Suan pakkad means ‘cabbage garden’ in the Thai language and Bangkok’s Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is just that – a museum contained in what was once a palace, built on a piece of ground that previously had been used for growing cabbages.
The palace was the residence of Prince and Princess Chumbot Paribatra of Nagor Svarga – the prince being a grandson of one of Siam’s greatest monarchs, King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910. The palace grounds acquired their most striking feature in 1952 when a quartet of traditional Thai houses that’d stood elsewhere were dismantled, transported here and reconstructed with walkways running between them at first-floor level. In their new location, these houses functioned as exhibition rooms for the prince and princess’s huge collection of cultural, historical and geological artefacts. These items, still on view today, include furniture, crystal-ware, silverware, porcelain, fans, scrolls, paintings, musical instruments, shells, fossils and precious rocks and minerals.
Later, further traditional houses were added to the site, as was a ‘lacquer pavilion’ that’d originally been part of a temple near Ayudhya. (The museum leaflet spells it as ‘Ayudhya’, but I assume it’s the same place as Ayutthaya, a town 40 miles north of Bangkok that’s home to the ruins of an old temple-riddled city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) The original pavilion was built in the 17th century but it was in a state of disrepair by the 20th; and, shifted to the palace, it underwent restoration until its internal gold-on-black-lacquer murals, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and tales from the epic Indian poem Ramayana, could be seen again in their full glory. These days, the palace is a fully-fledged museum operating under the auspices of a Thai philanthropic organisation called the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation.
Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is a few minutes’ walk along the road from Phaya Thai Station, which serves both as a terminal for Bangkok’s Airport Rail Link and as a stop on the Sukhumvit Line in the city’s Skytrain system. And unfortunately, the close proximity of a transport hub like Phaya Thai is noticeable in the museum grounds. Although the gardens there are admirably green and tranquil-looking, their peace is sometimes disturbed by clanking, trundling noises that reverberate down from an elevated concrete railway running above their southern perimeter. Also, the afternoon I visited, some evilly-bland Muzak kept wafting into the grounds from the PA system of a neighbouring multi-storey car-park.
Still, the traditional Thai houses are gorgeous and there’s much to see and enjoy inside them. My favourite part of the museum’s collection was contained in the first house – an array of traditional Thai musical instruments, including drums, gongs and Thai variations on the lute, xylophone and zither. I was always hopeless at learning to play musical instruments – tooting a cornet in a silver band when I was 10 or 11 years old was about as far as I got – but musical instruments themselves fascinate me. So I spent a good half-hour in there.
The sixth traditional house, meanwhile, contains an automated puppet show that enacts a battle from the afore-mentioned Ramayana. (The epic has a non-Hindu, Laotian version known as Phra Lak Phra Lam, which is popular in north-eastern Thailand, an area heavily populated by ethic Lao.) Once you press the ‘start’ button, the automated show takes seven minutes to play, although most of it consists of music, song and spotlights snapping on and off to highlight the battle’s protagonists. After a couple of minutes of listening and watching, this in itself becomes a little trippy. The puppets don’t actually move until near the battle’s end, and their movements are confined to them gliding back and forth along slots cut in the stage’s floor – which I thought was charming in an old-fashioned way. However, anyone who watches the show expecting robot-like puppets to suddenly come to life and start hacking at each other with swords will be disappointed.
Overall, I found the museum a pleasant and informative way to spend an hour or two but, weirdly, my most vivid memories of it involve two slightly-creepy encounters I had with aquatic life-forms. At the back of the premises stands a boathouse, which has berthed inside it a royal barge called Kao Kung Bayam (used by King Rama V himself during river processions). I noticed in the water beside the barge what I thought was a soldier’s helmet – discarded, submerged and filmed in algae. I got a shock when the helmet started moving beneath the water, seemingly under its own volition. Then I realised I was looking at a green turtle.
Meanwhile, one of the traditional houses overlooks a pool that has a fountain in the form of a huge fish-head jutting from the middle of it. While I was standing on a balcony above the pool, I decided to take a photo of the fountain – and I was perturbed when, through the viewfinder, I saw a second huge fish-head rise out of the water beside it. The second head belonged to a monstrous-sized carp. There seemed to be several specimens of them prowling around in that pool, Jaws-like.