Alun is a frequent visitor to Thailand and writes personal accounts of the country's great attractions in a series of easy-to-read articles
Visitors to Bangkok, capital of the Kingdom of Thailand, will find the city a vibrant, colourful and noisy place, a city of gaudily painted, flamboyantly designed temples, of busy, exciting street markets, of exotic, intriguing night life experiences, and of traffic jammed roads. It is a city to stimulate the senses of sight, sound and smell - a city to enjoy, but one which can be just a little bit overpowering unless enjoyed in moderation. Bangkok is a city where one needs an occasional breather, a respite from the fumes, the noise and the crowds, friendly though the local people are.
One such respite within the heart of the city is Lumpini Park, subject of another of my pages. But a far more expansive and ambitious green site is to be found just a few miles south of the main conurbation, in the province of Samut Prakan. Muang Boran is little known to most tourists who visit Bangkok, yet it should really be on everyone's list of must-see sights, a wonderful cultural experience, an architectural extravaganza, and a glimpse of the history of Thailand in miniature. This web page is a short photographic guide to this beautiful place.
What Is Muang Boran ?
Also known as 'Ancient Siam' or 'The Ancient City', Muang Boran is a planned display of gardens, lakes and canals, buildings, and re-creations of monuments and statues, set on a 300 acre site. But is it a museum? Or is it a theme park? Or what?
- It's a bit like an open air museum because the exhibits are historic in nature. Also the intent which lies behind most of the showcase features is clearly educational. But if this is a museum, then it is a museum in which very little is truly genuine.
- It's a bit like a theme park, like Disney Epcot Centre or Universal Studios, because as we have just explained, most of the exhibits are not real. Most of the ancient looking buildings are modern. But unlike Disney-style parks, there's no gimmickry or commercialism or rides for the children. The aim is authenticity, and the intention to inform visitors is sincere.
Muang Boran is something different. Like a botanical garden it's a wander through attractive landscapes each populated by attractive features. Like an archaeological ruin it's a wander through history and the way people once lived. A museum, a theme park, an entertainment - it is many things. Above all however, it is a celebration of Thailand's history, architecture and culture, and Thai pride in their country.
- All photos on this page about Muang Boran were taken by the author in 2009
The Featured Exhibits
Although there is more to the Ancient City than buildings and architecture, 116 separate building constructions make up the main exhibits of the park.
These constructions are not all of the same kind. Three different levels of authenticity exist:
- Several exhibits are genuine, original buildings which have been dismantled and transported from their original setting and restored in Muang Boran. Of course, the great sites of national heritage should not and could not be dismantled, so for the most part exhibits which fall into this category are relatively mundane yet culturally significant buildings, which represent the domestic lifestyle of the Thais through history. These include traditional teak dwellings from Thai villages around the country, wooden shrines, and a floating market.
- The majority of exhibits fall into the category of reproductions of great palaces and pagodas, temples and pavilions. Some of these still exist in their original form elsewhere in the country, whilst some others are now long gone, but are here recreated from old maps, illustrations and texts which describe the buildings in their hey-day. Some are life-size 'models' while others are reduced in scale to a quarter or half size. 'Model' is not really the best term, as these are stone or brick built constructions - real buildings in their own right.
- The third category of structures are fantastical buildings and scenes which have never existed in the real world, but which are an important part of Thai mythology and religion. Statues of Gods and strange creatures from old folk legends abound in the park. An example of such a structure is the extravagant statue shown in the image below.
In addition to the architectural sites from Thailand's history, the park also recreates representative samples of Thai village life, incorporating not just the layout of village buildings, but also traditional crafts including displays of fishing techniques, boats, old musical instruments, and farming implements such as the wooden cart depicted below.
A folk museum is to be found in the north eastern section of the park, and there is also a re-creation of a street market, with occasional shows and exhibitions of Thai dance on display.
And all of this is to be found in an attractive garden setting of flower beds, trees and waterways. The park designers have even created a replica hill in the north east corner, one tenth the size of a natural escarpment on the Thai-Cambodian border where the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple still stands.
Ancient Temple Structures
History of Muang Boran
Plans to develop Muang Boran were first put forward in the year 1963 by Thai businessman Lek Viriyaphant. Initially this millionaire Mercedes Benz dealer intended to create a novelty golf course in Samut Praken, which would be made distinctive by placing miniature models of Thailand's ancient sites around the greens and fairways. He also planned to make the entire area of the golf course, the exact same shape as a map of Thailand.
However, as his plans got under way, and research into possible features on the course began, Viriyaphant began to appreciate how many of the ancient sites had fallen into decay or been lost altogether. A passionate interest in his country's history and culture soon led to Viriyaphant abandoning his golf course dream to concentrate instead on making the ancient sites the core of his development. He changed the plan for Muang Boran from being purely a sporting and tourist amenity, to become a cultural celebration of all things Thai.
