On a hot day, Sanam Luang (Royal Field) is far from charming – a shadeless expanse of dying grass and concrete pavement ringed by flocks of pigeons and homeless people. Despite its shabby appearance, it has been at the centre of both royal ceremony and political upheaval since Bangkok was founded.
Less dramatic events staged here include the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, in which the king (or more recently, the crown prince) officially initiates the rice-growing season, an appropriate location given that Sanam Luang was used to grow rice for almost 100 years after the royals moved into Ko Ratanakosin. After the rains, the kite-flying season (mid-February to April) sees the air above filled with butterfly-shaped Thai kites. Matches are held between teams flying either a ‘male’ or ‘female’ kite in a particular territory; points are won if they can force a competitor into their zone.
Large funeral pyres are constructed here during elaborate, but infrequent, royal cremations, and explain the field’s alternate name, Thung Phra Men (Cremation Ground). The most recent cremation was a six-day, 300-million baht ceremony for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, in November, 2009; it took 11 months to prepare.
In a way the park is suffering a career crisis, having lost most of its full-time employment to other locales or the whims of fashion. Until 1982 Bangkok’s famous Weekend Market was regularly held here (it’s now at Chatuchak Park). Previously, the wealthy came here for imported leisure sports; these days they head to air-conditioned gyms. Today the cool mornings and evenings still attract a health-conscious crowd of joggers, walkers and groups playing đà·grôr (sepak takraw; kick volleyball). If you fancy a big-crowd experience, Sanam Luang draws the masses in December for the King’s Birthday (5 December), Constitution Day (10 December) and New Year.
Across Th Ratchadamnoen Nai to the east is the statue of Mae Thorani, the earth goddess (borrowed from Hindu mythology’s Dharani), which stands in a white pavilion. Erected in the late 19th century by Rama V, the statue was originally attached to a well that provided drinking water to the public.