Want to better understand Bangkok and appreciate its colorful history? Get a fun “crash course” at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall!by Percy Roxas
It’s been there for five years now, the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, retracing on a daily basis the life and times of the royal city that we now call Bangkok. Located next to the Mahajesadabodintr Pavilion Court just a few steps from the Democracy Monument, the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall (100 Ratchadamneon Klang Rd // Tel: 02 621 0044) – also called “Nitas Rattanakosin” – is a new generation museum that uses cutting-edge multi-media technology in retelling Bangkok’s history which makes learning about it not only more compelling but also more fun.
As with other museums, it is predicated on guided tours. But unlike other museums where you are merely a passive observer, here you become more involved in the discovery. Most of the activities are interactive and this puts you in a self-learning mode.
The tour starts at the lobby where a huge LED canvas welcomes you with its changing lights and colors. But wait, stand in front of the LED a little longer, maybe wave your hand a bit, and you’ll see a flight of birds (or their shadows) fly through.
Our own journey started with a pretty guide, Beer, explaining to us what the hall is all about. “Krung Rattanakosin” was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam before the country was renamed to “Thailand” and the city was called “Bangkok,” she begins.
“It was a city of grandeur and glory,” Beer continues, as she takes us to a Timeline display that traces the chronological events starting from the founding of Rattanakosin by King Rama 1 in 1782, and leading up to the present day. We have no doubt that that era was a great one indeed, and the display just whetted our interest even more. The Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall is divided into nine sections by the way.
Beer leads us to the room called “Grandeur Rattanakosin” where the story of Rattanakosin is related via four-dimensional multi-media spectacles. With the aid of audio-visuals, but also with much help from sensory elements (scent and touch), guests—mostly Thais that day—got into the proper mood for learning. The show was engaging, and indeed, even before the 10-minute showcase was finished, we were already getting a bit nostalgic.
Then we exited through a door leading to the “Prestige of the Kingdom.” This section is really all about the Grand Palace, the enduring landmark that is usually the first in any Bangkok first-timer’s tour program. One might say that it’s better to visit the real thing since it’s really not far away from the museum, but I don’t think one can get a real up-close view of what made it such an amazing place as is possible from here. Beyond the replicas of important statues that one sees in the palace, one gets to inspect intrinsic details, such as the art that went into the buildings, and get a comparative look at the architectural styles prevalent in those days; a feast for the eyes, as well as for the artistic mind.
This showcase continued in the “Prestige of the Land” section, where the evolution of the Grand Palace was presented in audio-visual episodes that include an account of the Emerald Buddha’s journey from Vientiane to Bangkok, among other things.
Then, we were led to a section called “Remarkable Entertainments.” Entering the door revealed a circular arena without seats, and as soon as we sat cross-legged in a corner, we were regaled by a display of the various Thai traditional entertainment forms from the era. Such a rich culture indeed, we whispered to ourselves as our eyes were transfixed on the visual retelling of how traditional Thai dance and performing arts developed into the nation’s pride and joy of today; and not just the “khon,” “lakorn” (play), or “hoon” (puppet), mind you. After the show, we had a DIY opportunity, and we mimicked “khon gestures, watched a special version of “Ramayana,” and even tried our hand operating royal-court puppet shows – with well-placed, user-friendly gadgets.
Now it’s time for the “Renowned Ceremonies.” The spotlight, as the section’s name implies, is on traditional ceremonies of the era, many of which are still practiced today, like the Rice Ploughing Ceremony in Sanam Luang. Even if you know about these royal ceremonies beforehand, there are likely many other details that can be learnt during the tour.
At the “Graceful Architectures,” where the symbolic palaces, temples, and residences of Rattanakosin are displayed, we saw how Western styles were combined with homogenous styles to give them a unique look and feel. One realizes how indeed one culture can enrich the other and vice versa, to give this world a common heritage.
At the “Impressive Communities” section, we traveled back to the lost age of innocence, and it made us understand why there is such a massive retro revival movement these days. We were allowed to walk, at our own pace, and try first hand “rarities” salvaged from the good old days: a jukebox, old magazine covers, a typical barbershop, beauty salons, a village store, etc. – which made us feel even more nostalgic.
At the “Sightseeing Highlights,” more places of interest were further revealed. The unexpected part was having our photo taken by a vintage camera, making us feel like Valentino or Chaplin, and then seeing ourselves “star” in a presentation in the next room afterwards.
But it wasn’t over yet. At “The Colorful Thai Way of Living” section, we observe how the Thai lifestyle has changed from the early Rattanakosin era to the present. The folk wisdom, culture, tradition, and other factors and influences that have shaped the Thai people’s outlook and way of life are deconstructed for you in detail in an effort to give you a more coherent understanding of its whole. And with several entertaining touch-screen games we felt like we were riding a time machine: traversing the rivers and klongs; taking a tram along Charoen Krung Road –the first road n Bangkok where urban development and modernization began; dropping by the various shops along the road, and taking a picture to make a postcard to send back home as a souvenir, among other things. We felt like we were there in that very time and place indeed.
By the time we reached the “The Heart and Soul of The Nation” section, which delves into the important legacy, accomplishments, and contributions of the ruling Chakri Dynasty, we know we have to catch our breath for a while. There are still other interesting sections to explore, there are still so many things to learn, but it had been more than two hours already and our legs were already complaining from the non-stop walking.
We reckon that with all the contributions this ruling Royal Family has done for Thailand, it is but just and proper to devote more time to this section, and so we decided that we shall have to come back – if only for those.
As we climb up a few more steps, we were thinking: Perhaps, the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall is not for every tourist. But if you want to understand more about Bangkok, and maybe appreciate it more, then it’s time you look at its glorious, checkered past. Nowhere is this past presented more extensively than at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall. Even if you’re not a history buff, there’s surely something to be learned here.
Oh, there’s an Observatory Point on the 4th floor where you can enjoy an almost 360-degree view of Ratchadamnoen Road and surrounds. It’s a great place to rest after the long walking tour, and enjoy an afternoon cuppa served by True Coffee.
The Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Entrance fee is THB 100 for both Thai and foreign visitors, free for children not taller than 120cm, For tourists especially, this experience could proved to be more than just a brush with local history!