Trace back the capital of Thailand’s long storied history
Before Jim Thompson’s name became synonymous with Thai silk, and before we heard Australian medical officer Rowley Richard’s stories from the infamous Burma-Siam railway, there was another foreigner creating history in what was then Siam. Louis Thomas Leonowens, who came to Bangkok as a child in 1862, spent five years of his youth as a resident in Thailand’s Royal Palace. After crisscrossing the globe Louis returned to the country of his childhood, where he became a Siamese royal military captain, private timber trading magnate, and eccentric hotelier. Here are some suggestions for revisiting the Bangkok of Leonowens’ era, where traces of the adventurer still remain.
The Giant Swing
Standing tall in a busy Bangkok intersection, this imposing structure towers Wat Suthat–one of the city’s oldest temples. The Giant Swing has had many reincarnations over the years but it was first built in 1784. Its purpose was for a Brahmanic ceremony where men would swing high in the air to catch a bag of silver coins attached to a pole. Given its height of over 21 metres it was a dangerous feat and the festivities were stopped in the 1930s. In 1920, in Louis’s heyday, the teak trading magnate donated teak for the reconstruction of the swing. In2004 it was once again rebuilt in teak.
Kamthieng House Museum
A pillar from Leonowens’ 19th century home stands on display at a traditional Thai teak house-cum-museum, a short walk away to one of Bangkok’s busiest intersections. As a timber trader and fledgling hospitality baron, Leonowens opened his teak home to many guests back in the day. In lieu of a guestbook, he marked the height and name of each guest on towering posts that supported the balcony. Here you also find Thai cultural artefacts from rural life over a century ago–and some respite from the nearby crowds.
This iconic Bangkok hotel traces its history back to the days of Leonowens. In fact, the hotel’s official history book, The Most Famous Hotels in The World, The Oriental Bangkok, begins with the tale of a six-year-old Louis arriving in Siam with his mother Anna Leonowens, who was to tutor the king’s children. As their boat headed towards that Bangkok quay, Louis took note of the structure, unaware of the role that hotel would eventually play in his story. Take a stroll through the tropical gardens of the hotel and you’ll come across a time capsule (set to be opened in 2055) laid by Louis T. Leonowens Ltd beneath a representation of a Giant Swing, the company’s symbol.
Like Mandarin Oriental the district of Bang Rak flanks the Chao Phraya, the river upon which Louis first sailed into town. It’s also here that Louis set up his trading company back in 1905. Today, as it was then, the neighbourhood is a melting pot of western, Asian and local culture and it’s where you’ll find some of the best food in the city. Stroll along Bangkok’s oldest road, Charoen Krung, from Saphan Taksin BTS Station to Silom Rd, and you’ll find many two-story shophouses erected almost a century ago. Within the walls and spilling out into the streets are authentic local restaurants with proud second- and (in some cases) third-generation cooks at the helm.
Bangkok’s Grand Palace is a sprawling complex of dazzling golden spires and intricately-carved traditional temples that’s on the agenda of most visitors to the city. Construction began in 1782, long before Louis showed up with his mother in 1862. Anna Leonowens taught King Mongkut’s children for five years until 1867. Though 150 years have passed, the blackboard she used for her lessons still stands.