He opened Muang Boran in 1972, and since then further developments have occurred and the range of exhibits in the park has expanded both in number and in size. One idea has remained from the original golf course concept, and it is an important point to appreciate as one goes around the park - the park as originally planned still corresponds as near as possible to the shape of Thailand itself, and the exhibits are sited accordingly. Thus in the 'southern peninsula' part of Muang Boran, one finds buildings and typical architectural styles from this area of Thailand. In the north of the park are sites from the north of Thailand, and so on. This is a park which not only reflects the history and culture of Thailand, but also the geography of its ancient kingdoms and architecture.
Getting Around - the Tourist Guide
Muang Boran is open from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm. One can walk around, but the site covers more than 300 acres, so a vehicle of some sort is far more sensible. Cars and taxis are allowed into the park, though perhaps are not ideal as such is the concentration of exhibits one has to stop every few minutes to get out of the car. As the park increases in popularity in the future, it may well be that vehicles like these become impractical.
Many people hire bicycles - a much better and pleasanter idea, though of course the high temperatures in this part of the world could make cycling a little tiring. Best of all, I would suggest are the golf buggies. These quiet vehicles are for hire at the entrance, and are extremely easy to drive. One can get around in relaxed comfort even on a sweltering hot day, yet can also park up in an instant, and wander off to explore the next 'ruin' or 'Palace' on the list.
Muang Boran is a place to spend a full day, so of course facilities have been provided for the visitor. In addition to the obvious (information centre and toilets), there is a street lined with replicas of the buildings of an old Thai market place. The function of these buildings, however, is rather more modern - to service the needs of the tourist with drinks and refreshments, souvenirs and curios, which include examples of Thai handicraft.
As it does take the better part of a day to see the park, you will be wanting lunch. There are snack bars spread throughout the park, but the best place for lunch is the re-creation of a Thai floating village as shown in the next section.
If there is a criticism to be made, I would suggest that facilities are not as comprehensive as many western tourists would like, and particularly visitors with young children, but the park is still developing. No doubt the increasing numbers of visitors will lead to increasing development of services.
The Waterways of Muang Boran
Throughout the entire Ancient City complex, there is a liberal sprinkling of pools and waterways, intended to reflect the integral importance of water to the Thai nation today, and even more so, in the far distant past.
Water in the form of rainfall and runoff from the mountains irrigates the land and allows crops including rice to be harvested. Water in the form of rivers and canals provided the very first navigation systems of the country and allowed trade to expand between all the regions. This ultimately helped to unite the regions into one country. Water in the form of the seas which surround so much of South Thailand allowed trade to develop overseas, enabling the nation to prosper.
The main eating establishments within the Ancient City are to be found along the waterside. In the 'northern region', the park's creators have featured a small scale representation of one the country's best known cultural icons - the floating market. A small number of restaurants in various styles are to be found here. The food is mostly basic Thai, but there is plenty of choice.
As we have already seen, not all the exhibits at the Ancient City are real historic buildings; some represent the great myths of Thai history. Sumeru Mountain, the centre of the Universe floating on a cosmic sea on the back of a great fish, is one such exhibit, made possible by the inclusion of the water in the layout of Muang Boran.
Also on the waterways, a Thai junk on display shows the kind of transport which for many centuries was the key to Thailand's trading power.
The Royal barges procession is a tradition which has existed in Thailand for 700 years as a way of celebrating royal occasions. Originally hundreds of boats may have been involved in the regal King's Procession down the waterways of Thailand. Today, the numbers are fewer, but the ceremony still takes place occasionally. A few of these amazingly ornate and elongated oared barges are represented in Muang Boran.
Sanphet Prasat Palace
Two of the iconic buildings in Muang Boran perhaps deserve a special mention. These are the Sanphet Prasat Palace, and the Dusit Maha Prasat Palace (described later).
Possibly the most attractive of all the buildings, and the centrepiece of the entire park, is the Sanphet Prasat Palace, which has all the intricate filigree ornateness of Thai palaces and temples, yet less of the typically gaudy gold, red and green glitter. Tragically, the building on which this great work is modelled, is no more.
Sanphet Prasat was the principal palace and throne hall of the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya, built by King Baromatrai Lokanat to a design quite unique from all that had gone before. During the war with Burma which led to the ruination of Ayutthaya 250 years ago, the Palace was one of the casualties. It was totally destroyed. This building in Muang Boran is just a small scale recreation of the original. But using archaeological research of the original foundations, surveys of ancient texts, and the integration of designs from other contemporary buildings where necessary, modern architects have nonetheless produced this very beautiful masterpiece.
