A place unlike any other

From South to North, each exhibit merits close study. Before long the visitor will see how they all fit together 

Jarunee Taemsamran

The faster we move toward the new era, when technology and money influencing modern live, the farther behind we are leaving the simplicity of a life strongly rooted in Eastern traditions.

We live in condominiums or high-rises, keep the tropical heat at bay with air-conditioning, socialise very little with our neighbours and pay less attention to local culture and folkways.

Fewer people appreciate the value of what our ancestors strove to create, and among those who do appreciate the past, many lack the power and energy to conserve it.

But the founder of Ancient City-Lek Viriyahbhan or Sia Lek-has raised appreciation of Thai culture to an art form at a park unlike any other. It is fitting that "Viriyahbhan" means "family of perseverance".

Sia Lek has spent his lifetime studying, collecting and researching ancient ruins throughout the Kingdom and representing them with loving care at the site in Samut Prakan. At 82, he still has a clear vision for Muang Boran, as most local people know it.

The largest privately-owned open-air museum in the world, the 320-acre site is laid out in the shape of a map of Thailand. It gathers together examples of artistic works related to Thai history, culture, literature and architecture from all regions. It is a must-see for anyone who wants to get a feel for Thailand as a unified whole.

Established almost 30 years ago, the Ancient City is the only place where visitors can see famous symbols from each province, be they Bangkok's Grand Palace, Ayutthaya's Sanphet Prasat Palace, Saraburi's Buddha Footprint or Sukhothai's main chedi of Wat Mahathat, to name but a few.

The open-air museum also showcases regional lifestyles in re-creations such as a northern village in Chiang Mai, and a floating market.

A Chinese-descended businessman who was highly successful as a Mercedes Benz dealer, Sia Lek was said to have developed his interest in Thai arts as part of a highly personal search for values in life. Rather than put his considerable wealth into the pursuit of more material gains, he resolved to give something back to society.

He has never given a press interview, and visitors instead are directed to the mission statement he wrote when he built Muang Boran:

"Only art has bestowed the refreshing spirit on human beings up to the present day. Therefore, we should give more thought and interest to art. ... Under the circumstances, I would like to draw the attention of the world population to come to witness our art, customs and culture.

"I am certain that at some time or another, they will benefit the noble spirit and will be a good reminder to those who are drawn to materialism. Thus, Muang Boran has been created."

When the Ancient City was being built, Sia Lek gave little thought to the potential material benefits from tourism.

The founder did not see his creation as a way to make money; it continues to be run as a non-profit organisation. It has never been promoted, advertised or marketed commercially. People get to know it only by word of mouth. The entrance fee has never been increased from the original 50 baht.

Development continues to this day, but it has nothing to do with modernisation or technology. The goal is to expand the space to support the creation of more artistic works.

More recent developments have focused less on reproductions of historical or archaeological sites, and more on representing the beliefs and philosophy of the founder.

Admirers of Muang Boran have said that the newer works showed the profound insights that Sia Lek had achieved through his lifelong study of art and the way it represented life.

Among the new works is a large statue of Kuan Ying, the Goddess of Mercy, carved from a single huge block of wood. There are also representations of a Royal Barge Procession, and a botanical garden of Thai literature.

As the brochure notes, the Ancient City "... was conceived as a never-ending process that requires time for constant improvement.

"This is why Muang Boran has never had a fixed long-term view of the project as a whole, and the reason why it is constantly being developed and improved on."

More than 10 billion baht are said to have been invested in the faultlessly accurate reproductions and other works at the Ancient City. The owner's investment of time, mental, physical and spiritual strength is incalculable.

The lack of promotion means that only a thousand or so people visit the Ancient City in an average month. Continuing maintenance costs are borne by the Viriyahbhan family.
However, the financial burden could one day prove to be too great, says a worried Assoc Prof Srisakra Vallibhotama, a well-known historian and an adviser to Sia Lek.

Realising that the Ancient City is a valuable tool for educating people and instilling the love in Thai arts, history and culture, the family members are now thinking of projects to draw more visitors, especially young people.

For anyone with a love of the country, the Ancient City will elevate your spirit and fill you with amazement at the perseverance of a man who set out to bring value to his life.

And soon, you will understand the motto of the Ancient City and the philosophy of its founder: "Effort belongs to man, the results belong to heaven [to ordain]."


