Heloise Bergman / Time Out
Siam's first public museum, and South-east Asia's largest, originated in 1874 as King Rama IV's collection of regalia within the Grand Palace. Opening branches countrywide, it became a refuge for antiquities from smugglers. Although the displays and labelling lacks context or flair, it still provides a grounding in Thai artistic and cultural history, and its guidebook fills in many of the blanks. The National Museum Volunteers provide tours (9.30am-noon Wed, Thur) in English, French, Japanese and (Thur only) German. Disabled access has improved. Thai-language tours take place Wednesday to Sunday (10am, 1.30pm).
Front Palace buildings
It occupies part of the former Wang Na ('front palace') of the 'deputy king', a rank held by Rama IV's brother Phra Pinklao. Front, left and right are small royal pavilions, including Baan Daeng, an Ayutthayan house with Rattanakosin furnishings and a rare early indoor toilet. Most unmissable is the Buddhaisawan Chapel. Its serene murals focus attention on the revered Phra Buddha Sihing, an image seven centuries old.
Gallery of Thai History
The central audience hall contains rooms of such varied treasures as a life-size model elephant in battle armour, khon masks, and the Viceregal Puppets, restored by artist Chakraphan Posyakrit. Controversy surrounds the Ramkhamhaeng Stone, claimed to be the earliest inscription of tonal Thai lettering. The front Throne Hall holds temporary shows.
Shaded courtyards allow you to recharge before tackling the north and south wings. These hold a badly lit, ill-placed bombardment of religious iconography, running chronologically from Rooms S1-9, spanning the Dvaravati and Lopburi periods, and continuing (Rooms N1-10) with Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Lanna and Bangkok styles.
But persevere: masterpieces await. Languishing on bare plinths around the rear stairs are the country's most important statuary: a Sukhothai walking Buddha and arrestingly stylised Hindu bronzes, with a Dvaravati figure and a striking Ayutthayan Buddha head hidden under the steps.
Funeral carriage hall
The gilded funerary chariots from the first Chakri reign receive the best display. Their sheer scale and the glass-inlaid teak carving takes your breath away. Moving them takes 300 men - a feat last done in 2008 for King Bhumibol's sister.