HOURS: Wed.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Just south of the National Gallery and north of Thammasat University is the National Museum, housing the largest collection of Buddhist art in Southeast Asia. Murals and sculpture provide the backdrop to learn about the Buddhist, Hindu, Vedic, and Animist traditions that combine to form Thai Buddhism.
Royal collections of palanquins, howdahs, musical instruments, sculpture, masks and puppets, mother-of-pearl inlay, murals, lacquerware, pottery, jewelry, weapons, chariots, and textiles reveal the history of Thai royal diplomacy, ancient court life, and the evolution of Thai arts.
The museum has one of the best collections of Southeast Asian art in the world, from prehistory to the modern period, and is a vast, fantastic, but antiquated museum.
The grounds were originally part of a Wang Na, translated as “front palace,” and were the residence of the deputy king to Rama I and his court. The Wang Na would have extended south into the Thammasat University grounds to house the Royal Guard and west into the Colleges of Dramatic and Fine Arts grounds to house the large number of wives and children common to monarchs before the 20th century.
Sanam Luang just across the street was also once part of the palace grounds. In fact, museum pieces are still brought out to the field for special occasions, such as during Songkran when the famous Phra Buddha Sihing image is paraded for the public to make merit by sprinkling it with lustral water, and when an important member of the royal family dies the 200-year-old royal funeral chariots are rolled out from their specially made hangar on the northeast edge of the grounds.
Rama V transformed the complex into a museum to house his collection of art and artifacts, and later King Rama VII expanded the collection and the grounds dedicated to it. Today it is comprised of one main building and more than 10 surrounding structures and pavilions.
The best way to see the museum is to visit on a Wednesday or Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in order to take the two-hour docent-led tour in English, which provides a primer on Southeast Asian arts, Buddhism, Hinduism, royal history, architecture, and general wat etiquette, as well as instruction on how to navigate through the maze-like design of the museum (for a schedule of tours in other languages, check the museum website). These tours only scratch the surface of the museum’s collection, so those who want a comprehensive look at the collection will need a couple of days.
Touring the National Museum’s extensive collection can be daunting. Signage is limited, the layout is confusing, and the un-air-conditioned galleries are stuffy. Don’t rush through, though, as there is much to learn with a little guidance. Pick up a map when you pay the 200-baht fee at the ticket window and check large bags and backpacks in the secure lockers.
Water bottles are allowed in galleries and are available at the café connected to the Museum Shop. Photography is only permitted on the grounds, not inside any of the buildings. Keep in mind that very little of the museum is air-conditioned and it can get very hot by midday, and for some of the rooms you’ll be required to take your shoes off to enter.
The National Museum Galleries
If you don’t want to take a full tour of the museum, these galleries and exhibits are worth visiting on their own.
The Buddhaisawan Chapel
The chapel is adorned with murals dating to the 1790s that serve as a biography of the Buddha. Cast in bronze and plated with gold, the Buddha image in the chapel is the famous and revered Phra Buddha Sihing, said to have miraculously floated to the surface after the boat bringing it to Thailand from Sri Lanka was shipwrecked.
Royal Funeral Chariots
These ornate chariots were renovated and used for the funeral of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s older sister, in November 2008. Everything here is displayed with placards and video footage.
The Red House
Built on the Grand Palace grounds for King Rama I’s sister in the 1790s, the Red House was moved to Thonburi on the west side of the Chao Phrya River in the 1820s for use by her daughter. The daughter eventually married Rama II and became Queen Suriyendra. When Queen Suriyendra’s son Mongkhut became King Rama IV (the King portrayed in The King and I) and her son Prince Chutamani (later King Pinklao) the deputy king, the house was moved to its present location at the Wang Na. These many moves were possible because it is constructed without the use of nails and is made of teak, which naturally resists cracking, insects, and decay.
Enter the palace through Room 5 on your map; if it is closed, walk through Throne Hall to the back, past the throne. The two lovely courtyards separate the three wings containing 14 rooms. Even if you’re short on time, give yourself at least a few minutes to walk through the palace.
North and South Wings (Sculptural Art)
These wings feature the famous collection of Buddhist art, but signage is unreliable and there are many stairs to climb. This self-led walking tour will help you pick out a few key treasures in each time period.
