Located in Petchaburi province some 120km south of Bangkok, spread across three mountain peaks, is the southern palace retreat of King Mongkut (Rama IV). Officially called Phra Nakhorn Khiri, the “Celestial Mountain-top City” it is more commonly called Wang Khao or “Hill-top Palace”. Built between 1858 and 1863 this palace is an eclectic mix of architecture showcasing the king’s strong interest in western styles as well as his traditional role as monarch of Siam.
The Western Peak
The main palace buildings are on the western peak which visitors to Wang Khao can these days reach easily via a funicular style cable car. The centre piece of these palace buildings is the Phra Thinang Phetphum Phairot which was originally designed as a throne room in which the king could give formal audiences whilst staying at the palace. Built in heavy white-washed brick with Chinese style roofing it displays classical Western style columns and arches.
King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, r.1868 – 1910) had these rooms converted into state rooms for royal visitors and furnished in Western style. Most notably Duke Johan Albert of Brunswick, Germany, stayed here in 1883 as a guest of the king and returned in 1910 with his new bride Princess Elisabeth Stolberg-Rossla. They would no doubt have been impressed by the spectacular views of the surrounding country seen from their royal accommodation.
Today the Phra Thinang Phetphum Phairot is still furnished as it was in those years when it functioned as state guest rooms.
Adjacent to the Phra Thinang Phetphum Phairot is a smaller and simpler two storey Chinese style building known as Phra Thinang Pramot Mahaisawan. This was the private residence of the king and today is furnished with many of King Mongkut’s possessions.
At the southern end of the palace buildings stands the Phra Thinang Wechayan Wichien Prasat which is a traditional Thai buddhist mondop surmounted by a large central prang surrounded by four smaller prang. Rather than housing an image of the buddha this mondop houses a statue of King Mongkut. The statue is a cast metal replica of the plaster statue that was originally housed here which was itself made in order to make a statue of the king as a gift for Emperor Napoleon III of France. The statue was neither cast nor sent because of King Mongkut’s untimely death from malaria in 1868.
From the Phra Thinang Wechayan Wichien Prasat one walks past a long single storey building which again mixes Chinese architectural style with classic Western columns and arches. This is the Phra Thinang Ratchathammasapha which King Mongkut, who had spent 27 years in the monkhood prior to becoming king, had built as a meditation hall.
The short walk along side the Phra Thinang Ratchathammasapha leads to perhaps the most unusual building within the palace, the Haw Chatchawan Wingchai. This circular observatory tower with a glass domed roof is a testament to King Mongkut’s great interest in Western astronomy.
The Central Peak
From the Western Peak it is a short walk across to the Central Peak on which stands a 40m high chedi. This had previously been the site of an old but deteriorated chedi of Wat Intharakhiri which King Mongkut ordered to be substantially rebuilt and renamed as Phra That Chom Phet.
Within the base of the chedi is a circular chamber from which one can climb stairs up to a terrace around the outside of the chedi. The terrace provides beautiful 360° views of Khao Wang and the surrounding plains.
The Eastern Peak
The Eastern Peak is the site of the royal chapel serving this mountain-top palace. The main temple building or wiharn is of traditional Thai design. King Mongkut named it Wat Phra Kaeow Noi after the Thailand’s most famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeow) in the Grand Palace of Bangkok. King Mongkut’s royal insignia can be seen on the gable ends of the temple.
Behind the wiharn of Wat Phra Kaeow Noi stands the 9m high Phra Sutthasela chedi designed by King Mongkut’s half-brother Prince Krom Khun Racha Siha Vikrom. It is built of green-grey stone from Koh Si Chang.
In front and below Wat Phra Kaeow Noi stands Phra Prang Daeng, the red prang. Although ostensibly a typical Khmer style prang it is somewhat unusual in that its interior is more like a chapel, lit by daylight through openings in the sides of the prang.
Wang Khao Through the Years
After ascending the throne in 1858 King Mongkut visited Phra Nakhorn Khiri almost every year of his reign. His last recorded visit was in April 1866 two years before he died of malaria. His son and successor King Chulalongkorn also visited several times throughout his reign and carried out significant renovation work. But after King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910 the palace fell into dis-use for many decades.
King Bhumipol (Rama IX) first visited the palace in 1953, returning several times in the following decades. His renewed interest in his great-grandfather’s hill-top palace retreat led to its registration as a historical park in 1979 and considerable restoration work by the Fine Arts Department. Today the Phra Thinang Phetphum Phairot and the Phra Thinang Pramot Mahaisawan buildings are branches of the National Museum.
Where to Go
- A tale of Three Palaces: Heritage and Interpretation in Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand: Memory, Place and Power, eds R. King. Singapore: NUS Press. 2016.