Next time you’re looking for a unique place to visit in Bangkok, head to the Prasart Museum. Sprawled across 2.4 hectares, in one of Asia’s most crowded cities, the antique collection is artistically displayed among the tropical gardens and housed in specially built structures such as a Buddhist chapel, a chedi, a Guanyin shrine and Lopburi-style chapel.
Driven by a desire to preserve Thai culture, Prasart Vongsakul spent over 20 years of his life transforming a rice field in a suburb of Bangkok into an indoor and outdoor private museum set among lush tropical gardens.
While travelling overseas, this Bangkok businessman visited museums throughout the world and realized that foreign collectors were buying up Thailand’s treasures.
Driven by a love of art and the strong desire to preserve Thailand’s artistic culture, he decided to build his own museum and buy back many of those pieces from foreign investors.
“I want to preserve keep Thai culture for the younger generation. It makes me sad that so much has gone to Europe over the last 40 years and I feel it is necessary to protect what we have” explains Prasart Vongsakul.
Hidden treasures in Prasart Museum
Some of the treasures hidden away in Bangkok’s Prasart Museum are low carved teak tables, an old manuscript cabinet, gilded screens and tea sets all from the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods.
These treasures are artfully arranged within the rooms of a Thai-style teak house known as the Red Palace, modelled after the original palace built by Bangkok’s founder King Rama I.
A winding path leads to a teakwood library which houses a collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
Surrounded by a trickling pond, libraries such as these were traditionally built over water to protect religious manuscripts from white ants.
A Chinese stone figure guards its entrance.
Next to it is a 100-year-old bell tower which was rescued from a ruined temple in the Nonthaburi Province.
Fit for a king
At the far end of the garden sits a grand 19th-century colonial mansion built in Italianate style, which became popular during the reign of King Chulalongkorn.
Inside there’s an extensive collection of 19th century Thai Bencharong porcelain, produced in China using traditional Thai designs.
Massive pandanus trees, giant palms and flowering ginger plants create a tropical atmosphere.
Cascading waterfalls, birds’ nest ferns and neatly clipped shrubs are accentuated by ancient pieces from Prasart’s collection.
Giant water jars, some of which date back to the Sukhothai period, are planted with water lilies.
Woodcarvings from northern Thailand and an assortment of well-worn Chinese stone figures – both animal and human – peep out among the foliage.
Large quantities of these stone figurines were brought to Thailand on rice-trading ships and became a popular feature of Thai temples and palace gardens in the 19th century.
Over the years, Prasart has bought back a vast collection of Thai treasures from overseas.
Among them are prehistoric earthenware pots from Bahn Prasart in the Nakhon Ratchasima Province, hand-painted jars from Ban Chiang that date back to 300BC, a 12th century Vishnu figurine from Angkor Watt, 18th century Indo-Thai textiles, a gilded wood Ayutthaya-period Busabok Thammas throne used to display Buddha statues and a vast collection of Buddha statues in an assortment of styles and periods.
The Prasart Museum collection also reflects King Rama V’s fondness for fine European art pieces.
Among the museum’s collection are King Chulalongkorn’s personal items which include photographs, a set of Faberge objects from Chulalongkorn’s 1897 visit to Russia, hand-painted portraits, Sevres porcelain bearing the royal crest, chandeliers, lamps, gold coins and medals.
Some of these were genuinely European while others were specifically crafted following Thai patterns.
Prasart’s love affair with art began with a childhood purchase of a small vase at a weekend market.
To help him build his dream, he provided a home for 20 young people from Thailand’s poorest families.
The boys and girls were chosen to complement each other’s basic talents. Over the years, some developed into expert potters, wood carvers and ceramic artists, while others learned to tend to tropical plants and gardens.
As time went by – with the help of his “family” – Prasart Vongsakul’s dream took shape.
The Prasart Museum is located at 9 Soi Krungthepkreetha 4A, Krungthepkreetha Road, Huamark, Bangkapi, Bangkok 10240.