23 May 2024

If you would like to take a step back in time, to explore the charm of Siam during the King Rama V era, Bang Khun Phrom Palace, one of the most beautiful palaces in Bangkok, would be a great place to explore.

Bang Khun Phrom Palace is a former royal residence of His Royal Highness Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand, one of the heirs of King Rama V. The palace was, however, turned into government offices after the Siamese revolution in 1932, which forced the prince to live in exile in Indonesia until his death in 1944.

The palace was used as the Bank of Thailand’s headquarters in 1945. It was ultimately reopened as a museum in 1993. Now, under supervision of the central bank, the palace is open to the public so visitors can appreciate the art and history of the former royal residence.

-Back story-

Bang Khun Phrom Palace is unique, with its Baroque and Rococo architecture indicating Western influence in the country, as King Rama V strove for Siam to become a civilised kingdom.

“The Western style architecture stems from the Franco-Siamese crisis in 1893, which is a significant event in Thai history,” explains Sumaivadee Mekasut, Assistant Director of the Bank of Thailand’s Department of Procurement and Facilities Management, who’s a veteran tour guide at Bang Khun Phrom palace.

“Back then, King Chulalongkorn wanted Siam to become more civilised and the most obvious way was to construct buildings that looked modern. King Rama V himself also loved Western style architecture, especially following his first visit to Europe in 1897,” said Sumaivadee.

The exterior of Bang Khun Phrom palace, unique with Baroque and Rococo motifs

As to why the Thai palace used Baroque and Rococo styles, a few back-stories suggest the reason, apart from the popularity of such architecture. One aspect was the architects behind the design and another was the prince’s personal preference.

Bang Khun Phrom palace was initially designed by German architect Carl Sandreczki, evidenced by the staircase in the middle of the palace, which was designed in a similar fashion to the staircase in the Boromphiman Throne Hall of the Grand Palace. Later, an Italian architect, Mario Tamagno, took over the design process and chose Baroque architecture for the palace.

At the same time, it is widely assumed that, because Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand spent much of his time studying in Germany, he fell in love with European-style architecture and, therefore, wanted these elements to be featured at his own palace, once he returned to his motherland. According to Siamese royal tradition, male royal family members will have to move out of the Grand Palace, once they reach their teens. Sons of King Rama V were also allowed to choose their own designs for their royal residences.

“At the time, Baroque architecture was widespread in Europe, including Germany,” Sumaivadee explains, adding “So the prince may have been familiar with and felt impressed by its architecture and wanted his residence to be designed according to what he liked.”

There were many significant events that took place at the palace. Most significantly King Rama V, VI, and VII all visited Bang Khun Phrom Palace, which was considered quite unusual.

King Rama V visited the palace at least three times. Sumaivadee listed the significant visits of each Thai monarch. “His first visit to the palace was when Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand’s son was born. The second time was when the prince’s daughter turned one-month old. King Rama VI also used Bang Khun Phrom Palace to celebrate the engagement between himself and Princess Vallabha Devi. King Rama VII was very close to Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand and, therefore, would come to the palace frequently.”

King Rama VIII also visited the palace, when it was already under the Bank of Thailand’s supervision, whereas King Rama IX visited when it reopened as the central bank’s museum.

The marble staircase is among the main highlights of Bang Khun Phrom palace

-Inside the palace-

The palace comprises two main buildings. The main building is called Tamnak Yai, built from 1901 to 1906, which served as the royal residence of the prince. While the other building, Tamnak Somdej was built from 1911 to 1913 and served as the royal residence of the prince’s mother, Queen Sukumalmarasri.

The main building was initially designed by German architect Carl Sandreckzki. He was, however, transferred to work on other projects and Italian architect, Mario Tamagno, took over. This is how you can spot the unique Baroque and Rococo features, such as the decorative window frames and the spiral-shaped pillars inside the palace.

As you enter the main building, you will be impressed by the extravagant marble staircase, once considered the most elegant staircase of that era. Some suggest that the staircase resembles the grand staircase at the Opera Garnier in France. Most visitors snap pictures of themselves walking up the staircase, imagining what it might be like to be a royal for a day.

Don’t be surprised if you can feel a breeze as you walk around the palace, despite the hot weather. The structure of the palace was designed to allow ventilation throughout, with plenty of windows, decorated with Baroque and Rococo motifs, along the hallways.

“The palace is designed to suit the hot climate in Thailand,” Sumaivadee explains, as she gives us a tour. “Palaces in Europe do not have many windows like this because it’s cold there. So, the window shades can be adjusted to allow more or less sunlight and air into the palace.”

The Pink Room

As you walk around, you will pass through the Pink Room, one of the most beautifully decorated within the palace. This used to be the main hall in which to welcome royal visitors, to perform religious ceremonies and was even used for royal family members to watch a movie together, which was considered ahead of its time. Next to the Pink Room is the Dark Blue Room, now painted in grey, which was used as the living room of the prince’s royal consort, Her Serene Highness Princess Prasongsom Paribatra. Now it is being used to display portraits of the prince, as well as past photos of the Thai royal family, including King Rama VIII and King Rama IX.

The Dark Blue Room 

The connecting bridge will take you to Tamnak Somdej, which features more German Art Nouveau style, as it was designed by German engineer Karl Dohring. From the wooden spiral staircase, mosaic tiles, carved wooden pieces on the walls and pillars, and floral and geometric decorations, Tamnak Somdej has a more feminine and cozier vibe, compared to the main Tamnak Yai. The interior is mostly painted light green, making the residence feel close to nature.

Inside Tamnak Somdej, the royal residence of the Queen Sukumalmarasri

-Bang Khun Phrom “University”-

The palace is sometimes called “Bang Khun Phrom University”. This is because members of the royal family would gather in the living room downstairs to receive an education from foreign teachers, simply because Queen Sukumalmarasri did not want her nieces to study elsewhere.

“Bang Khun Phrom palace places high importance on education, so she hired foreign teachers to provide lessons entirely in English for her nieces,” Sumaivadee explains.

“The reason it was called Bang Khun Phrom University was because Her Serene Highness Princess Pachongrachit Kritdakorn (daughter of Prince Nares Varariddhi, a son of King Rama IV) took lessons here, but her elder brother jokingly named the palace as Bang Khun Phrom University, which sounded funny and many people liked the name. That was why they started calling the palace Bang Khun Phrom University,” noted Sumaivadee.

The living room where lessons took place

Apart from foreign languages, craftsmanship was also taught here. In fact, many of the crafts that we see today began in this living room, such as Puang Malai, or flower garlands (with ribbons in them), which were invented by the prince’s sister. At the same time, the prince’s sister and his daughter were also good at Western-style crafts, such as crochet, knitting and tatting.

If you open the windows, you will also notice a large pavilion, called “Kra Jom Trae”. This was where the orchestra of the royal navy performed during events, where everyone could hear the music echo across the palace.

After spending much time discovering the palace, it is fair to say that Bang Khun Phrom Palace not only reflects the colourful history of the royal family, but also marks the beginning of the modernisation of Siam.

Kra Jom Trae, a large pavillion for the orchestra to perform

-When to visit?-

Bang Khun Phrom Palace welcomes visitors throughout the year. The palace is, however, only open to the public at weekends, with three sessions each day (11am, 1.30pm, and 3pm), and only 40 visitors being allowed during each session.

If you’re planning to visit, it is recommended to book a timeslot at least one week in advance via this link https://services.botlc.or.th/PhysicalDistancing/Register/BangKhunphromPalace (NOTE: The website is only in Thai)

by Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World