Room S1: Asia Art
As you enter this room, note the wall map showing the trade routes that centered on Thailand. International trade led to the acceptance and incorporation of other cultural, religious, and artistic traditions. The collection of Buddha images allows for a side-by-side comparison of the way different cultures portrayed the Buddha.
Room S6: Ban Chiang
Upstairs, this air-conditioned room has excellent, informative signs about the prehistoric culture of Ban Chiang and its preserved pottery.
Room S7: Dvaravati Art
The river-dwelling Mon people predated the Thai culture’s ascendency of central Thailand and created Indian-influenced Theravada Buddhist art during the 6th-11th centuries. The Mon were known for their stone sculptures and terra-cotta work. En route to Room S8, find Buddha on Panasbati, a relief of the Buddha seated on a composite of the vehicles of the Hindu gods: Brahma’s goose, Vishnu’s eagle, and Shiva’s bull.
Room S8: Java Art (Indonesian Art)
All sculptures in this room are gifts from Java, made there in the 9th-12th centuries. Outstanding is the chubby, charming Hindu god Ganesha, son of Shiva, the remover of obstacles, god of knowledge, and new beginnings.
Room S9: Srivijaya Art
Srivijaya was a powerful maritime kingdom, incorporating, largely through marriage ties, Java, Sumatra, Malaysia, and Chaiya of Thailand, from the 8th to 11th centuries. The predominant religion was Mahayana Buddhism. The Padmapani, the bodhisattva of mercy, on the plinth in the center of the room wearing princely attire, is one of the museum’s treasures.
Room S4: Ancient Hindu Sculpture
Descend the stairs beneath Ganesha to the Hindu Sculpture room and find, centered on the landing, one of the most artistically significant sculptures found in Thailand, Vishnu. In Thailand, Vishnu is the most revered of the Hindu Trinity.
Room S3: Lopburi Art
Exit to Khmer and Khmer-influenced art of the Lopburi Period (11th-14th centuries). The lintel facing you as you enter tells the creation myth taken from the Mahabharata.
Room N4: Large Buddha Images
In N4 of the North Wing you are greeted by a colossal 3.7-meter (12-foot) Buddha image in teaching gesture from the Dvaravati period, seated as if on a throne. Also, find the two large Buddha heads from the Ayutthaya period and the oldest Ganesha statue in the museum, against the wall.
Room N5: Lan Na Art
Contrary to your map, Lan Na Art is on the lower floor only (N5). The kingdom’s longevity of rule (1296-1939) and mostly peaceful relations with its neighbors allowed for art to flourish, combine many styles, and produce what is considered by some as the most refined bronzes of all.
Rooms N7 and N8: Sukhothai Art
Upstairs, statues of the Hindu gods greet you. Shiva can be identified by the moon in his hair, his third eye, a snake on his shoulder, and a trident in his hands. Vishnu holds a chakra or disc. The female god has been identified as Uma, a gentle consort of Shiva.
Before entering N8, see the sign for correct, but misspelled, information about the very important Sukhothai Kingdom. The walking Buddha is emblematic of the innovative art of this period. See the Red Lacquer Buddha in the case to the left.
Rooms N9 and N10: Ayutthaya Art
Beginning in N8 behind the dividers, find the art from the Ayutthaya Kingdom, founded in 1350 and one of the greatest powers of Southeast Asia until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Few of the elaborate, bejeweled pieces survived, but Buddha images in full regalia were typical of the time. Find excellent examples of lacquer chests with compositions prized for the balance of color, contained energy, and dynamism of design. On the back wall, a carved cabinet showing lost Ayutthayan buildings is a museum standout.
Rooms N1 and N2: Rattanakosin Art
The modern, ornate style of art you’ll find in these galleries is similar to the architecture of the Grand Palace area. The Buddha images are rendered in royal garb with lavish detail (see back wall) harkening back to the opulence of pre-fall Ayutthaya. The statue at the center is of Brahma the Hindu creator god and is a replica of the very popular Erawan Shrine. Room N2 will introduce the decorative and theatric art objects also seen in the palace.
—contributed by Jean Harvey, National Museum docent
© Suzanne Nam from Moon Bangkok, 5th Edition