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Revisiting history - The Varadis Palace of Prince Damrong

Amidst the hustle and bustle of city life on Lanluang Road, it's hard to imagine that within this chaotic environ could exist some semblance of peace and order. The traffic-clogged road is lined with shophouses, office buildings, a fresh food market and a four-star hotel, and somewhere in its midst hides a former palace now turned into a museum.

The Varadis Palace or Damrong Rachanupab Museum and Library, as it's also called, is an oasis of greenery and calm in the otherwise helter-skelter world around Lanluang Road that leads to Ratchadamnoen Avenue.

Visiting the Varadis Palace is like a step down the memory lane. It's the residence of Prince Damrong Rajanupab, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and the younger half-brother of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

The prince made invaluable contribution to Thai society, notably during the reign of Rama V, serving the King and his country in various capacities. He was the first commander-in-chief of Thailand's armed forces, a leading academic, founding father of the Thai civil service and was appointed the country's first interior minister in 1892.

As an academic he laid the groundwork for the country's education system and founded Suan Kularb College and Depsirin School. He was equally at home in history, archaeology and science. A man of varied talents, he also oversaw the construction of Siriraj Hospital.

Prince Damrong is credited with effectively launching the country on the road to modern development. Recognising his contributions, his diplomatic tact and mastery of international relations, Unesco declared him one of the "World's Outstanding Personalities" in 1962, an honour that has eluded other Thais.

Stepping inside the palace compound, on the right-hand side is the library building which has a large collection of history books _ more than 7,000 titles _ in Thai and in English. The library is open to public every day.

If you walk across a small garden to other side, there stands a light yellow-and-green building with red roof. It's a mix of Thai and European architecture from those days. It's the Prince Damrong Rajanupab Museum.

The prince lived here until his death on December 1, 1932, and thereafter it passed into the hands of his descendants who bear the Diskul family name.

It was M.R Sangkadis Diskul, the prince's grandson, who decided to turn the palace into a museum. M.L. Panadda, his son, is its current curator, who has applied himself diligently to realise his father's desire to turn the museum into a learning centre. Anybody keen to know about Thai history and the prince's life and works is welcome to visit it. The museum regularly stages various social and cultural events.
It is the intention of our family to preserve this house as well as we can. We want it to be a national heritage and a centre where people can come and learn about Thai history," said M.L Panadda.

The palace was built by German architect Karl Dohring in 1911 and it's one of the earliest examples of European architecture in the kingdom. In more ways than one, it reflects the mood of the times. Thailand was going through a transition as colonial powers jockeyed for influence in the Southeast Asian region.

At the museum you can also get a glimpse of the royal lifestyle in those days.

According to M.L. Panadda, everything, including the prince's belongings are kept in their usual place to reflect his modest self and hard-working lifestyle.

The upper floors of the palace house the prince's study room, dressing room, bed room and rest room. The most important is the "relics room" which has Buddha images and memorabilia of all monarchs that preceded him, as well as that of Crown Prince Vajirunhis and the Princess Mother.

The one with the most historical significance is the dining room downstairs where students selected to go abroad for higher studies were trained in Western ways and table manners. It was also here that the prince was seized on June 24, 1932, which marked the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand.

The museum tour shed new light on the the life and times of a man who devoted himself to the cause of the country and its people, yet lead a simple and humble lifestyle, and in the process launched Thailand on the road to modernisation.

Prince Damrong Rajanupab Library & Museum is open every working day but to visit advance permission is required. Best is to visit in groups of 20 people or more. Guides are provided; tel: 02-282-9110, 02-281-7577;

website: www.prince-damrong.moi.go.th

Bangkok Post www.bangkokpost.com
15 May 2005


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