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The Heavenly City of Dusit Thani
For years, visitors wandering through the Bangkok’s Monk’s Hospital gardens were surprised to stumble on a miniature city seemingly transported from the 19th century. Beneath sheltering boughs, streets a hands-breadth wide and lit by tiny lamps wound past dozens of exquisitely-crafted houses. Or crossed bridges spanning canals filled with sampans and barges. This tiny city appeared to be a collection of doll houses, but why here in the grounds of a hospital for Buddhist priests?

From its rather regal appearance, few would have guessed that the purpose of this city called Dusit Thani was to show that no matter the class into which one had been born, all citizens were equal before the law in a democratic society.

Its creator was King Vajiravudh who ruled Siam (or Thailand as it would be known after World War II) from 1910 to 1925. As a student in England while his father, King Chualongkorn (1868-1910) still reigned, the young prince became imbued with democratic ideals. Soon after he assumed the throne in 1911, King Vajiravudh turned to the West for ideas with which to carry on the modernizations begun by his father and grandfather, Mongkut, regarded as the most advanced Asian monarchs of the age.

He was especially enthusiastic about innovations in transportation and communications. In 1912 he sent several Thai men to France to learn how to build and fly airplanes. In 1914, they returned to Thailand to establish one of Asia's first air forces. In support of the Allied cause, he sent Thai troops to shiver in European trenches during World War I. Inspired by England’s Boy Scouts, he formed the Wild Tigers Corps to instill in young Thai boys the ideals of loyalty, duty, and service to one's country.

He also sought to introduce democracy ideals, an initiative which would have far-reaching consequences. In his newspaper, the "Siam Observer", he encouraged Thais to criticize government policy and to participate in governing the country, writing many of the critical articles himself.

One of his most unusual initiatives was the creation in 1918 of Dusit Thani in 1918. Named after the fourth of the six levels of the Buddhist heaven, it was designed as an exercise in model city planning and administration.

Sited on one acre of the royal Amporn Gardens near the present Parliament building, its buildings were scaled to one-fifteenth life size. Within its walls were palaces, hospitals, hotels, parks, flying bridges, a clocktower, 12-story buildings, a fire brigade, a newspaper, trade centers, a bank, canal locks, and all the advanced technology of a modern city of the day.

Bangkok’s noble families were encouraged to hire carpenters to reproduce their homes in miniature. Materials and labor costs for
a tiny stone or wooden mansions 80 to 100 centimeters tall and decorated with delicate filigree often came to 500 baht, a fabulous sum in those days.

Dusit Thani's primary purpose was to demonstrate how a democratic government functioned. According to a constitution written by the King, it was administered by a two-party electoral system with representatives selected by general elections. Unfortunately, Vajiravudh’s death in 1925 halted his endeavors and the project never reached maturity.

Yet Vajiravudh’s liberal attitudes remained strong, so much so that Thai students returning from Europe where democratic and socialistic ferment was at its height took the ideals to their logical conclusion. Seven years after Vajiravudh's death, the students (many of whose education had been financed by Privy Purse scholarships), staged a revolution to topple Vajiravudh’s successor, King Prajadipok, and established a new government that replaced 700 years of absolute monarchy. Henceforth, Thai kings would serve as constitutional monarchs, a play the roles of figureheads rather than political leaders.

Dusit Thani suffered a different fate. Poorly maintained after the king's death, it fell into disrepair. The few surviving buildings were eventually moved to the gardens of the Monk’s Hospital. Ultimatelyt, even they fell to dust and were swept into the trashbin. Today, nothing remains of it except a tiny bandstand.


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