TRAVEL GUIDE South-East Asia Italian's design fit for a Thai prince

The palace is one of the few European style buildings in Bangkok open to the public.
Picture: Ronan O'Connell

RONAN O’CONNELL takes a peek inside an ornate royal palace in Bangkok

Bangkok has so many Buddhist temples they almost blend into the background after a while, despite their glimmering appearances.

 The capital of Thailand has some of the most stunning religious structures in all of Asia, the highest concentration of which is in Rattanakosin, Bangkok’s oldest district. 

This area is home to the likes of Wat Saket, decorated by a golden spire which appears to glow from the temple’s lofty hilltop position. It also boasts the tourist magnets of Wat Pho, with its enormous reclining Buddha statue, and Wat Phra Kaew, renowned for its stunning emerald Buddha.

The latter of those temples is a focal point of Bangkok’s No. 1 tourist attraction, the Grand Palace. 

This sprawling complex of opulent structures, built in traditional Thai architectural style, was the first official home of Thailand’s royal family in Bangkok. Construction of this monumental compound began in 1782, the same year Bangkok became the capital of Thailand. 

The Thai royal family were based in the Grand Palace until the early 1900s, when they moved to several European- style palaces scattered across the leafy district of Dusit.

One of these stately homes, Bang Khun Phrom Palace, remained off limits to the public for almost a century before opening its doors last year. 

This striking pale-yellow mansion was designed in a neo-baroque style by an Italian architect who had a massive influence on Bangkok’s appearance. Mario Tomagno landed in Thailand in 1900 and spent 26 years orchestrating major projects at the instruction of the Thai royal family, who wanted to add some European flair to Bangkok.

As the only country in South-East Asia never colonised by Europeans, Thailand’s cityscapes at this stage did not have the same foreign architectural influences as the main cities in nearby Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. 

Tomagno set about changing that in the early 1900s. He and fellow Italian architect Annibale Rigotti designed new palaces for several members of the royal family, as well as Bangkok’s huge central railway station, and a range of majestic banks, libraries and religious structures.

Tomagno’s first major project was Bang Khun Phrom Palace. 

For years before it opened to the public I had my eye on this attractive mansion. 

Its waterside location ensured I saw it regularly as I took boat cruises along the Chao Phraya River, one of my favourite activities during the time I’ve spent living in Bangkok. 

When I heard it was finally going to allow visitors, I marked its opening in my diary. 

The day after it opened I was there, lining up ready to explore its ornate interior.

Unfortunately, so were hundreds upon hundreds of other people. 

The queues were so long that I, and many others, were turned away. While I had merely waited a few years to inspect the palace, some older Thai people told us they had wanted to visit it for decades. In a city with relatively few such grand Western buildings open to the public, the palace was exotic to many Thai people.

I waited a few weeks and returned. 

Tomagno’s design was masterful. Bang Khun Phrom may not be nearly as large as palaces I have visited in Europe but its beauty cannot be denied.

Outside, green shuttered windows offset its yellow facade and stark white roof. Inside, sweeping marble staircases lead to lavish foyers and parlours embellished by intricately carved stonework and woodwork, towering arched windows and delicate antiques. 

It is, as it was designed to be, fit for a prince. 

Offering a brief side trip to Europe, the palace offers something unique in an exotic Asian city filled with temples and lively street markets.

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