Sumptuous Summer Palace

Bang Pa-In offers a respite from the bustle of Bangkok

By: Christopher Batin

The bridge before me was no ordinary bridge. I slowed my pace to take in the details of the intricately tiled walkway design with its Thai and Greco-Roman overtones. Catfish finned lazily in the pond below and on both sides of me were marbled statues that served as silent vanguards to nobility. The far bank enticed me to cross over to immerse myself in its vibrant natural green, a welcome change from the neon glow of Bangkok traffic. There was no man-made noise, only a sedating harmony of Thai songbirds. Like paint on an artist’s palette, flowers of all types and varieties splashed their colors over the landscape, tempting the gardener in me as honey attracts bees. I was mesmerized.

While Bangkok’s Grand Palace attracts many tourists with its massive size, decor and history, Bang Pa-In is my favorite palace tour. Thailand’s many kings made Bang Pa-In their summer residence for good reason. The palace is surrounded by a river and lush gardens, and its many buildings are filled with Thai history and culture, making for a delightful escape from the hectic pace of the big city.

Bang Pa-In lies 36 miles north of Bangkok by rail, 38 miles by road and can be enjoyed on a separate tour, or as a great side trip on any Ayutthaya tour. It’s a must-see attraction because it isn’t duplicitous with any other Thailand tour.

The best way for clients to enjoy the palace is by optional boat ride to Bang Pa-In, which provides a snapshot of life along the klong (river).

I observed tons of salt being loaded onto freighters, novice monks taking a dip in the river and shrimpers pursuing freshwater prawns. Refreshments are not served, so remind your clients to pack water or soft drinks.

I kept a zoom lens on my camera at all times, because it’s a prerequisite to capture the klong lifestyle that invariably zips by too fast.

The Bang Pa-In Royal Palace dates back to the 17th century, but meticulous maintenance makes it appear as if it was built just yesterday. While most tourists complete the tour in one to two hours, I recommend several hours touring the various side buildings, gardens and residences.

One of Thailand’s former monarchs, King Chulalongkorn, was especially fond of gardening, and he built numerous pavilions and gazebos laid out in a lush natural setting. One of the highlights of this tour is the intricately manicured plants and shrubs in the shapes of deer, rabbits and elephants.

The Ho Tower offers a fabulous, 360-degree look at the entire grounds and countryside and is an easy climb up a long, spiral staircase. Also called the Sages Lookout, this observatory is located high enough to capture the breezes that allow a nice cool-down during midday heat. Because there are few refreshment stands on Palace grounds, upon arrival I restocked with water and carried it in a small daypack.

The Phra Thinang and Wehart Chamrun form an intricately decorated Chinese-style mansion that has ornamented, tiled floors, exquisite furniture, delicate fretwork on the columns and windows and a throne room.

The palace was presented as a gift to King Chulalongkorn in 1889 by the equivalent entity of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Prince Ookhtomsky once said that the emperor of China himself can scarcely have a palace much finer than this.

No photos are allowed to be taken inside the palace rooms, so look long and remember for always.

Phra Thinang which translates to “excellent and shining heavenly abode” is lavishly decorated in oil paintings that depict significant events in Thai history and literature. When Thailand’s royalty visit Bang Pa-In, they reside in apartments located in the Inner Palace.

While Thai military armed guards are scattered throughout the grounds, there’s no need to take alarm. The palace is a national treasure, and the guards are tolerant of visitors taking a rest on the steps or on benches, sitting on the grounds or watching the events unfold. However, littering and climbing onto the statues will result in severe reprimand and fines.

An official government-licensed tour guide offers a historical overview that is worth the slight extra cost when compared to do-it-yourself tours. Mr. Ohn from Ricco Tours was a perfect guide, giving us the history and details in either an air-conditioned building or in the shade.

While the palace is attractive on any day, the colors and magnificence of the paintings, artwork, flowers and multi-colored mini-tiles are especially vibrant on sunny days. Early morning offers the best viewing, with the awakening countryside and flowers. Plan on touring until midday, before returning to your hotel or taking in local attractions of Ayutthaya. Take plenty of film or memory cards.

Bang Pa-In may not be the largest palace in Thailand, but as is often the case, the best things come in small packages.