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Bangkok’s National Museum is the big kahuna out of a long list of museums overseen by the Thai Fine Arts Department. Located across the road from Sanam Luang and a short walk north of the Grand Palace, it’s a mainstay on the itineraries of many visitors exploring the historic district.
The complex greets you with all of the grandeur that you’d expect from the national museum of a proud and ancient country at the heart of a region with several different artistic traditions. The complex was originally built as Wang Na Palace in 1782 to house family members of Thai kings. King Rama V began moving in treasures here in 1887, and the National Museum officially opened in 1926.
Reopening in 2016 after a major facelift, the Siwamokkhaphiman Hall, or “Gallery of Thai Art,” sits front and centre and features some of the museum’s finest pieces in a jumbled, introductory format. Highlights include the huge head of a Buddha image once enshrined at Ayutthaya’s royal temple along with 1,400-year-old Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist statuary from the ancient Dvaravati and Srivijaya civilisations.
Behind and to the right of this imposing hall sits the Phutthaisawan Chapel, housing a sacred Buddha image, Phra Phuttha Sihing, in an ubosot-type hall with gorgeous murals on the walls. Then you hit the imposing Maha Surasinghanat Hall with rooms 501 to 514 exhibiting thrones, khon masks, weapons, musical instruments, jewellery, ivory carvings and other artifacts from the royal courts of Ayutthaya and early Bangkok.
Easily overlooked, but not to be missed, is a pair of more contemporary buildings set at the back corners of the property. Rooms 301 to 307 display prehistoric artefacts along with religious statues and lintels from non-Thai civilisations, chiefly Khmer, Dvaravati and Burmese, but also from as far afield as Java and Afghanistan. On the other side, rooms 401 to 407 focus on the artistic styles of Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin, displaying how Thai religious art developed from the 13th century up to modern times. On the way out, pop into building 7 for a look at ornate palanquins and funeral chariots.
Most artefacts come with English labels stating the periods and places from whence they came. Beyond these and a few maps pinpointing ancient settlements and trade routes, you won’t find too much information detailing the actual history of Thailand. Make your way to the Museum of Siam for a more in-depth look at the various peoples who have lived in the region and how they moved around and changed over the centuries.
After hitting the National Museum you could continue south to Wat Mahathat and Phra Chan amulet market before continuing down to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Or you could strike north across Ratchadamnoen Avenue to the National Gallery on the way up to Khao San Road. A coffee shop is located next to the museum’s ticket booth, though we’d walk about 50 metres further south to Cafe Velodome.
How to get there
The National Museum is located across the street from the northwest corner of Sanam Luang and just north of the Thammasat University campus. The closest river ferry pier is Tha Maharaj, located a 15-minute walk to the south. Come to the ticket kiosk at 09:30 on Wednesday or Thursday to get a tour of the museum in English for no extra charge. Admission for foreign adults is 200 baht, which gets you a brochure and map.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 18th January, 2017.
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