It is scarcely possible when looking at the images below to believe that buildings such as these in Muang Boran are a mere few decades old. The quality of the construction of this particular model 'Palace' is such that it was deemed to be sufficiently regal to host a reception for a visit by Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd February 1972 - an event which became recognised as the official opening of Muang Boran.
Art and Furnishings
It is not merely the architecture of Thailand's greatest historic buildings which has been lovingly recreated in the 'Ancient City'. Internal furnishings and artistry representative of the time can be seen in many of the model temples, palaces and pavilions. In Sanphet Prasat Palace, this includes the great wall paintings illustrated here. Displayed on the walls of the central chamber or 'Throne Room', these paintings depict the story of the 'Ten Reincarnations of Vishnu', as described in an Ayutthayan chronicle.
Incidentally, the Throne Room of the original palace contained a gemstone encrusted gold throne, raised on a platform. When Sanphet Prasat was ransacked and destroyed in 1767, the throne was taken to Burma.
Dusit Maha Prasat Palace
The Dusit Maha Prasat Palace is probably the most familiar building in the park because it is modelled on a building visited by millions of tourists every day. The original forms part of Bangkok's Grand Palace - the sole remaining example in Thailand of a traditional palace. It was built as an 'Audience Hall' by King Rama I in 1806 for hosting various ceremonial functions and receptions. However, many years later it was renovated under King Rama III and most of the original workmanship was replaced. The model of the Dusit Maha Prasat Palace in Muang Boran has been built to the original designs as revealed in 19th century documents and early photos, and is therefore different in some respects to the modern palace in Bangkok, but perhaps rather closer to the original appearance of the Hall.
Parks and Gardens - the Garden of the Gods
A collection of buildings, statues and monuments may be very impressive, but aesthetic surroundings are most important for a pleasant experience when visiting a site like Muang Boran. The landscaping of the park is a major part of the appeal and several themed gardens are to be found here. The most attractive is probably the Garden of the Gods, which has been created in the northern sector of the park.
Wandering through the Garden of the Gods with its colourful flower beds and ornamental trees is one of the nicest aspects of a visit to this park. It's a good place to take a break and rest a while during your visit.
The name of the Garden comes from the bronze statues of various Hindu deities installed here. These Gods are also incorporated into Thai classical literature. Hence their depiction here.
Directions to the Park
Muang Boran is on Sukhumvit road in the Samut Prakan district, no more than one hour's drive from the centre of Bangkok, or forty minutes from Suwananbhumi International Airport.
Tourists may be able to book a tour from their Bangkok hotel. Otherwise, a taxi is probably the best way to get to the park. Any taxi driver should be familiar with 'Muang Boran' in 'Samut Prakan'. To reduce the taxi journey, a good alternative would be to ride the well known Bangkok Skytrain to its terminus at Bearing Station, and take a taxi from there.
A map on the official website gives alternative instructions for anyone wishing to drive themselves or take the bus to Muang Boran.
The Location of Muang Boran, South of Bangkok
Follow this link to an official website for Muang Boran. This site includes a map of the complex with all principal attractions listed, as well as numerous photos and descriptions of the exhibits and other information about Muang Boran's history. Also included are the opening times and current admission prices.
An Internet search for 'Muang Boran', 'Ancient City' or 'Ancient Siam' should bring up details of other websites.
My Video Slideshow
This video slide show combines my own photos of Muang Boran with a Thai instrumental piece entitled 'Bamboo Dreams'. Some of the images on the video are replicated in the main body of the article - apologies for that, but I will hopefully one day be able to return and take more photos of this enchanting place and amend and enhance the video and web page accordingly. But this is actually my first ever published video slide show, so I hope you enjoy.
Video Slide Show of Muang Boran
Conclusions and Recommendations
Muang Boran - the 'Ancient City of Siam' - is, I think, unique. Some have described it as the largest open air museum in the world. However one describes it, there is no other museum or cultural experience or theme park which approaches its subject matter in quite this way. In most Western countries I suspect, the designers would have felt the need to make the park 'commercial', with thrill rides and push-button gimmickry, and displays which relate more to the values of modern life, than to the values of heritage. Muang Boran has none of this. This site, its layout, and all the exhibits contained within, betray a very clear and deep pride and passion by the designers for the cultural history of their country, and a desire to show it to the world.
Muang Boran may not be an ideal destination for very young children, but for tourists visiting Thailand and Bangkok, Muang Boran offers two things. It offers a peaceful, attractive respite from the city, and it offers a one day introduction to all that is special about this country and its cultural history. Certainly when I explored the park in 2009, the place was still in the process of development with new exhibits being added, even in the few months between my two visits. As the reputation of Muang Boran grows, I trust the site will retain its gentle appeal, whilst becoming the major tourist attraction it truly deserves to be. Today, the 'Ancient City of Siam' is one place I would recommend to anyone who visits this nation of Thailand.