Newspaper article about Baan Phitsanulok
Published in The Nation on Sunday April 4, 1993.
Last month, the public learned that Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was moving into Baan Phitsanulok. Lerson Tanasugarn presents two balanced views to demystify the rumours of the haunted mansion.
Chuan takes a home with haunting history
Baan Phitsanulok (pronounced Ban-Pit-Sa-Nu-Loke) is a graceful mansion. The compound, right in the middle of Bangkok and not far from Government House, is such an ideal place for hosting small meetings over afternoon tea and large buffet dinners.
The main building has an atmosphere of friendliness with a touch of aristocracy. The grounds are laced with ponds, fields, and even a hill, arranged in such a way that one can enjoy walking for hours on the pavements around the estate when the sun is not too strong. There is ample parking space for hundreds of cars, with areas to accommodate drivers and security personnel who may accompany the guests.
Starting from the main gate and turning left, one heads towards the main building. In front of the edifice is a ring road surrounding a pond with a fountain with a statue of Vishnu lying on the serpent Ananta on a stone slab. The front marble staircase leads into a rotunda with marble pillars standing on a floor of intricately designed parquetry.
On the left is an elaborate reception hall with a dual staircase that joins another bifurcated spiral staircase in the rotunda leading to the second and third floors. A striking feature of the reception hall is a lion-head fountain pond below the staircase. This hall is also designed to accommodate social activities such as ballroom dancing.
Looking outside the window from the reception hall one finds a Roman bridge that leads to a small wooded hill. On top of the hill is a shrine for Tao Hiran Roojee, the guardian spirit of the estate.
Behind the reception hall is the dining room, which was used during the Chatichai period for press conferences and ceremonial signing of international agreements.
On the right of the rotunda is the living room with Chinese-style furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. During the Chatichai administration, the Prime Minister Policy Advisory Council too over this room as its main office.
Looking outside the window, one sees a grass lawn graced by a copper horse statue. The Italian-made, life-size statue was a gift from King Rama VI to the original owner of the mansion for his long service related to the royal stables. This lawn was used twice during the Chatichai period to host buffet dinner parties for about 200 academics who had contributed useful ideas to the government and for a smaller number of amateur radio operators who had helped the country during the Typhoon Gay crisis late in 1989. Beyond the grass lawn, one sees the sports field and the building where King Rama VI used to change clothes when he came over for a game of tennis or polo.
Back into the main hall, the major spiral staircase leading to the upper floors was designed in such a manner that the weight is distributed to the inner walls of the house, thus requiring no pillars at all for support. Suspended from the roof above the staircase is a beautiful crystal chandelier that, when lit, gives a final touch of magnificence to the main rotunda.
The second floor consists of a master bedroom and two smaller bedrooms. The master bedroom, painted pink to match the birthday of the original owner, leads to the breakfast room, which has been turned into a study room. The master bed fits into a semi-circular niche with closets built into the outer side of the semi-circle.
The third floor features a Buddhist worship room under the elaborate frontal dome of the mansion. At the back is another bedroom leading to the roof-deck. The deck offers a magnificent panoramic view of the Bangkok skyline.
Behind the principal mansion, and beyond the water lily pond, is a building that was originally used as a place for audition and rehearsing of plays. The newly-renovated building may probably become an office of the Prime Minister’s aides and advisors.
The rich history of Baan Phitsanulok dates back about seven decades. The main building was designed by Italian architects who had some free time off from overseeing the construction of the Anato Samakhom Throne Hall. The compound was given by King Rama VI to Phraya Aniruth-deva, who had a long career as a high-ranking civil servant equivalent to the the Lord Chamberlain in England. The mansion was in the middle of a 10.17 acre estate located then in the suburb of Bangkok that was once a rice field.
King Rama VI originally named the compound “Baan Bantomsin” (baan-house, bantom-lying, sindhu-water) after the statue of Vishnu lying on the serpent Ananta (floating on the primeval sea of milk) in front of the mansion. The statue is also the family seal given to the Aniruth-deva family by the King.
During the second World War, the Phibulsonggram government wanted a decent place for the Joint Thai-Japan Military Operation Headquarters. Baan Bantomsin was an ideal candidate because of its beautiful architecture and its proximity to Government House.
