In the 1660s, King Narai of Ayutthaya hired French and Italian architects to collaborate with Thai artists on a new palace, briefly turning Lopburi into the kingdom’s second capital. Today the Phra Narai Ratchaniwet Palace complex includes several ruins along with a section that was rebuilt in the 1850s and now houses the exceptional Somdet Phra Narai National Museum.
An eastern gate through the imposing white-plaster walls that surround the square-shaped complex brings visitors to a large lawn with several brick-and-mortar ruins to the south, including the remains of an elephant stable and reception hall. Large enough for an elephant, two gates lead from here to the inner palace, which houses the museum.
Standing largely untouched since the days of King Narai, Dusitsawan Thanya Mahaprasat is a large throne hall where the king received foreign dignitaries. Blending Thai, Chinese and European designs, its walls are still mostly in tact but the roof is long gone. In the corner stands a small statue of King Narai, who died in a nearby building in 1688.
The palace fell into disrepair until King Mongkut (Rama IV) of Bangkok commissioned a major restoration in 1856, rebuilding much of the complex as his personal retreat. A large section of the palace, the Phra Phrathiap buildings, served as housing for the “court ladies” -- all men other than the king were strictly forbidden from entering.
While most of the rebuilt structures display a colonial-period European design, the beautiful Chanthara Phisarn Throne Hall resembles a 19th-century Thai temple structure with its sparkling finials and Thai-style windows. The museum begins here with a display on Siamese relations with European and other Asian powers, including a striking painting of King Narai receiving a letter from a French envoy. Also check out the ancient lomphok, a traditional pointed crown worn by Ayutthaya-period kings.
The museum continues in the Phiman Mongkut Pavilion, which King Mongkut used as his personal residence. Sporting teakwood floors, high ceilings and many large windows in the thick white walls, the building is just gorgeous. Opened in 1924, the museum that it houses is one of Thailand’s finest.
Exhibitions include dozens of Buddha images and depictions of Hindu gods from the Dvaravati period (6th to 10th centuries) and Lopburi period (10th-13th centuries). Highlights include a ninth-century reclining Vishnu, a statue of Indra riding his three-headed elephant Erawan, and deva images from Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. Virtually all of the artifacts were discovered in the Lopburi area. You’ll also find Ayutthaya- and Rattanakosin-period artifacts, including an entire room featuring items used by King Mongkut.
Well-done information boards explain how the area passed from Dvaravati to Khmer to Thai control over the course of a thousand years. Lopburi’s prominence in all three of these powerful civilisations makes it remarkable in Southeast Asian history, and the museum does an outstanding job of showcasing it. Plan on losing at least an hour here.
How to get there
The gate to Phra Narai Ratchaniwet Palace is located to the east off Sorasak Road, a 10-minute walk northwest of the train station -- look for the big white walls.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 7th September, 2016.