BANGKOK — Visiting the royal residence of King Taksin the Great would remind Thais of many unsettled questions from the bloody history.
The building, commonly known as the Old Palace, was the power center of the brief Thonburi Kingdom (1767–1782) before the capital moved to the current side of the Chao Phraya River. The palace is open to the public until Dec. 28. But a closer inspection of its history reveals several questions that have yet to be fully explained.
First, how does King Taksin look like? Despite many depictions of him in textbooks and monuments, there was no contemporary image of the king, who lived from 1734 to 1782.
Second, was the Old Palace ever a palace at all?
Praphat Chuvichean, an associate professor of art history at Silpakorn University, said there is no record of any architectural signifier designating the venue as the royal palace. Reasons for its absence are unclear.
“It could have been that the [new] capital was meant to be temporary or that the king’s status was still unsettled as there were competing claimants,” Praphat, who wrote a book on Thonburi arts, said on the phone Tuesday.
Although no official guides or curators are available for the general public, I managed to sweet-talk a navy captain who heads security at the Old Palace to be my “personal guide” for the visit. Capt. Pongsawat Srisuksod believes the original wooden structure of the throne hall must have contained some architectural elements proclaiming it as a palace.
But he quickly admitted that it was his own speculation and not supported by any concrete evidence.
As for the other question, a 1999 oil portrait of King Taksin at the palace didn’t help much.
Many Thais imagined him to be a fierce-looking warrior king with a mustache. This perception can be traced back to the equestrian statue of the king at a major roundabout called Wongwian Yai, not far from the palace.
But that image was only “reconstructed” after the 1932 revolt which ended absolute monarchy. Designed by an Italian-born artist who later headed Silpakorn University, the statue was meant to break the hegemony of Chakri Dynasty monarchs in national memories as the sole dominant contributors to the Thai nation.
Since then, Thais are taught to think of the king as a fierce-looking Thai-Chinese warrior king. After all, Taksin – whose father was Chinese tax collector – reasserted Siamese independence in less than a year after the Burmese armies razed the old capital of Ayutthaya.
After abandoning any hope to restore Ayutthaya to its former glory, Taksin established a new capital in Thonburi, an area west of today’s Bangkok. It is now situated in the same ground as the navy’s headquarters.
Standing at the dais overlooking the lower part of the throne hall with marbled floor and flanked by two rows of eight columns on each side, one can imagine how of affairs of the then newly-formed capital of Thonburi was administered by the king. It was modest and beautiful.
Another popular mystery associated with the late king is how he died.
Official chronicles say he turned “insane” and cruel towards the end of the reign. His trusted general, Chao Phraya Chakri, eventually seized power in a coup, executed Taksin and went on to build a new Grand Palace and found a new capital on the eastern side of the river. The said general was later crowned as King Rama I, the first of the Chakri Dynasty.
Curiously enough, my guide, who is in his mid-fifties and has been in charge of the Old Palace security for 20 years, said he doesn’t believe the official version of the story.
“I don’t think he was killed,” Captain Pongsawat said.
A well known conspiracy theory had it that Taksin merely gave up the throne to his usurper and led a quiet monastic life as a monk in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Others believe the king had to disappear because he borrowed more money from China than he could repay. None of these stories, despite their popularity, are endorsed by serious historians.
But when it comes to the legacy of King Taksin, my guide was unwavering in his conviction.
“We would probably be speaking in Burmese, or English now,” Pongsawat said of the fate of Thailand today if Taksin failed to repel the Burmese occupying forces in 1767.
All in all, a trip to the Old Palace is a must for all Thais curious about its past. A few foreigners steeped in curiosity were also spotted wandering around the venue on the day I visited. Unlike many other attractions in Thailand, King Taksin’s former residence is free for everyone, both Thai and foreign.
The Old Palace is open to the general public including foreigners free of charge until Dec 28 from 9am to 3.30pm daily. There’s no guide but one can purchase a guide book which is available both in Thai and English. The English version costs 350 baht.