Bangkok’s Grand Palace is one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions with millions of visitors each year. But just across the Chao Phraya River is an older palace which attracts very little attention. Known as Wang Derm which translates as The Original Palace this was the palace built in 1767 by King Taksin when he decided to establish Thonburi as the new capital of Siam.
Taksin Escapes Ayutthaya
On 7th April 1767 after a long siege Burmese forces famously entered the city of Ayutthaya and set about the total destruction of the city. King Ekkathat is believed to have starved to death in the forest whilst some 30,000 Siamese were taken as prisoners back to Burma. But Phraya Taksin, a military commander, had escaped with his forces a few months before the city fell. After first falling back to Chantaburi Taksin later led his forces by boat to Thonburi where Burmese forces were encamped in the Wichaiyen fortress on the right bank of the Chaophraya River. Taksin’s forces took the fortress on 6th November 1767 and soon after also retook Ayutthaya itself. But with Ayutthaya totally devastated Taksin decided that Thonburi was a more strategic location to establish a new capital.
A New Palace For a New King
Taksin it seems wasted no time in having a palace built adjacent to Wat Chaeng temple, known today as Wat Arun or The Temple of Dawn. On 28th December 1767 in the new palace Taksin was appointed as King Borommoraja IV, a now largely forgotten title that established him as the successor to the royal line of Ayutthaya.
Visiting Wang Derm today, the original T-shaped palace building still stands. To the north is a traditional open-sided assembly hall known as Thong Phrarong where King Taksin would have held council with his nobles and conducted royal ceremonies. Originally this hall was completely made of wood but in the early twentieth century it was reconstructed with concrete.
At the southern end one enters the Royal Residence or Phra Thi Nang Kwang which were the private rooms of the king. The over-riding impression one has of the palace is of simplicity. The bejewelled golden splendour of Bangkok’s Grand Palace built by King Taksin’s successor some 15 years later is here completely absent. Walls are plain whitewash and just a single large portrait of King Taksin hangs at one end of the Royal Residence. Taksin was a brilliant military commander but in 1767 still had many challenges ahead to consolidate his rule. Building highly ornate palaces was not a priority.
The Birthplace of a Dynasty
Despite his remarkable success in re-establishing Siamese control over most of modern Thailand King Taksin’s reign was not long. In 1782 he was deposed by one of his top military commanders Chao Phraya Chakri who became King Phra Putthayotfa (Rama I) and moved the capital across the river to the settlement of Bangkok.
But King Taksin’s palace and the Thonburi fortress remained an important defensive location and so King Phra Putthayotfa installed his own son, the future King Phra Phutthaloetla (Rama II), in Wang Derm. So it was that two future kings were born in Wang Derm, King Nangklao (Rama III, b.1788) and King Mongkut (Rama IV, b.1804).
Also born at Wang Derm was Phra Pinklao (b.1808), younger brother of Mongkut who became an Admiral of the Siamese Navy and would hold the position of vice-king under King Mongkut. Prior to becoming vice-king in 1851 Phra Pinklao resided for 27 years at Wang Derm where he built himself a two-storey residence just west of the palace which today houses an exhibition about his life.
To the east of the palace are a pair of small residences in the style of Chinese shrines. The slightly smaller one to the south is oldest dating to the reign of King Rama I, whilst the one to the north was built whilst Phra Pinklao was resident at the palace. Today the buildings hold exhibitions of King Taksin’s exploits and traditional Thai weapons.
The Naval Training School Period
In 1900 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) gave Wang Derm to the Royal Siam Navy for use as a training school. The palace became a classroom and a naval gun was set up in front of Phra Pinklao’s former residence to train cadets on how to position and aim.
Also dating from the era of the naval training school is a wooden building now known simply as The Green House built on a small mound in the southeast corner of the compound (The mound was in fact from earth excavated in the mid-nineteenth century to build a large pool inside the compound which has since been filled in). The Green House served as an infirmary for the school.
In 1944 the naval training school was moved to Sattahip and Wang Derm became part of the adjacent Royal Thai Navy Headquarters. Today the navy jointly manages the palace with the Phra Racha Wang Derm Restoration Foundation and still hold some meetings in the buildings.
Wichai Prasit Fortress
Before one leaves Wang Derm completely it is well worth taking some time to look around the old fortress just outside the palace compound.
This fortress was built on the command of King Narai of Ayutthaya and originally named after his chief minister Chao Phraya Wichaiyen, who was in fact Greek and better known to western history as Constantine Phaulkon. Designed by a French engineer it was probably built in the early 1680’s. It appears as an existing fortress on plans drawn up in 1685 for a much larger fortress to be built by the French on the same spot together with a large fortress across the river in Bangkok.
The larger fortress in Thonburi was never built but the one across the river was, being situated where Rajini School now stands. A massive chain (Part of which now resides in the National Museum) was slung between the two fortresses which could be used to block the passage of ships if necessary.
In 1688 these fortresses became the centre of a military confrontation between Siam and France. After two decades of remarkable international diplomatic exchanges between Siam and France King Narai died. His successor Phetracha who, with good reason, was suspicious about their intentions in Siam, moved to expel French forces from the country.
The French troops, numbering about 250, were holed-up in the Bangkok fortress besieged all around by some 40,000 Siamese troops. Siamese forces moved into Wichaiyen Fortress which the French had tried unsuccessfully to destroy and from there bombarded the French position. The siege lasted some six months until an agreement was reached between the two sides and the French were allowed to depart in mid-November 1688. It would be 168 years before diplomatic relations were resumed between the two countries.
When Phraya Taksin and his forces arrived in Thonburi 79 years later the siege was a distant memory. The large Bangkok fortress had been dismantled but Wichaiyen Fortress remained and still provided a good defensive position from which he could control any trade headed further up river. He renamed the fortress Wichai Prasit and built his palace behind its protective wall.
Where to Go
How to Go
There are a couple of problems with visiting Wang Derm. First, it is within the grounds of the Royal Thai Navy Headquarters and is usually only opened to the public (for free) once a year on 28th December, King Taksin’s birthday. So a visit takes some forward planning – put it in your diary !
Second, because it is within a defence establishment there is some sensitivity with entry for foreigners. Foreigners are only allowed entrance accompanied by a Thai national, which is how I visited although nobody checked. I would recommend taking a passport for identification.
Another alternative is to organise a group tour through the Phra Racha Wang Derm Restoration Foundation who can be contacted via their website http://www.wangdermpalace.org.
To visit Wang Derm one must enter the Royal Thai Naval Headquarters via the main gate on Thanon Wang Doem which runs behind Wat Arun. It’s about an 800m walk from Itsaraphap MRT station. Once through the gate head straight west to the river and follow the road around to the right. The entrance to Wang Derm is facing the river.
- Baker, Chris and Phongpaichit, Pasuk. A History of Ayutthaya. Cambridge University Press 2017.
- Smithies, Michael. Three Military Accounts of the 1688 ‘Revolution’ in Siam. Orchid Press. 2002.
- Sng, Jeffery and Bilsalputra, Pimpraphai. A History of the Thai-Chinese, EDM 2016.
- Van der Cruysse, Dirk. Siam & The West 1500 – 1700. Silkworm Books. 2002.