Savour the details, but keep big picture in mind
The Ancient City showcases historical sites in various forms. Some are replicas of real sites, some have been requisitioned from old temples, some are the products of imagination from local literature.

What all the displays have in common is that they are genuinely Thai without any pretence. And they were created with scrupulous attention to detail in terms of what was the custom at a particular point in the history.

Visitors enter the area, shaped like a map of Thailand, by the country's southern tip. The entrance is in the form of a traditional city wall and gate.

The very first archaeological site is the stupa of Phra Maha That, from Nakhon Si Thammarat. Not far away is the stupa of Phra Maha That Chaiya, a notable Surat Thani site.

Dozens more interesting sites await. Among them:

The Sanphet Prasat Palace: Once the symbol of the old capital of Ayutthaya, it is now also the symbol of the Ancient City. The replica was created after research of old documents, as well as from other archaeological and historical sources in Thailand and abroad.

The interior is richly and appropriately decorated with giltwork and glass inlay patterns. The murals, depicting the story of Narai in 10 different reincarnations, have been superbly executed.

- The Dusit Mahaprasat Palace or the Grand Palace: Known as the oldest palace in Bangkok, it is still used for important royal functions. The version at the Ancient City is meticulously based on the principal structure which is believed to be in the original decorative style. For example, the hand-painted decorative motifs on the pillars and posts of the interior are taken from detailed studies of the base of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Chetupon in Bangkok; the ceiling and woodwork from some private museums; and the giltwork between the windows, depicting the 12-month royal ceremony, from Wat Nang Nong in Thon Buri.

- The Floating Market: Most people are familiar with the floating markets, widely advertised in brochures, at Ratchaburi or Taling Chan district in Bangkok, but these are quite "touristy". The Ancient City has taken a different approach,creating a genuinely Thai atmosphere. The houses and shops on both banks, and the houseboats floating peacefully, form the typical elements of a Thai community settled along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.

- Ho Kham, Lampang: This timber house, built entirely without nails, once belonged to the governor of Lampang province during the Ratanakosin period. It stands high off the ground in the manner of houses belonging to the northern Thai aristocracy. Currently, Ho Kham houses an art collection that contains a number of rare examples of classical Buddhist art. Be sure to go inside for a closer look.

- The Anthropological Museum: A very carefully researched and assembled collection of cultural exhibits, including native artifacts drawn from every region. It is the largest collection of its kind in the country.

- Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihere): The original site is in Si Saket province. The Ancient City version was constructed, appropriately enough, on a hill, complete with a stone mount and stone sanctuary. Only the size and scale have been reduced to blend in with both the natural and man-made elements in the environment.

Climbing to the vantage point on top of the Wihan at the Ancient City, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the entire area.

There are 109 sites in total, including more recent creations that are just as faithful to the founder's spirit as the older exhibits are.

The visitor can marvel at the detail and craftsmanship, but the ultimate goal of Sia Lek is that we also learn from our encounter with the Ancient City. He once wrote:

"In order to grasp the significance of Muang Boran, one must acquire a broad knowledge of Thai history and culture, not by viewing each separate manifestation in isolation, but by approaching it as an integral part of a unified whole.

"But one should realise that each structure, reflecting as it does the great splendour of the past, was not constructed in isolation from the next. Each one relates to another in such a way that it conveys a certain meaning in terms of our historical, social and cultural achievements. Therefore, visitors to Muang Boran should not limit themselves to viewing each thing in isolation."

Getting there by car: Take the expressway to the Samrong-Samut Prakan exit. From the Samut Prakan intersection, turn left along the old Sukhumvit road and drive to Km 33. The Ancient City is on the left.

By bus: Take air-conditioned bus No.11 (Pin Klao-Paknam) to the end of the line. From there, the No 36 minibus (four baht) passes the site entrance.
There is also an eight-seat air-conditioned shuttle bus from the Bangkok office (near Democracy Monument on Rajadamnoen Avenue) every Monday to Saturday, leaving around 9:30 a.m. and returning at 4 p.m. The fare of 180 baht per person includes two soft drinks and the entrance fee. Reservations must be made at least two days in advance. Call 226-1227, 226-1936-7.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. A brochure is available in Thai and English.
Admission: 50 baht per person, plus 50 baht per car.

Bangkok Post March 18, 1999
A place unlike any other A place unlike any other Reviewed by SukiDraGon on 3:39 AM Rating: 5

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