King Mongkut's summer palace in Phetchaburi is the most visited museum in the country
Phra Nakhon Khiri, the summer palace of King Rama IV in Phetchaburi province, is one of the most graceful national museums outside Bangkok and attracts some 430,000 visitors every year, the highest in the country.
Built atop Khao Wang mountain more than a century ago, the palace still retains most of its original layout including an expansive garden of fragrant frangipani and old brick steps. Visiting the palace is a visual joy and it evokes a sense of history and nostalgia about the life and times of King Mongkut. It compels us to ask why the king chose this mountain-top, a short distance from Bangkok, as the site for his summer palace.
Pathom Rasitanont, the chief curator of the museum since 2001, feels inspired by King Mongkut and spends his spare time pursuing the legacy he left behind.
Apart from literary and other talents that he was noted for, the king was also an accomplished astronomer. The tower he built and the telescope he used are still in good condition, poignant reminders of his passion for stars.
Last October marked the 200th anniversary of his birth and to celebrate the occasion the museum organised a workshop-cum-exhibition on the science of stars together with recitals of the king's writings, such as the Mahachataka, an episode from the epic Ramayana, colourful decorations, lanterns and fireworks. It drew a huge audience.
The turnout was reminiscent of a day three years earlier, not long after Mr Pathon arrived as curator, when the museum was abuzz with activity as star-gazers showed up in force to watch meteor Leonid spray the sky with its fireworks. The day was November 18, 2001.
Mr Pathom is not a native of Phetchaburi but even as an outsider he can see its huge cultural and tourism potential. The province is endowed with indigenously developed art and craft dating back centuries, but they remain obscure through the neglect of local authorities as well as private and civil organisations.
Famous for its craftsmanship, Phetchaburi is a breeding ground for artists, but the sad part is that they can't find work at home so they move elsewhere, to other provinces where there is a ready market for their talents.
Mr Pathom is trying to stem the tide by enlisting their support and getting them to run day-long workshops on Phetchaburi 's ancient art and craft on weekends and public holidays throughout the month of April.
The objective is to take the province's once thriving art and handicraft industry to the public and revive popular interest in its unique craftsmanship.
Last year when 15 activities were on offer, the prime target group of these workshops were provincial students, but unfortunately the turnout wasn't encouraging because schools had recessed for summer. Although transport to-and-fro was provided, only novice monks and a few students showed up initially, then adults joined in. Teachers couldn't hide their disappointment because they were looking forward to a large turnout.
"It would have been a different story if it was Bangkok. The classes would have filled in a matter of days," he quipped.
As a national heritage Phetchaburi compares favourably with Ayutthaya which was Thailand's capital for 417 years, but while the latter lost most of what it once possessed, Phetchaburi has managed to keep its treasures intact.
This year, the workshops cover a wide selection of arts including stucco works, banana sheath carving, gold leaf and glass decoration and others.
Thanks to King Mongkut, his summer palace has fascinating architecture. It was conceived as the second royal palace after the Grand Palace in Bangkok and a temple, Wat Phra Kaew Noi, was also built next to it. The King initiated the making of floating lanterns and encouraged his ministers to make them for Visakhabucha Day and label them with the emblem of their respective ministries. Last year on Visakhabucha Day, the museum invited government organisations to join religious rites by making illuminated floating lanterns which make for an exciting spectacle as they are released into the night sky. And since the palace sits on mountain-top you can see it from afar.
Mr Pathom wants lantern-making and launching to become an annual feature of Visakhabucha Day rites in the province.
Among the craftsmanship native to Phetchaburi are stucco works, Thaeng Yuak (banana sheath carving) and Nang Yai puppet theatre _ performed exclusively in royal courts in the past _ that once thrived there but has now found greener pastures elsewhere. Nang Yai uses large-sized hide carvings and the only place you can enjoy it in Phetchaburi these days is Wat Phrap Phra Chai. "What a shame," said the curator.
He broached the idea of reviving puppet theatre with local authorities and performing it on a commercial basis, but they didn't seem interested. After all, Cha-am and Hua Hin are full of five and four-star hotels and resorts and only a short drive from the museum. There's a market waiting to be tapped, he said.
Mr Pathom has great design on tourism in Phetchaburi and wants to turn the summer palace into a night museum.
"We can present the royal court in a new perspective. After dark we can illuminate the palace. Visitors arriving there in the evening can enjoy the cool breeze and walk around the palace for an experience that would be completely different from day time.
"You can recreate scenes depicting the royal lifestyle and back it up with light and sound presentation. The night museum can be accomplished at a cost of 28 million baht," he said.
The palace complex sits on three slopes. The current practice is that on significant dates and religious days only two of the three buildings are illuminated, but if it's a festival or His Majesty and members of the royal family are in the province all three buildings are illumiated at night.
Mr Prathom disclosed that of all the 41 museums in the country, including the Bangkok National Museum, the one in Phetchaburi drew most visitors, averaging 430,000 annually, generating some six million baht in gate money.
One of its more popular activities is an event it stages on the first Friday of February. Recently, it organised a seminar titled "Thung Setthi _ Phetchaburi's Significant Archaeological Sites" at the provincial university. For those who missed the seminar, an exhibition focusing on the same topic will be held at the Phra Nakhon Khiri National Museum from this Sunday until July 31. And on ever public holiday from now until the end of April, the museum will also stage folk performances, from 1:30am to 2:30pm.