Having grown up watching Gilligan’s Island, the idea of a three hour tour always leaves me a bit anxious. But when Noom shows an interest in something beyond shopping, I tend to set my worries aside and just be happy my wallet gets to take a break. Such was the case after a quasi-business trip to Khaosan Road, the subsequent hassle in finding an open taxi, and Noom’s sudden realization that it was close enough to feeding time to stop off at his favorite pad thai restaurant. No problemo. It’s not exactly a short hike from the backpacker ghetto to the far side of Wat Ratchanadda where our early lunch awaited, but it is a shady walk down Ratcha Damnoen Klang Road. At least it was until Noom came to an abrupt stop and uttered that fateful cry, “Oh!”
We’d driven and walked past the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall many times in the past without incident. This time, maybe it was the lack of store windows to shop and a stomach that wasn’t quite growling yet that combined to entice him with the thought of spending our afternoon in a museum. Then again Noom is Thai. And he loves anything and everything about his culture. Even when it’s more about propaganda than tradition. But at a mere 100 baht, who was I to argue with his choice of historical record?
The Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall isn’t just a museum, it’s an interactive museum. But also being a museum run by the Thai government, your interaction is strictly controlled. Mindless wandering from exhibit to exhibit is not allowed. Because in Thailand we take guided tours. Which is where my anxiety about taking the three hour version came into play. But it coulda been worse. There’s a six hour version too. And with scheduling, the word is taking both could make you feel just like Gilligan (or Lovey Howell for you queens) stuck on an uncharted island with no apparent means of escape.
Officially the tour takes two hours. Or four. There are two ‘routes’ and you can choose to take one or both (for the same admission fee). But being a Thai museum run by the Thai government and billed as a Thai cultural experience, Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall runs on Thai time. So it all depends on how the tour schedule works out with your arrival time. First, there’s an introductory video that starts every fifteen minutes. Then your first two hour tour, which begin every 20 minutes. And then if you opt for the full experience, there’s the additional delay waiting for Part II to start. So not counting time spent at the coffee shop, checking out the views from the Observation Deck, or your boy du jour’s obligatory stop at the gift shop, plan on six hours for the full set of tours, or three hours for the single tour. But just remember that too was all that Gilligan thought he’d signed up for.
Now between almost a full day of sightseeing in one building and the fact that despite billing itself as an interactive learning center the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall is still a museum, you might be thinking: pass. And I don’t blame you. But somewhere between my bitching about being forced to take a guided tour, the length of the tour(s), the 1,000 baht deposit for the English language audio guide, the sometimes juvenile displays, and having how wonderful the royals of Thailand are for the country shoved down my throat, I actually began to enjoy myself. And Noom loved it from the get-go. Even with all the bitching I was doing.
From strictly a time best spent view, I’d almost want to tell you to go with your first instincts and give it a pass if you are only in town for a few days. But the info and displays on the Grand Palace alone would make your subsequent visit to that attraction much more rewarding. And while some of the interactive technology displays appear to have been constructed by The Professor from what he could find on the island, others are pretty damn cool. One, while you are sitting down watching a 4D-multimedia video (replete with scent and sensory effects), is actually an elevator that raises you to the next floor. Whodathunk a museum could actually be fun?
The museum is divided into nine ‘halls’ each focusing on a different aspect of Thai history/culture. The Grandeur Rattanakosin Room is mostly Chakri dynasty hype, but that segues into the Prestige of the Kingdom Room with interactive displays and scale models of the Grand Palace. You get to see the Emerald Buddha in not one but three different costumes (and all three are of a better view than you’ll get actually visiting the green guy), and the explanation of the meanings behind all the architectural details of the place is fascinating. It also provides glimpses into parts of the palace not usually accessible to the public.
In the Remarkable Entertainments Hall, a panoramic view of the olden days of Siam with traditional Thai entertainment spectacles involves you in the country’s performing arts, such as the masked Khon dance, lakhon plays, the Thai silk industry, fruit carving, and puppet shows – and yeah, you get to play with the puppets. Then it’s back to how cool it is to be royalty in the Renowned Ceremonies Room, a cinema-like hall with comfortable couch seating where you get to watch a king’s coronation ceremony. The Royal Barge Procession and the Royal Ploughing Ceremony are covered here too. Less all about the Chakri clan, the Impressive Communities Hall brings the different trade streets to life, from the monk’s bowl village of Baan Bat to the foodie lanes than run alongside the city’s canals.
I was hoping the Colorful Thai Way of Living Hall might include some interactive experience with Soi Twilight, but no such luck. Which may have had something to do with it being Noom’s favorite room. Not quite The Pirates of the Caribbean, after a brief look into to life at riverside you take a trip down the river (animated on a 3D multimedia screen) in your own boat (okay, it’s more of a cart, but go with the flow) whose movements stimulate a wild ride on the river. Then, before you get wet, the screen changes into a view of the old city and your boat becomes a tram while you ride down the first paved road in Thailand.
This was the most interactive room. You got to bop your heart out on a dance floor from the ’60s, try out some vintage costumes, and even have your photo superimposed on the cover of a magazine. It ends with a ride on the BTS, which is a good segue into the Sight – Seeing Highlights exhibit which features all the stuff you could have done in town instead of having visited the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall.
That too was a popular exhibit for Noom. It’s mostly done in cartoons. And they take photos of you when you enter the room so that during the presentation your face shows up in parts of the display. Thankfully, unlike in many museums photography is allowed. So Noom has lots of shots of himself enjoying his day at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall.
(The Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall.is open Tuesday through Friday from 11am to 8pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 8pm. The last tour begins at 6pm, but consider going later in the day ‘cuz the views of the surrounding area – including the Loha Prasat, Wat Ratchanadda, and the Golden Mount are even more spectacular when lit at night.)