6 June 2024

Standing proudly in the grounds of Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, Suan Sunandha Palace was for several years the home of female royals and ladies of the court, as well as the centre of court cuisine, art and culture.

With the grand palace becoming overcrowded during the final years of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, the monarch created a garden outside the palace to serve as a place to relax and as a home for his consorts, daughters, and female courtiers after his death.

After the 1932 revolution, the palace was abandoned and the government put the buildings and grounds to other use. In 1937, it was turned into a school for girls, evolved into a teachers’ training college in 1975, and eventually became Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University.

Only a few of the 32 buildings that once formed part of Suan Sunandha Palace remain. The century-old Saisudha Nobbhadol Building, once the residence of Princess Saisavali Bhiromya, the royal consort of King Chulalongkorn, has become a museum.

Designed by Italian architect A. Rigassi, the man behind Ayutthaya train station and the building which is now Sofitel Hua Hin, the charming two-story structure has lots of windows and doors for good ventilation.

This building was previously hidden by tall trees and a beautiful flower garden, boasting roses, orchids, rare flowersand more. Gardening was a hobby of Princess Saisavali Bhiromya and she put her green thumb to good use, even coming out at night, torch in hand, to look at the newest blooms. The palace grounds have since been relandscaped and only a small garden remains.

Entering the building, it’s easy to imagine how people lived in the old days. Although the house was built for princesses and court ladies, the décor is simple and minimal.

Princess Saisavali Bhiromya was known for her outstanding culinary skills and respectfully dubbed the head chef of the palace. Her kitchen is a must-see. Two shelves are stacked high with pots, pans, a scale, spoons, and other cooking tools. At the center of the kitchen is a low table set with Nam Prik Long Rua, which was invented by the princess herself, and Khao Chae prepared to a unique recipe.

The princess, who hated to see anything go to waste, is credited with creating many dishes that remain popular today, among them Nam Prik Long Rua, which she made by mixing nam prik kapi (chilli paste) and such leftovers as crispy fried fish, caramelized pork, and salted eggs with steamed rice. She would fry mackerel, put the fish in a jar and cover them with oil to preserve them before dispatching the tasty treat to Princess Dararasmi in Chiang Mai.

The second floor of the building is devoted to an exhibition of embroidery, paintings, and floral decorations that reveal that life in Suan Sunandha Palace was more like attending a finishing school. Those who worked and lived in the palace would spend their days perfecting these arts and crafts.

The two main bedrooms, one of the Princess herself and the other of her daughter Princess Nibha Nobbhadol, have been laid out based on the recollections of those who once lived in Suan Sunandha Palace.

A few minutes on foot from the Saisudha Nobbhadol Building takes visitors to three more original buildings which are part of the 3 Rattanakosin Resource Center and hosts exhibitions of art and music.

Well worth seeing is the Art of Music exhibition in the Chudharattanabhorn Building, which showcases Thai classical music and the role of female royals in its evolution.

The Adhorn Dhibya Nivasa building, meanwhile, is home to a Visual Art exhibition that narrates the evolution of Thai architecture from traditional to contemporary design influenced by foreign architecture.

The last building, Auan Achava Dhamdhavalaya, focuses on Thai Classical Dance with the main exhibition on the second floor featuring Khon costumes, headdresses and decorations, as well as delicate fabrics used in the dancers’ costumes.

A stop at Suan Sunandha Palace Museum offers a wonderful break from the chaos of modern Bangkok, taking visitors back to the old glorious days while lifting the veil on the lives of ladies of the court and showing how they contributed to the conservation of Thai art and culture.

Suan Sunandha Palace Museum is open from Monday to Friday during university hours. One can simply walk in or contact the university and request a guided tour.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk
Photo by Kanockchan Patanapichai