Category Archives: Places

National Museum of Thailand

The main hall of the National Museum in Bangkok has undergone a revamp that, whilst much needed, has deprived it of the scale dioramas modellers and wargamers alike would have waxed lyrical about. Thankfully the Fine Arts Department has had the foresight to preserve the old displays  for posterity in a virtual tour available on the world wide web – though I’d like to think that my own pictures will be of use to the more eagle-eyed of readers.


These miniature reenactments of the medieval monarchy’s greatest hits began with the 1238 ascension of Si Inthrathit, a petty warlord who rebelled against Khmer suzerainty to establish the first independent Siamese kingdom at Sukhothai (whose troop types are available in 15mm from Khurasan Miniatures, in case anyone is wondering).


This staid scene setter quickly gives way to a rip-roaring elephant duel, the first of many such vignettes, between his 19-year-old son, Ramkhamhaeng, and the local Khmer governor in 1257.









Ramkhamhaeng’s own reign is believed to have ushered in a golden age of peace and enlightened kingship. The monarch was said to be an approachable sort, and accepted petitions from his subjects in person.




The king even had the time to devise a new alphabet, which was inscribed on stones for distribution amongst the public. That this ever happened is a matter of dispute, with many a left-leaning academic attributing the stone’s progeny to a 19th century king desperate to convince the encroaching colonial powers that Siam needn’t any further civilising.


Equally idyllic was the reign of Ramkhamhaeng’s grandson, Mahathammaracha I, whose piety is reflected not only in his regnal name (“Great King of Dharma”) but in the many temples and Buddhas he had commissioned.






Commoners, on the other hand, had pottery to busy themselves with.





The Sukhothai Kingdom was quickly overshadowed by its rival to the south, Ayutthaya, which became one of the region’s great mandalas throughout the centuries that followed. Depicted here is the city’s founding along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, overseen by King U-Thong.






A city of resplendent temples and high stilted houses, Ayutthaya was a very cosmopolitan place, attracting all sorts of characters, from Persian traders and Japanese ronins to Portuguese missionaries and Dutch soldiers of fortune.



Ayutthaya had its ups and downs, and at one point was subjugated by the Burmese. This state of vassalage was upended in 1583 when a young Siamese prince, Naresuan, declared independence in a quasi-religious ceremony.




The museum’s remaining dioramas are all devoted to Naresuan’s various derring-dos. These included a decidedly ungentlemanly long-distance sniping of a Burmese viceroy, an incident that ranks as one of the most celebrated feats in Siamese military lore.







The warrior king also wasn’t adverse to taking on turbaned baddies on horseback.






It all culminated in a 1592 elephant duel between Naresuan and the Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa at Nong Sarai in modern-day Suphanburi, an event that is commemorated in the province’s seal.








Museum Siam

Opened in 2008, the Museum Siam features state-of-the-art displays primarily aimed at kids (think lots of games, interactive screens, and photo props). While it doesn’t quite achieve its self-professed mission of deconstructing Thai national identity, the museum does offer a number of fantastic dioramas.

Of these, the most impressive are the three that depict the long-destroyed kingdom of Ayutthaya that flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Some of the set-ups wouldn’t look too out of place on a WWII tabletop.

This drum tower probably won’t, however.

Whereas this warehouse is too Thai (and of a style that had probably disappeared by the 1920s).

Piers like this, on the other hand, still exist, and can probably be found elsewhere in the region.

A large samurai contingent existed in 17th century Siam, for the sharp-eyed among you are wondering about the presence of kimono-wearing figures.

There is a massive diorama devoted to early 20th century Bangkok. Sadly it lacks the craftsmanship of the previous diorama.

Funnily enough the semi-fascist period that saw the refinement of modern Thai nationalist thought is only briefly glossed over.

The examples of Thai Second World War propaganda more than make up for it though.

