The legacies of fallen kingdoms abound in Bangkok. Yet while these magnificent palaces and temples exemplify the power and wealth once wielded by Thailand’s greatest monarchs, few tell the stories of Bangkok’s people, or the fascinating discoveries that have shaped Thai culture.

If you really want to dig deep into the rags to riches past of Thailand, the magnificent former abode of the vice king overlooking Sanam Luang public square in Bangkok is the place to start. Here, behind the stuccoed walls of this opulent building lies the headquarters of all National Museums in Thailand: Bangkok National Museum. Established in 1874 by King Rama V to showcase the treasures amassed by his predecessor, the Bangkok National Museum complex beckons with an impressive cache of over 1 million artifacts and exhibits spanning from the Neolithic period to present day. With free guided tours in English (every two hours from 9.30 am – 4.30 pm) and freedom to roam the extensive grounds at leisure, you could easily get lost for an entire day here exploring Thailand’s fascinating past!

 

Rediscovering Lost Kingdoms

Far from a dusty old mansion crammed to the rafters with curios and old bones, Bangkok National Museum is an impressive, stately complex comprising six unique gallery buildings of varying historical importance. Each houses the relics of a particular period in Thailand’s history, so if your primary interest is the rise and fall of Thailand’s ‘lost’ kingdoms (Sukhothai and Ayutthaya) you won’t have to navigate through endless galleries to find what you’re looking for.

Without doubt one of the museum’s finest treasures, the 13th Century King Ramkhamhaeng Script within Sivamokhapiman Hall is a must-see for anyone with a remote interest in language or literature. Credited with founding the Thai alphabet and establishing Theravada Buddhism as the official religion of Sukhothai Kingdom, King Ramkhamhaeng created this fascinating steli to commemorate the reputation and prosperity of Sukhothai, as well as his own generosity. Nearly every child in Thailand is taught the famous opening lines of the script “where there is water, there are fish; where there are fields, there is rice”, and it remains Thailand’s most important historic literary work.

Crossing over the courtyard, you’ll come to a large ornamental temple commonly referred to as Wat Buddhawaisan – home to the oldest painted wall murals in Bangkok. Finished in a similar style to the 18th Century Sivamokhapiman Hall, the tiny chapel is fronted by a vast lawn decorated with red poles – the very same used by royalty as aids for mounting elephants for state parades. The interior of Wat Buddhawaisan is surprisingly light and airy given its former use as a place of worship. Every wall features lifelike murals depicting scenes from the life of Buddha. In one, you can just make out the figure of Guatama casting his bowl into the river of the Naga King, while further along, Buddha himself is pictured with his disciples at the very moment of Parinirvana. Of course, the most noticeable image within this sacred space is the Phra Buddha Sihing, a golden statue of 13th Century origin believed to have floated to Thailand from Ceylon!

If you are interested in the royal history of Thailand, the European styled Issaretracha Nusom Hall (located just to the right of the temple) offers a fascinating glimpse into the kind of luxury King Rama IV would have enjoyed in the 18th Century. Little has changed within this royal retreat for 150 years; the oil painting of George Washington still mounted proudly in the living room, and the same gold embroidered eiderdowns covering the canopied beds in the royal chambers. Don’t forget to peek into the throne room before you leave – well worth it just for a glimpse of the huge shrine dedicated to the former king.

 

A Museum of Life and Culture

Comprehensive audio and pamphlet guides for Bangkok National Museum can be bought for around 50 Baht at the main desk, but if you really want to understand the cultural heritage and significance of the museum’s key exhibits, book yourself onto a guided tour at least a day in advance of your visit. Tours commence every two hours from 9.30 am, and encompass all fifteen rooms of the museum – including the fascinating Weaponry Exhibition with its collection of royal ceremonial swords, and the Theatre, Arts and Games Hall with its fascinating array of shadow play figures and “Khon” puppets. Replicas of these smiling effigies can be found at the gift shop on the North side of the complex – a truly unique souvenir to commemorate your visit!