Tourists love their palaces. London has Buckingham, Paris is known for Versailles, but in Bangkok it is the Grand Palace that shines, quite literally, as the jewel in the crown of Thailand’s tourist attractions. The majestic buildings and glittering spires of its temple epitomise all that visitors expect of the exuberant East. Little wonder British writer W. Somerset Maugham was inspired to write, “It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth”.
But so dominant is the Grand Palace on Bangkok’s tourist itineraries that few visitors realise that there are other Royal Residences open to tourists. I spent a morning at my favourite.
The leafy district of Dusit hides some magnificent buildings behind its high walls. But the greatest is Vimanmek Mansion, the largest teak residence in the world.
Reaching three storeys, this palace of King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) was built in a European classical style but boasts distinctly Thai elements, not least the wonderful golden teakwood itself, which seems to glow, whatever time of day you visit.
Built in 1901, much of the main building was shipped from Chon Buri’s Ko Si Chang and reconstructed and expanded in the lush Dusit Gardens. King Rama V the Great lived here until 1906 and over the years it’s been home to various Royals and even used as a warehouse before a refurbishment in 1982.
You can wander Vimanmek alone, but it’s better to take one of the regular guided tours – there’s much to see and each item has a story to tell. As well as paintings, fascinating photos and sculptures, rooms are dedicated to weapons, hunting trophies, paintings and gifts presented to the Thai Royal Family.
To keep these items safe, most spaces are cordoned off with the ubiquitous velvet rope beloved of museums the world over, so you have to peer in. But it feels very much a family home, and preserved as though the occupants have just stepped out.
My favourite item is the self-playing piano, which belts out classic tunes, the keys eerily rising and falling as though played by an invisible musician. Before Vimanmek, I’d only seen such a piano in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
But the building itself is the real treasure. The teak floorboards are shined to a high polish by a century shuffling feet. It’s hard stuff too, and once brought a World War II bomb to an abrupt stop: you can still see the dent in the floor where it struck.
High ceilings and ingenious ventilation keep Vimanmek wonderfully cool and light floods in through elegant windows. And when you consider that the building was constructed without the use of a single nail or screw, it’s a pretty, miraculous mansion.
Dusit Gardens have much to see beyond Vimanmek. Many of the buildings were homes for the Royals. One is the HRH Princess Arun-Wadi Residential Hall, which was built by King Rama V the Great for his sister. Now it’s home to an exhibition of photographs taken by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself. There are family photos and self-portraits that offer an interesting look at the life of Thailand’s revered monarch.
Art continues in the Suan Farang Kangsai Residential Hall, which was built for Princess Dara Rasmi, a consort of King Chulalongkorn the Great in 1908. As well as paintings, there are some saucy statues to see as well as the Royal Palanquins in the lovely building and the vast central staircase gives it the feel of an English country house.
I finished my tour by visiting my favourite room in Bangkok – the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall. Built when King Rama V the Great moved from the Grand Palace to Vimanmek in 1903, it is sumptuously, gorgeously, eclectic. The exterior is covered with intricate fretwork whereas inside the throne room itself, (replete with throne) there is a distinctly Moorish feel thanks to coloured glass windows and carved ceiling brackets. It evokes the Arabian Nights – magic happens here. The Hall is now used to display artworks from the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT) set up by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.
I ended my tour of the Dusit Gardens in a café that overlooks the throne hall’s lawn. The owner Mae Yui, makes great cakes and brews a decent pot of tea. It’s a relaxing spot and feels a long way from the bustle, coach parties and tours of the Grand Palace. I definitely prefer Vimanmek – she’s less showy but has a great deal more to show off!
Open from 9.30 a.m. – 4.30 p.m. from Tuesday – Sunday.
Vimanmek is a Royal Palace, so dress appropriately – sarongs are for sale at the gates. If you’ve got a valid ticket for the Grand Palace before,
ntrance to Vimanmek is included.
For more information, visit www.vimanmek.com