’s head.
While this scene pokes fun at the convoluted perceptions that some modern Thais apply to their "traditional" culture, the museum gets serious when it comes to the facts. "Always asking questions, challenging perceptions, seeking answers," as the museum’s literature puts it, the insightful and at times entertaining exhibits display how "Thainess has a multitude of roots."
Each beginning with a sensor-controlled video narrated in Thai and English, the museum is partitioned into several spacious rooms that each focus on a certain aspect of Thai history or culture. Descriptions are written in clear English (as well as Thai), going far deeper than the dull and often historically questionable info found in places like Ayutthaya Historical Park.
After outlining what's known of the region's earliest hunter-gatherers, the museum takes on Suvarnabhumi, the "Golden Land" that many Thais insist was centred in what’s now Central Thailand some two to three thousand years ago. The exhibit mentions how the Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Vietnamese all claim to be the true inheritors of Suvarnabhumi.
Another room spotlights how a loose collection of independent kingdoms became one formidable empire based in Ayutthaya some five to seven centuries ago. Exhibits emphasise how the capital was a melting pot of different peoples, including ethnic Thais but also Lao, Mon, Cham, Chinese, Khmer, Malay, Indian, Persian, Japanese, Portuguese and French, among others. Topics like trade and war are discussed in depth, and one display features several copies of maps dating back many centuries.
A room covering religion is careful not to downplay the influences of Hinduism and animism in modern Thai Buddhism, mentioning how "Few Thais realise that when they offer flowers to Buddha images, they are in fact performing a Hindu ritual." The museum concludes with Siam/Thailand in the 19th and 20th centuries, showing how Western influences coupled with a nationalist push have defined the modern society.
Opened in 2013, the Museum of Siam should be commended for keeping true to what’s known about the region’s history rather than composing its own rendition to fit in with certain views. A description of King U-Thong highlights how this founding king of Ayutthaya may have actually been Mon, Chinese or even Khmer by birth — a notion that Thai nationalists would cringe at.
Designed by an Italian architect in the late 19th century and for many years housing the Commerce Ministry, the building is an attraction in its own right. Elegant tile floors, high rounded arches, pale yellow walls and polished teak stairs all make the venue a pleasure for the eyes as well as the intellect.
While the exhibits probably won’t blow you away, the interactive media, artistic displays and carefully selected artefacts should be enough to keep kids from getting bored. Museum of Siam’s location just south of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace makes it easy to pick up a solid historical background before moving on to these far more impressive (but not self-explanatory) attractions.
Also known as Siam Discovery Museum, the Museum of Siam is located in a triangle between Maharat Road, Sanamchai Road and Soi Setthakan, with entrances from any of these. From Tha Tien Pier (accessible by a cross-river ferry from War Arun Pier), walk straight out of the pier and take the first right (south) on Maharat, passing Wat Pho on the left. Continue for another couple of hundred metres and you'll see an entrance on the left (north) side of the street, across from the entrance to Chakrabongse Villas. The museum is also a short walk north from Pak Khlong Talad flower market.
Address: South end of Sanamchai and Maharat Roads, Bangkok
T: (02) 225 2777;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º29'38.81" E, 13º44'39.7" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 300 baht
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.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Bangkok