In the midst of Bangkok’s militant urbanism – the glass buildings, the dusty construction sites, the dark concrete skytrain that cuts through Sukhumvit – Wittayu road seems a curious exception. A huge stretch of the road is leafy and green, marking out the hallowed grounds of historic ambassadorial embassies and residences in Bangkok. Wittayu was named after Thailand’s earliest radio transmitter station, but it may as well be called Thailand’s ‘Embassy Row.’
One of these embassies belongs to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. To most Thais, this comes as a surprise, since Wittayu’s greenery is most associated with the American Embassy. But since 1949, the 2-rai plot of land nestled between Wittayu and Soi Tonson has belonged to the Dutch. According to Kees Rade, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Thailand, it is one of the Netherlands’ most impressive embassies in the world.
Walking into the lush Residence gardens feels like stepping into wonderland. A small moat separates the Residence from the Embassy, filled with the same emerald green water – and monitor lizards – supplied by the BMA to neighboring Lumphini park. Grasping my awe, the nearby security guard turns around to say: “For first time visitors, the Residence looks like a public park.” The variety of flora and fauna seems to outdo most of Bangkok’s public parks, owing to a past custom where visitors to the Dutch representation brought trees as gifts.
The Residence itself is a historic, two-story villa. Inside, pictures of the Dutch and Thai Royal Families adorn the walls, alongside paintings by the likes of Karel Appel and Corneille, whose colorful paintings resisted the gray aesthetic of WWII European art. A painting of an angel pays tribute to the City of Angels.
One of the more unexpected wall ornaments is a lengthy piece of framed snakeskin that spans an entire doorway. Anoma Boonngern, the Ambassador’s Private Assistant, explains that the snake was caught within the premises and framed before the Netherlands bought the compound – one of the many reptilian creatures that call this place home. “Who knows, you might find a monitor lizard in the pool!” she jokes “There are so many of them here” (The Ambassador denies ever having swam with one). The moat that surrounds the residence links to the moat in the American embassy, giving the reptiles ample space to roam.
There is something otherworldly about the place, made only more surreal by the homely presence of creatures whose name, in Thai, are a rough swear word.
The premises itself has a fascinating history, having changed hands among many on the wrong side of history.
The land was originally owned by farmers. In the Rattanakosin era, the area that is now home to Central World, Siam Paragon and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club was once home to miles of paddy fields interwoven with moat-like khlongs. It was eventually bought by members of the royal family and some of the earliest Sino-Thai entrepreneurs, like Nai Lert. By 1915, the land was in the possession of King Rama VI. Dr. Alphone Poix, King Rama V’s physician, built the grand house that would become the original Ambassador’s Residence.
Eventually the royal family conferred the premises to then-Army Chief Prince Bovoradej Kridakara – the same prince that would lead the eponymous Bovoradej rebellion. In 1932, while Khana Ratsadon was planning their revolution, Bovoradej was trying to sell part of the premises to renovate his own villa. He received permission from the King to do so, but unfortunately was distracted by other political events, namely, the forced transition of Siam into a constitutional monarchy.
Bovoradej was a committed royalist, and in 1933 led his own counter-rebellion to save the throne. Phibun Songkhram headed Khana Ratsadon’s defense, and for two weeks the country was plunged into civil war, with bombs falling on Bangkok and fighting in the streets. Finally, Bovoradej fled into exile overseas, and the premises was left unclaimed.
But the house would not remain empty for long. During WWII, Phibun handed the premises over to the Japanese when Thailand officially defected to the Axis powers, and it became one of their army offices. They also used the neighboring estate for storing materiel and troops. In the house that would eventually become the American Ambassador’s Residence, army boots trampled over delicate teak wood, and trucks, gun carriages and tanks crushed the surrounding gardens. The two grand, old houses did not fare well.
However, the Japanese occupation of the Wittayu residences was short-lived. Thailand’s Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement kept Thailand on the good side of the Allied Powers, and in 1947 one of the Wittayu road premises became the American embassy.
In March 1949, Prince Boworavej finally sold the premises to the government of the Netherlands, for the price of 1.85 million ticals (the term foreigners used for the baht). That year, Dutch Ambassador Johan Zeeman moved in with a small staff of ten.
Today, the Ambassador no longer lives in the villa Dr. Poix built. “It’s nice but not very practical,” admits Ambassador Rade, “especially if you have kids and they’re running around.” When asked if he is concerned about potential bomb scares directed at the neighboring American embassy, he laughs. “Fortunately, the bombing of embassies is no longer a very prominent issue, partly because of all the measures we’ve taken to protect ourselves.”
In 2007, a new Ambassador’s Residence was built. The old Residence is still used for receiving guests and having Ambassadorial dinners (without the intrusion of young children). The grounds are used for large embassy events, such as the LGBTI movie night. “LGBTI issues are very close to our hearts,” says the Ambassador, “we support NGOs who are advocating for better treatment of LGBTI people, and so on.”
The embassy itself has expanded to a staff of almost 40. It has made other upgrades, such as moving to solar power. But both Anoma and Ambassador Rade have a deep appreciation of the premises’ history, and an awareness that the Residence is among a dwindling number of diplomatic historic houses in Bangkok.
“The British Embassy and Residence used to be the biggest of all the representations, but now it’s been destroyed,” Anoma adds with regret. Of foreign representations occupying historic spaces, only a few, like Italy, Portugal, France, America, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands remain.
These are living testaments to Siam and Thailand’s long history of international trade, diplomacy and development. Land has always told important stories about power. The prestigious properties of Wittayu road have especially compelling tales to tell.
Luckily, the Dutch representation has carefully conserved this property, and has no plans to leave in the near future. In the words of Ambassador Rade: “From someone who has lived in other major cities, the safety and development of Bangkok is really something you should cherish.”