By Kupluthai Pungkanon
THE BRAND new luxury Iconsiam shopping complex is marking the 250th anniversary of Krung Thonburi and the legacy of its ruler, King Taksin the Great of Siam (1734-1782), with the opening of the Thailand’s first floating museum – the Sri Mahasamut.
After the Second Fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, the hero of the old capital and the only king to reign during the Thonburi era, 1767 to 1782, King Taksin the Great is credited with bringing commerce to life in this major port city along the Chao Phraya River.
Thailand’s first floating museum the “Sri Mahasamut Ship” marks the 250th anniversary of Krung Thonburi, the old capital of Siam.
The floating museum combines the very best of old and new, using advanced interactive techniques to offer visitors a virtual reality experience of bygone days on a real junk. The sensations are further enhanced by the constant movements of the Sri Mahasamut as she is jostled by the current and the wakes of other river craft.
The museum ship is modelled on the spectacular Red Head Junk, or Ang Thao Tsung, as the Teochew called it, and it’s a behemoth of a vessel measuring 50 metres in length, 30 metres high and nine metres wide with a total space of 1,800 square meters.
“It took five months to build the life-size ship, which is as high as a four-storey building. The Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Department served as consultant, making sure the project was true to history. It has been a great experience creating the floating museum modelled on a real junk.
We started the work in Pathum Thani province but were told that with the level of the Chao Phraya River wouldn’t allow the ship to pass under the bridges. So we had to drag it to Bangkok and continue building it.
The junks used to have crews of 200 sailors but with the displays and equipment, especially the air conditioning, we can only receive |about 25-30 visitors per 30-minute round,” says Upatum Nisitsukcha-roen, chief executive officer of exhibition organiser Right Man and the curator of the show.
“Our research showed that the Siamese junks used for international trade combined the features of the Guangdong and Fujian junks. They were suited to shallow waters and had pointed bows. There is a shack at the stern and the vessel is surrounded by handrails. Trying to physically sail the Sri Mahasamut was very exciting. There’s no engine so the ship relies on the wind. Of course, we had an idea what it would be like but the real experience was amazing. The ship moved very fast and was very hard to control,” he adds.
The main exhibition area in the Civilisation archive
Inside, visitors are able to observe different areas of the vessel, each of which tells a different story based on the historical timeline.
Visitors stepping onto the deck are greeted by statues of sailors complete with the Chinese pigtails fashionable in those days. But the real journey begins inside when you |start exploring the three exhibition zones.
The first zone is the Captain’s Cabin and relates the history of the maritime trade, the building of the capital and its relocation, and Krung Thonburi as an international trading port. The video presentation explains the trading route from Southern China to the Chao Phraya River and to Bangkok Yai Canal using hologram techniques to trace the past.
The second zone is the Crew’s Cabin and portrays the atmosphere and life of the sailors, an existence without much comfort and totally different from the cruises of today. Sailors had to sleep in a tight communal space, often for several months for end. They had to prepare fresh water, food, and dried goods that could be stored until the next anchorage, a duration impossible to predict as so much depended on the weather. It is assumed that the crew used fishing lines and nets to catch fresh fish as an additional food source while on their journey.
The third zone is on the lower level and is known as the Civilisation archive. This is home to a biography and the initiatives of King Taksin the Great in rebuilding, a chronology of the wars fought to unify the kingdom, Thonburi-China trade relations and diplomacy, world trade routes, and the ship as a symbol of prosperity.
There are also hands-on activities for visitors to enjoy including taking on the role of a crewmember and hoisting a cargo crate.
Also displayed is the helm, which controls the direction in which the junk is moving. It too is very different from the controls of a modern sailing ship – more like just a hunk of wood – and gives an idea of what caption and crew had to contend with more than two centuries ago. Information about the junk itself is explained in three languages – Thai, English, and Chinese.
The exhibition demonstrates life of a sailor on board.
The junk is comprised of three important parts. The sails are designed to be able to counter the wind and are flipped to control direction. The crew can climb the batten to work on the upper part of the sail. The hull is made up of multiple internal compartments to help the junk survive intake of water and help it to float. And finally there’s the rudder, which is hinged. Holes are drilled into the rudder to buffer the water pressure and to sail well in the deep sea. Rudders were invented to save human labour.
The red painted eyes on the exterior of the bow are known as “miracle eyes” and stem from the Chinese belief that the junk is comparable to a fish and that by drawing eyes on both sides of the bow, the junk will be able to sail safely in the right direction.
Limited space and the need to provide information in different languages has resulted in the written explanations being small and difficult to read, particularly for visitors with poor eyesight. To counter this problem, the curator has opted for technology to showcase the maps of the trade routes and introduced a range of activities guaranteed to please.
For example, visitors can also change into various national outfits through Kinect and pose for photographs in the civilisation archive then share them while still on board to their social media platforms. They can also learn about some important places in Thonburi district that still exist and historical sites with a connection to King Taksin, which they can visit in virtual time.
The floating museum pays tribute to King Taksin the Great.
A large screen in this area shows a short video about the Great Warrior King, from the point when King Taksin broke through the enemy line three months before Ayutthaya fell. With only 500 fearless soldiers, King Taksin successfully attacked the Burmese and headed east from his Pichai campsite to find a stable base for building up his troops to win back the nation. His strategies to rebuild the country, the urgency of the royal duties to make sure the poor and hungry were fed and his trading skills that made Thonburi prosperous are also detailed in the film.
The overall explanations of the exhibition are clear and concise and will help young students and tourists to better understand the history of the era.
Another nice touch are the models of the merchandise traded including tea, silk fabric, ivory, |animal horns, deer leather and spices.
And, as you’d expect, the Sri Mahasamut also caters to the modern visitor with retail and coffee areas on the top deck. Cheers!
>> The exhibition is free of charge and continues until January 13 at the River Park of Iconsiam.