When it comes to capital cities, Bangkok is relatively young, being founded back in 1782. But over the course of two centuries, the Chakri Kings and populist politicians have striven to give the city all the stately aura and sophistication that a political and cultural capital should possess. Explore, and you’ll find statues, parks, palaces and galleries. But most impressive is its rather respectable thoroughfare Ratchadamnoen Avenue, which compares favourably with Paris’s Champs-Élysées, or the Mall in London. Ratchadamnoen is the artery through which Thailand’s modern history flows, with the architectural glories of Rattankosin at one end and the breath-taking Italianate Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall at the other.
The domed, neo-classical Throne Hall seems an anomaly in tropical Bangkok. Crafted from dazzling Carrara marble, the building would surely be more at home in Paris or Pisa, but it was actually the brainchild of the Thai King Rama V the Great who required a reception hall for guests of the court. So he commissioned Italian architects, Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno (who also designed Bangkok’s Hua Lampong Station and the original Oriental Hotel), to bring his vision to life. It’s a wonderful wedding cake of a building, and gleams under the bright Asian sun, and up close you find many elegant details, faces and carvings all created by sculptor Vittorio Novi.
The exterior elegance continues inside. When you enter and scale the curved staircase, you find yourself in a small but sumptuous octagonal hall, the wall panels decorated with a shimmering collage of beetle wings that must have taken hundreds of hours of work. This attention to detail continues in the main reception hall, so prepare to be regally impressed. The deep carpets, royal insignia and soaring Corinthian pillars can rival the majesty of any European palace. But when you raise your eyes skyward, it’s the Thai elements of the glorious murals that make you gasp. These paintings tell the story of the Chakri Dynasty from the reign of Rama I the Great to Rama VI – you’ll see King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) freeing the slaves and Rama II supervising the beautification of Bangkok’s temples from the back of an elephant – it’s worth risking a slight neck pain to take it all in.
But like any good jewel box, the beauty of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall is surpassed by the sumptuous objects displayed within. The Hall is also home to some art and craftworks commissioned, made and collected by the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT) of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
Her Majesty has long supported the creative talents of the Thai people and promoted the kingdom’s rich cultural heritage. She established the SUPPORT Foundation in 1976 to preserve and develop Thailand’s traditional arts and crafts. The Foundation also trains new generations of artisans so that age-old skills are not lost. Some 23 different types of crafts are supported by the Foundation and true masterpieces created in the workshops are displayed in the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. So you can see amazing woodcarvings, examples of basket and enamel work, sumptuous gold and silverware, jewellery, embroidery work and exquisite nielloware, beetle wing decorations, textiles and inlays.
Naturally, it’s the biggest pieces that attract attention. The most impressive, in terms of sheer detail and workmanship, is the carved teak screen created in celebration of the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Accession to the Throne. This double-sided artwork shows scenes from the legend of Sang Thong, which relates the tale of a deformed but morally good hero who wins the heart of a high-born heroine. The screen’s reverse depicts Himmaphan, the legendary forest that surrounds Mount Meru in Hindu myth. Himmaphan is home to mythical beasts; such as, the sacred Naga and the half-bird, half-beauty queen kinnaree – you can spot them peeping out from among the delicately carved forest undergrowth.
Other large works include amazing embroidered tapestries. They seem to be shimmering paintings until you get up close and see the intricate details have been picked out in delicate silk threads. These too, tell tales from Thai mythology and require careful examination – the main characters stand out from the frame, plumped up with stuffing, and the wide spectrum of colours used is amazing.
But, don’t let the larger items distract you from other artworks. Standout pieces include the Phra Mahajanaka Golden Junk, a golden Chinese boat, beautifully decorated with gems and damascene inlay – it took 38 people to create. There is also a display of items from the Royal Household including an exquisitely arranged table setting used when foreign dignitaries are entertained.
In the lower rooms of the Throne Hall, other pieces of Thai art and craftsmanship can be seen. These include displays of gold and silverwork, basketry and paintings. Many crafted items are examples of bags and jewellery that Her Majesty has taken on official trips overseas, showing off to the world the high standards and amazing artistry of Thai craftsmanship.
So not only is the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall worth seeing in itself, as an iconic and beautiful piece of Thai history, it is also perfectly complemented by the Arts of the Kingdom exhibition. The Throne Hall is the perfect setting for the real and eternal jewels of Thailand – the sumptuous artistry, skills and talents of the Thai people that have thrived and developed over centuries.
Opening Hours: 09:30 – 16:00 Hrs., Tuesday – Sunday (ticket office closes 15:30 Hrs.)
Location: Royal Plaza, Dusit, Bangkok
Photography is not allowed inside the Throne hall and as the building is a Royal Property, there is a strict dress code – this means no flip-flops, shorts or sleeveless shirts and T-shirts.