If there is one monument to the majesty of the House of Chakri and the devotion of the Thais to the late King of Thailand, Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, this grand structure bedecked in gold would surely be it. At USD 90 million, little expense was spared.
Fit for a king
Located in Sanam Luang, also known as the Royal Lawn, in front of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, for more than a year from October 2016 to December 2017, there was restricted access to the site. Throughout my frequent visits to Bangkok between that period, news headlines in the paper displayed in the hotel lobby or foyer kept me updated on this, the grand farewell.
Naturally, I was curious and wanted to see what it looked like. Having missed the construction period due to the chaos of the site during that period, the restrictions when the site was completed, and not seeing the funeral ceremony in person, I did the next best thing: wait until the ceremony was over.
Luckily, the site was still open for viewing in mid-December 2017 when I went to visit, the viewing period extended by a month. The wait was worth it. After being told to wear trousers (which I should have known, and I bought those cheap THB 100 ones for this event), signing a ‘foreigner’s guest book’ and going through 3 layers of security, I was handed a muffin and a small bottle of water.
I was then led to a tented holding area with a crowd, as we waited for our turn to enter the site. As there were a number of school groups before us, it took a while. When our turn came up, we were offered umbrellas as shade from the mid-day sun, and when we proceeded from the tents, there before us, the great spires of the cremation pyre: the Royal Crematorium.
Form and function
As much as I love architecture and the decorative arts, I would not dare start with a study on the cultural and artistic elements of this site. What I can start on is my walk around the grounds itself. Navigating my way past the crowds of school children, I noticed I was among the few foreigners on site. Most visitors were Thais, who wanted a memory of this transient monument.
The dominant structure here is the Royal Crematorium itself, spit over four floors, each having a form and purpose. The central pavilion rises up to the sky, unmistakable in its regal form, from the royal nine-tiered umbrella at the pinnacle to the delicate artwork along the screens. Designed to evoke Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, the central structures, 8 side structures and terraces are surrounded by a pond and sculptures of mythical creatures.
Surrounding the Royal Crematorium are a number of pavilions, from pavilions for high ranking officials to a royal waiting pavilion. The grandest and longest pavilion, a great hall by itself, is basically a royal audience chamber, with unrivalled views of the Royal Crematorium. This is the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, where the royal family, royal guests, diplomatic corps and other high officials of state were seated during the ceremony.
Now, except for the royal waiting pavilion, all the other pavilions house exhibits ranging from the life of the king to replicas of architectural and artistic elements and dioramas of the Royal Crematorium.
A study in high Thai arts
All the pavilions incorporate classical high Thai architecture elements in their design, and during this viewing period, houses beautiful pieces of replicas, scale models and information boards on the Royal Crematorium’s construction.
In one pavilion, you could see the entire site in a scale model, and cut out scale models of the Royal Crematorium and auxiliary pavilions. In another pavilion, beautiful plaster cast replicas, first models and actual casts were on display. The other pavilions had displays of palanquins, replica chariots and actual wheels used to transport the Royal Urn from the Grand Palace to the crematorium. One of the highlights was the pavilion housing replicas of the artwork on the fireguard screens.
A central feature of the Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition is the exhibition of the life of King Bhumibol. Located in the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, this large airconditioned space was a perfect spot to seek refuge from the midday sun. Despite the uncharacteristically cold (but absolutely perfect) 20*c mid-day weather in Bangkok, a little air conditioning is always a good idea.
Inside were murals and write-ups on the king and his achievements during his long reign. Displayed in 5 ‘chapters,’ they displayed how highly the Thai king was seen and revered. The exhibits covered the following, and were a very interesting read:
What really captured me in this space are the views. The great hall was indeed great, and the view from the central axis towards the Royal Crematorium is unrivalled, perfectly framed by windows and arches.
Like all good things, and in all things in Dhamma, there is a continual cycle. From beauty, decay; from death, life. This beautiful structure was never meant to be permanent, and this fine piece of high craftsmanship, of delicate artwork and intricate passion, would eventually be dismantled. A shame, but that is life: live in the moment, for we are all transient.
How did this study on a Royal Crematorium suddenly became an introspection? Oh, wait, I just answered my own question.
The Royal Crematorium is currently being dismantled and will be fully demolished by March 2018. The site is no longer open for viewing as of January 2018. However, sections of the Royal Crematorium will be preserved and moved to a specially constructed museum near the National Archives in Pathum Thani province.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.