Museums in Thailand have been traditionally boring and dull places to spend an afternoon. Now all of that has changed with the grand opening of the Museum of Siam on Sanamchai Road in Bangkok. Located in the former premises of the Ministry of Commerce, the museum is just a short walking distance south of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. If you have a few hours spare after visiting the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, then I highly recommend that you visit this new museum which tries to answer the question, "Who are the people of Siam?" Through a series of exhibitions in different rooms we were taken through Thai history from past to present.
We were first ushered into a small auditorium where we were presented with a light and sound show which gave us an introduction to the people of Siam. The video presentation, which had English subtitles, actually posed more questions than it answered. But we later found that as we walked through the exhibits we met some of the characters who gave us some of the answers that we were seeking. The exhibit rooms were as follows:
1) Were the cavemen Thai?
2) Where was Suvarnabhumi?
3) What really is the heart of Buddhism?
4) What was the origin of the Ayutthaya Dynasty?
5) Who was the richest man in Ayutthaya?
6) Why did Ayutthaya wage war?
7) What was racially pure Thai?
8) Who inaugrated Bangkok as capital of our kingdom?
9) Why did we change the name of our kingdom to Thailand?
10) Who drew the first map of Thailand?
As we all know, the name of the new international airport in Bangkok is called Suvarnabhumi. But did you know that this is an ancient name that was linked to this whole region and meant the "Land of Gold"? The following is an explanation from the exhibit:
About 2,000 years ago, Indian, Chinese, and Greco-Roman documents refer to a landmass to the east of India. It was fertile, rich in resources, and it was believed that a merchant might make his fortune there. These reports attracted travellers to the region which was called, in various languages, Suvarnabhumi, Suvarnadvipa, Jin Lin, Chryse Chersonesos, all of which meant Land of Gold. Prince Damrong was the first historian to claim that Suvarnabhumi was situated in Thailand, in the Chao Phraya Basin with its center at present day Nakhon Pathom. Neighbouring countries have also proposed that Suvarnabhumi was situation in their region. This provided ample evidence that there was an active international trade during this period. Suvarnabhumi is not really one country or city, but rather the whole region.
Another nearby exhibit explained why Bangkok was never mentioned in early documents about Suvarnabhumi. This was because Bangkok as we know it was at that time below sea level. About 5,000 years ago, the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand was hundreds of kilometres further inland. (Someone should tell Greenpeace that Global Warming isn't a modern invention!) Over the years, the Chao Phraya deposited silt, and the muddy estuary gradually moved south becoming dry land about 1,000 years ago. In the past, the cities of Suphan Buri, Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom were all major harbours.
Another nearby exhibit explained how Siam became Thailand. This is what they said:
The process of "Nation Building" began under King Rama V (reign 1868-1910) and gained momentum under King Rama VI (reign 1910-25). Nationalism reached its apex under Field Marshal Pibulsonggram (P.M. 1938-44). His National Socialist regime produced a State Edict in 1939, proclaiming that the country was henceforth to be called "Thailand" in accordance with its racial pure "Thai" inhabitants who were genetically superior to other "lesser breeds". Under this Edict, those who conformed to the ideals of the dictatorship were pronounced "racially pure Thais". Those who resisted and attempted to preserve their cultural identity became, at best, second class citizens.
In the picture above you can see some posters of the time. Of notably interest is the poster in the bottom right corner that tried to teach Thai people not to dress like "savages". I have posted a close up of this poster at our ThailandQA.com forums. It is not surprising that there is now a call to change the name back to Siam as the present name doesn't reflect the racial diversity that we have. In particular, it clearly labels the people in the deep south as "second class citizens" as they are not pure Thai but rather Malay.
It is easy to spend several hours at the museum as the time will pass very quickly. Most of the exhibits are interactive using modern technology never before seen in Thailand. There were also touch screen monitors but you had to use in a different way. For example, we had to use a brush in the archeology section to brush away the layer of dirt to see bones "buried" beneath. In another section we had to pick up drum sticks and actually beat a drum in order to interact with a video presentation. There were also games to play. Many of them are "hidden" and you really had to study the exhibits in order to find all these hidden treasures. Every room had people on duty that encouraged you to learn by interacting with the exhibits. Although we were there a long time, I am sure if we go again we will discover something that we never noticed during our first visit.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. At present it is free to visit, but this is due to change within 3-4 months. I strongly urge you to visit this fascinating museum where all the exhibits and video presentations are bilingual and so are therefore catering for the foreign tourist market. This is a refreshing change as we usually only get a brief outline, if we are lucky. The museum is easy to find. In Thai it is actually written "museum siam" though you will find that many people have never heard of it. We caught a taxi at the corner of the Grand Palace and the City pillar and told him to drive south down Sanamchai Road towards the river. You will see the building on your right after Wat Pho. It has a red roof and cream coloured facade. It was actually so near that the fare didn't go up from 35 baht. You can also take bus numbers 3, 6, 12 ,32, 44, 47, 53, 82 and 524. There is also a river express boat pier at N7 Rajinee. Or you could get off at N6 Memorial Bridge and walk through the flower market to the museum.
Our new Bangkok Guidebook with interactive map will be launched soon. In the meantime, keep an eye on thai-blogs.com as I will be visiting more museums and attractions in Bangkok in the coming weeks and months.