My favourite of the bunch: the June 1941 cover of Modern Thai magazine celebrating the annexation of territories gained at the end of the Franco-Thai War.

Colonial Architecture of Indochina: Savannakhet

Lying astride the mighty Mekong is Savannakhet, Lao’s second largest city and the birthplace of Kaysone Phomvihane, the bullnecked éminence rouge of the Pathet Lao. A good embodiment of what Martin Windrow calls “the ultimate Buddhist languor of Laos” (a rather orientalist comment if there ever was one), Savannakhet has a wonderfully atmospheric old quarter graced with colonial mansions and shophouses. Sadly the chief reason for their existence is poverty and not conservation, and apart from a few beautifully restored ones it’s unlikely they’ll see out the decade.





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Colonial architecture of Malaya (part II)

Housed in a magnificent printing house built in 1899, the recently-opened Kuala Lumpur City Gallery offers an impressive diorama showing what the city centre would have looked like back in the day.



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Panorama 1453

A short tram ride away from Istanbul’s hectic centre is the stunning Panorama 1453, a small underground museum dedicated to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. While it’s let down by a distinct lack of English language captions and some decidedly boring displays, the central panorama featuring the sort of artwork you’d expect from an Osprey book (and Peter Dennis in particular) is nothing short of spectacular.

As we didn’t go for the English audio guides I can’t comment on the official narrative’s balance and accuracy. Not too sure about the portrayals of the Byzantine defenders either; one fellow even looks like a Roman legionnaire from the 1st Century!

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Thao Suranari Museum

Commanding pride of place in the hectic concrete jungle that is Khorat is the statue of Thao Suranari,  more popularly known as Grandma Mo, a woman warrior equally revered for imparting miracles and good luck as she is for saving her city.


Sculpted by Silpa Bhirasi, a figure central to the modern Thai state’s nationalistic myth-making, it’s not just stately, but also perpetually surrounded by worshipers, tourist touts, and instant photographers. Much more impressive, however, is the monument dedicated to her ragtag army of angry townsfolk:



Even more impressive is a small museum, inside which is a panoramic diorama that recounts the events of 1826, the year that Chao Anou, ruler of the Lao kingdom of Vientiane, rebelled against his Siamese overlords and marched on Bangkok. Having spent years as a hostage at the Bangkok court, Anou apparently enjoyed the patronage of the scholarly Rama II, but after the latter’s death relations between vassal and suzerain rapidly soured.






Along the way he took Khorat, then Siam’s most important city in the country’s northeast, and in accord with time-honoured traditions of Southeast Asian warfare proceeded to forcibly remove and resettle the city’s population.



According to popular belief the aforementioned wife of the (absent) deputy governor managed to get the invaders drunk before massacring them, after which she rallied every Siamese man, woman and child to victory.

A rapid succession of misfortunes soon befell Chao Anou: his allies soon deserted him, and his forces were routed in battle after battle. Facing looming defeat he fled to Vietnam, Siam’s rival for control of Laos and Cambodia. Anou bid his time, and two years later raised another army, which was promptly smashed by Sing Singhasena (the future Chao Phraya Bodindecha), an all-round badass who had Vientiane and its environs put to the torch, thereby completely wiping the city off the map, until its eventual resurrection by the French.

Although incredibly obscure in western eyes, in Laos special centrality has been given to Chao Anouvong by the current communist regime, which promotes him as a martyred freedom fighter; there the conflict itself has taken on the hues of a popular people’s war of liberation. Across the border the rebellion is no less a contentious historiographical issue, with academics questioning the very existence of Lady Mo herself.


For a more detailed yet disarmingly straightforward account I recommend picking up a copy of The Kingdoms of Laos by Peter and Sanda Simms.

Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre

A small but spectacular museum dedicated to the Siamese capital’s 17th Century heyday. Hopefully these amazing dioramas will inspire a few gamers to put in a little more effort on the accuracy front (no giant Buddhas plopped in the middle of a field please!).