6 June 2024

At first glance, the rows of cannons on display in front of the former Ministry of Defence Building could be mistaken for decorative toys, but a trip to the Defence Hall Museum quickly makes it clear that they are the real thing. In fact, the cannons and the old building tell intriguing stories and shed light on some fascinating facets of Thai history.

The museum takes visitors back to the early Rattanakosin period and relates the history of both the Thai military and the historical building.

The Neo-Classic building, now known as the Defence Hall Museum, celebrated its 139th anniversary on July 18. Constructed during the reign of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) at a time when Siam was embracing European civilization, the building was designed by the esteemed Italian architect Gioachino Grassi. Its Palladian-style architecture has endured over the years, making it one of the most exquisite structures in Bangkok and earning its registration among the Fine Arts Department’s ancient sites in 1998.

Defence Hall Museum. (Photo by Veena Thoopkrajae)

Painted yellow with elegant white and green borders, the museum stands out for its flawless design inspired by Andrea Palladio’s principles of symmetry and architectural excellence. Throughout the years, it has maintained its prominence and continues to captivate people of various generations. It graces numerous modern media platforms and is a much-loved backdrop for countless pictures.

The museum tour begins inside the building, in a small room where guides greet visitors before showing a short introductory film. This video not only delves into the history of the site’s construction but also offers a glimpse of Siam’s capital in bygone eras. The scenes portrayed are rarely seen elsewhere and include the picturesque landscape of the Grand Palace and buildings of over a century ago, a tram passing by the side of the building, the early uniforms worn by foreign military trainers, and even the significant flooding events Bangkok has faced over the years.

Learning from the building model. (Photo by AuntieBudba)

“King Rama V called it the ‘Front Barracks’,” the guide tells us. The initial plan was to build a two-storey building but the architect decided that a 3-storey edifice would look grander. It cost the government 560,000 baht, a small fortune at the time.

Grassi designed the building as a trapezoidal structure around a lawn with a central courtyard surrounded by columns. This Palladian style has its origins in ancient Roman house plans. Architects at that time popularly adapted the design to large mansions or palaces to ensure good light.

When the video concludes, visitors proceed to a small hall where they are greeted by a model of the entire building. Here, the guide offers detailed explanations of the architecture and the significant developments of the structure throughout its evolution. Alongside the model, the exhibition focuses on the man at the heart of the Front Barrack, Chaophraya Surasakmontri (Jerm Sangchuto). He led the unit and served in the building from its inception all through the reign of King Rama V. On display is his sword, believed to have been bestowed upon him by King Rama V, along with his statue and photographs. The exhibit also features a water pipe made with clay from that period and a preserved section of the old brick wall.

Chaophraya Surasakmontri (Jerm Sangchuto)’s sword on display next to his statue_. (Photo by AuntieBudba)

Into the battlefield

Visitors are then led to another room showcasing a fascinating array of military items. Among these exhibits is a book that records the names of soldiers who served in World War I, as well as various objects once used by old military officers, and unique items such as the oval-shaped Tiab (lidded container) and the mythical Kochasri Sea (a creature from Thai literature, resembling a lion with the trunk of an elephant). Notably, this room also houses state papers from the reign of King Rama VI. The window provides a great view of the Grand Palace and some of the cannons outside.

The history of the cannons opens a whole new realm of knowledge, making it an ideal destination for those interested in armaments. In total, the museum displays 40 bronze cannons from 5 different countries, namely Thailand, Vietnam, England, France, and Spain.

Forty of these cannons, each named by the ruling monarch, are displayed in the outdoor museum in front of the Defense Hall. Each comes with a detailed explanation of its history.

“They mostly have fierce-sounding names such as Hera Jai Rai, Narai Sangharn, Phrakan Plaan Lok and Phrasutha Ngai because they aimed to scare the enemies and boost morale,” the guide explains.

A row of cannons. (Photo Courtesy of AuntieBudba)

Some of the cannons on display date back to the Ayutthaya period, showcasing the rich historical legacy of Thailand. The two oldest cannons with a recorded history, ‘Akkraniruth’ and ‘SMICVEL 1625’, are of Spanish origin and were crafted in 1625 during the reign of King Songtham of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1610-1628). Another notable piece is the Phya Thani cannon, believed to have its origins in Pattani and which dates back to the 17th century. Standing out for its exquisite craftsmanship is the Marn-pralai cannon, an elegant creation inspired by an Ayutthaya-style design.

View from the exhibition room overlooks the Grand Palace. (Photo by Kanokchan Patanapichai)

Originally placed at various points within the Grand Palace, these cannons were later relocated to the Defence Hall compound on the orders of King Rama VI (King Vajiravudh). He was inspired by a tradition he witnessed at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and this prompted the move to the present site.

It is worth noting that these cannons represent just a portion of the old cannons in Thailand, as many others are found in different provinces and museums throughout the country. Nonetheless, the Defence Hall compound houses some of the oldest and most beautifully crafted cannons, making it an ideal visit for those intrigued by armaments and other trappings of war.

If you go

The Defence Hall Museum is open to the public. Group tours can be booked through Facebook: Defence Hall Museum

Any bus that goes to Sanam Luang will take you to within easy walking distance of the museum. Alternatively, take the MRT to Sanam Chai station.

**Special thanks to Facebook: Auntibudba for arranging the tour attended by this writer.

By Veena Thoopkrajae