Yesterday was a rather rainy holiday in Phuket – the 64th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. A mid-afternoon break in the rain gave me the chance to take a short walk up the tree-lined Narisorn Road in northeastern Phuket Town. This is where most of the province’s government buildings are located and so is relatively free of development.
The most notable of these buildings is Sala Klang Changwat Phuket, or Phuket Provincial Hall in English. Construction on this beautiful building, the first in Thailand to be made of reinforced concrete, was finished one hundred years ago during the Governorship of Phraya Rasadanupradit Mahitsaraphakdi (Kaw Simbi na Ranong).
The story of Phraya Rasada is quite interesting itself. He was the youngest of the six sons of a Chinese trader and became the governor of Trang in 1890 during which time he introduced the rubber tree to Siam and helped to develop early roads and railways in the southern part of the kingdom. In 1902, he was given the governorship of Monton Phuket which was a sort of “super province” comprising all of southwestern Thailand at the time except for Kedah. According to Colin Makay, writing in A History of Phuket (White Lotus Press, 2013):
Phraya Rassada was also not averse to striking side deals with foreign investors to improve the town. Under Phraya Rassada, concessions granted to foreign companies meant the applicant agreeing to some donation for social work or civil infrastructure and it was during his governorship that most of Phuket City’s historic buildings were built.
Other nearby buildings constructed during this time include the Governor’s Mansion, the old provincial court building, the Tin Mines Department (currently the Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation), and the Provincial Prison. I will photograph and write about these at a later date.
The design of Phuket Provincial Hall does display a distinct European influence, thanks in part to its Italian architect. The site was acquired in exchange for the Thungka Compound Ore Company land which lay opposite from where the Post and Telegraph Office (presently Phuket Philatelic Museum) was built in the early 1930’s. In exchange for the construction, Thungka was permitted to conduct mining in the Old Town area as well as along Luang Por and Phang Nga Roads.
Built from 1907 until 1913, Provincial Hall originally contained ninety-nine doors but no windows. Carved teak ventilating panels featuring vase and tulip shapes were installed above the doors in order to cool down workers. Sometime later, however, two windows were added to the rear portico. The rectangular shape of the outer structure encloses two atriums separated by a central section. Sadly, the original louvered wooden doors have been replaced by glass and the two-story is now air-conditioned. The open gallery around the building is lined with about fifty old photographs of Phuket. Some of these are better reproduced on postcards sold in some of the local shops; others I’ve never seen elsewhere.
In front of Provincial Hall, facing Narisorn Road, stands a statue of King Chulalongkorn, flanked by two cannon which, I seem to remember reading somewhere, were used during the 1785 Battle of Thalang. A couple of faded plaques give a brief history of the building.
Alas, Phraya Rasada wasn’t alive long enough to occupy an office in Provincial Hall having been shot by an assassin on Trang’s pier while returning to Phuket from Surin in February 1913. The governor of Trang at the time tried to protect him, receiving a fatal wound for his effort. Phraya Rasada was immediately loaded upon his private yacht and taken to the nearest hospital – in George Town on Penang Island. He finally died of his wounds on 10 April 1913. He is remembered in Phuket with two roads named after him (Rasada and Ranong) as well as a statue on Kao Rang. A large monument and park also exist in his honor near the old bus station in Trang.
Phuket’s Provincial Hall was formally dedicated by King Vajiravudh in an opening ceremony held on 22 April 1917 during his second visit to Phuket. The building has been in service under it’s original purpose ever since. In 1977, it became the first building in Phuket to receive a national conservation award from the Fine Arts Department. It was even featured in Roland Joffé’s 1984 Academy Award-winning film, The Killing Fields, standing in for the French Embassy in Phnom Penh.
In October 2012, plans were announced to build a brand-new Provincial Hall to the west of the current location on the opposite side of Surin Road (where the tennis courts are currently located). This sparked some protests as local residents thought that the Sanam Chai field – location of a number of local celebrations each year – was to be destroyed. At the beginning of this month, a small bomb exploded outside of the building with no injuries and little damage.
I do hope that, once the new facilities are constructed, Provincial Hall will be preserved as a museum or even an art gallery.