Grand Palace and Jim Thompson House: Best attractions in Bangkok


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Grand Palace

Grand Palace @ Tourism Authority of Thailand

Part of the greater complex that also encompasses Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maharatchawang) is a former royal residence that is today only used on ceremonial occasions. Visitors are allowed to survey the Grand Palace grounds and four of the remaining palace buildings, which are interesting for their royal bombast.

At the eastern end, Borombhiman Hall is a French-inspired structure that served as a residence for Rama VI (King Vajiravudh; r 1910–25). Today it can only be viewed through its iron gates. But in April 1981 General San Chitpatima used it as the headquarters for an attempted coup. Amarindra Hall, to the west, was originally a hall of justice but is used (very rarely indeed) for coronation ceremonies; the golden, boat-shaped throne looks considerably more ornate than comfortable.

The largest of the palace buildings is the triple-winged Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall). Completed in 1882 following a plan by British architects, the exterior shows a peculiar blend of Italian Renaissance and traditional Thai architecture, a style often referred to as fa·ràng sài chá-dah (Westerner wearing a Thai classical dancer’s headdress), because each wing is topped by a mon·dòp (a layered, heavily ornamented spire). It is believed the original plan called for the palace to be topped with a dome, but Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910) was persuaded to go for a Thai-style roof instead. The tallest of the mon·dòp, in the centre, contains the ashes of Chakri kings; the flanking mon·dòp enshrine the ashes of the many Chakri princes who failed to inherit the throne.

The last building to the west is the Ratanakosin-style Dusit Hall, which initially served as a venue for royal audiences and later as a royal funerary hall.

Until Rama VI decided one wife was enough for any man, even a king, Thai kings housed their huge harems in the inner palace area (not open to the public), which was guarded by combat-trained female sentries. The intrigue and rituals that occurred within the walls of this cloistered community live on in the fictionalised epic Four Reigns, by Kukrit Pramoj, which follows a young girl named Phloi growing up within the Royal City.


Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson house @ Youtube

This jungly compound is the former home of the eponymous American silk entrepreneur and art collector. Born in Delaware in 1906, Thompson briefly served in the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) in Thailand during WWII. He settled in Bangkok after the war, when his neighbours’ handmade silk caught his eye and piqued his business sense; he sent samples to fashion houses in Milan, London and Paris, gradually building a steady worldwide clientele.

In addition to textiles, Thompson also collected parts of various derelict Thai homes and had them reassembled in their current location in 1959. Some of the homes were brought from the old royal capital of Ayuthaya; others were pulled down and floated across the klorng (canal; also spelt khlong) from Baan Khrua, including the first building you enter on the tour. One striking departure from tradition is the way each wall has its exterior side facing the house’s interior, thus exposing the wall’s bracing system. His small but splendid Asian art collection and his personal belongings are also on display in the main house.

Thompson’s story doesn’t end with his informal reign as Bangkok’s best-adapted foreigner, however. While out for an afternoon walk in the Cameron Highlands of western Malaysia in 1967, Thompson mysteriously disappeared. That same year his sister was murdered in the USA, fuelling various conspiracy theories. Was it communist spies? Business rivals? Or a man-eating tiger? Although the mystery has never been solved, evidence revealed by American journalist Joshua Kurlantzick in his profile of Thompson, The Ideal Man, suggests that the vocal anti-American stance Thompson took later in his life may have made him a potential target of suppression by the CIA.

Beware well-dressed touts in soi near the Thompson house who will tell you it is closed and try to haul you off on a dodgy buying spree.

Hope you enjoy your stay in Thailand!

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