A very short drive of 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Bangkok along the banks of the Chaopraya River will bring you to Bang Pa In, summer palace of the kings of Thailand. The palace dates back to the seventeenth century, pre-dating the establishment of Bangkok as the capitol, although it did fall into disuse for a long period. All the buildings you see date from its revival by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in the nineteenth century. Today, the palace is only used infrequently, and then mostly for state occasions rather than as a royal summer residence.
The palace is very European in design. The buildings are laid out along an artificial ornamental pond. In what was formerly the public area of the palace, the lake is a long rectangular pool, lines with formal plantings and the odd folly. The most obvious of the ornaments is a modern copy of a Khmer style prang.
At the end of this formal entry promenade the pond takes on a more natural shape. In this pond you see what has become the "signature piece" of Bang Pa In. It is an elegant Thai-style pavilion in the middle of a pond, with the rather daunting title of "The divine seat of personal freedom." It is really the only example of classical Thai architecture within the palace and was built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). It now houses a statue of him. The pond also serves to divide the "public" outer area of the palace from the inner private areas.
Within the inner palace are several buildings in various styles. The main residence is a modern reconstruction of the original building. Although the original building was said to be in the style of a Swiss Chalet, the modern building has a more "Paris Metro" art-deco feel to it. Note that the building, still occasionally used by the royal family, is not open to the public.
Perhaps the most interesting building in the inner complex, and the only one open to the public, is the Chinese style residence built in China and gifted to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1889. You must remove your shoes to enter and enjoy the ebony and red lacquer interior.
Just outside the inner palace area is the Varobhas Bimarn residence, which is now also open to the public. There are just three public rooms that you can see: A formal throne room, with a less formal sitting room off to the side, and a large state dining room. You must be "properly dressed" to enter the building, which for men means no shorts, and women must wear a skirt. Sarongs are available in the building next door if you need a wardrobe adjustment.
When visiting the palace, if you go anywhere near the river you might notice what looks like a small Gothic church on an island across the water. That isn't a Christian church, it's actually a Thai Buddhist temple called Wat Niwet Thamaprawat, and well worth a trip on the cable car across the river.
The coolest and most comfortable way to get to Bang Pa In is via one of the many luxury cruises available from riverside hotels. The Chaophraya River Express Boat service also operates a special service on Sundays from the Prachan pier.
You can also reach Bang Pa In by train from Hualampong station. See the full page on getting to Bang Pa In for details.
There is a fee of 100 Baht (2.60 USD) to enter the palace grounds. Hours are 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, but the ticket office closes at 3:30 pm. Also note that you must exit through the gift shop.