The 1951 musical, The King and I, is banned in the Kingdom of Thailand. The fictionalized script, based on the memoire of Anna Leonowens who served as tutor to the children of His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, from 1862-1867, is highly offensive to both the Chakri dynasty and Thai society. Considering that the most onerous objection is the fictionalized portrayal torture and execution of Tuptim (who actually became one of Rama IV’s 36 wives) and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the 83-year old current monarch is a direct descendent of Rama IV, one might understand Thai sensitivity. When it comes to the monarchy, Thai sensitivity is high – it is a revered institution (with a capital “R”). Not only that, Rama IV started the modernization of both the monarchy and Thai society which is exactly the reason he hired Anna as governess to his children.
Following the destruction of the great 14th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1782 at the hands of the Burmese, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital 40 miles south and established Bangkok. King Rama I literally had the course of the Chao Phraya River altered along with the construction of numerous canals to surround the new capital with a watery moat. That same year, he began the construction of the half square mile Grand Palace complex on the river’s bank. At the center of the complex is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually solid jade and robed in rich garments that change with the seasons. The Emerald Buddha itself was a prize of war from present day Laos centuries ago.)
The scale of most structures is so vast that it’s difficult to capture with a camera, but the artistic craftmanship is nothing short of stunning.
The Grand Palace complex today serves official functions only, as well as being Bangkok’s top tourist attraction. Admission to the complex is US$6.50. Photos are not permitted inside any of the few buildings open to the public, and shoes are always removed inside Temples and most Thai houses. Wandering the complex grounds is fascinating enough.
In the 1890’s His Majesty King Rama V found life in the Grand Palace too frenetic and moved the residence of the Royal Family to the Dusit area of Bangkok several miles inland from the river. There on a vast track of land that he personally purchased, he commissioned his European educated architect brother to design and construct the world’s largest all golden teak building, Vimanmek Palace (no interior photos, of course). The 72-room Palace would be comfortable as a mansion in any Victorian seaside town. Built in traditional Thai style there is not a single nail in the entire structure. Wooden pegs join everything including spectacular circular staircases.
Unlike so many mansions, this was a home. It’s flooded with light and well ventilated with intricate wooden lace work topping all walls allowing air to freely circulate. It serves as a museum today for the royal collection of period furnishings and for both official and private functions of the Royal family. Currently, it is now part of the extensive private compound of the Royal family including the Royal Elephant Museum and the Dusit Zoo. Admission to the Palace is included in the ticket for the Grand Palace and is valid for a visit within 7 days of the ticket’s purchase. One hour guided tours are conducted and, wearing no shoes, the silk-smooth teak floors feel wonderful on your feet.