In 1942, the original owner, who had moved his family north to avoid the Allies bombing of Bangkok, sold the buildings and most of the grounds to the Bureau of the Crown Property for a nominal price of Bt500,000. The Bureau then let the Office of the Prime Minister use the Mansion as it wished. Initially, it was renovated to serve as a temporary residence for state visitors. The name was changed to “Baan Phitsanulok” after the name of the street in front of the compound.
With time, the buildings deteriorated severely and never housed any state visitors in light of Bangkok’s many world-class hotels. Baan Phitsanulok was abandoned as a deserted mansion for a couple of decades.
In 1979, the Chomanan government planned to allocate Bt19.5 million to renovate Baan Phitsanulok for use as Prime Minister’s official residence. The Prem Government later reappraised the cost of the project to Bt22.9 million in 1982. In order to complete the renovation in only 144 days and keep the budget within Bt10 million, the 11th Military Engineering Regimen was allocated two-thirds of the budget for the exterior building and ground renovation. The remaining budget went to the Household and Vehicle Division of the Office of the Prime Minister for all the interior renovation and decor.
At last, Baan Phitsanulok suddenly came to life again. Reportedly, however, General Prem stayed only a couple of nights in the mansion and decided to move out to his Si-Sao residence.
During the Chatichai Government, Baan Phitsanulok became a centre of administrative power. To emphasise the symbolic independence from politics, Baan Phitsanulok was chosen as the headquarters of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council. The mansion was also a stage for several international negotiations, including some early Cambodian peace talks.
When the military staged a coup d’etat in February, 1991, Baan Phitsanulok was seized after they had captured Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, in a plane to see the King by his royal command. Since then the mansion has been in a state of hibernation until this recent rebirth.
Where addicts and bugs contend with bygone political spirits
Have you ever wondered whether there is any correlation between association with Baan Phitsanulok and having political trouble? Conversely, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda made a smart move out of the compound soon after he had moved in, and stayed in power for several years afterwards.
What about non-political problems? Some officials working there became mysteriously ill. Most of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan’s policy advisors suffered marriage problems, before or after associating with the mansion. Although unconfirmed, security guards have reported supernatural phenomena, such as being spooked by the copper horse coming alive under moonlight.
Baan Phitsanulok is supposed to be protected from evil forces by a guarding spirit named Tow Hiran Roojee. This southern male angel has been worshipped yearly on April 13 by Baan Phitsanulok personnel. Failure to warship the deity properly, some say, may worsen the situation.
Being a disbeliever in superstition, I have my own alternative explanations to some of the supernatural phenomena. Although i have not found any apparent phantasm or dreadful imprecation, the mansion still seems eerie for the reasons exemplified below.
Historically, the estate was once a rice field, with very low electrical resistance to the ground owing to the high moisture content of the soil. When the 60-meter tall telecommunications tower was erected just behind the mansion in 1989, the technicians did not expect many lightning strikes since there were several taller structures around.
Nevertheless, it was found that lightning struck the tower approximately over 200 times per rainy season. The stray voltage developed on the ground near the tower may be harmful to some animals while the induced voltage in electrical outlets may pose some risks to sensitive electronic appliances, including computer and telephone PABX circuitry.
For several decades, the mansion was left deserted and the areas surrounding the buildings became small jungles full of insects and reptiles. After the recent renovations, some of these poikilothermous (cold-blooded creatures) predators moved into the underground basement and crevices of the mansion in order to survive. Many years ago a giant boa constrictor was found in the ever-flooding basement. In 1989, I personally found a yard-long snake behind a drawer in the dining room.
When parking a car anywhere in the estate, make sure it is hermetically sealed or insects of all kinds will wander inside. I once found several kinds of spiders in my car, ranging from simple varieties to something that looked like a tarantula. These spiders naturally go after the mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous in the basement and around the dark areas of the mansion.
In order to control the insect population, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration comes in periodically to spray the whole compound with insecticides. Layers upon layers of the insecticides building up on the interior walls and ceilings of the rooms can conceivably make a healthy man sick. Furthermore, small moulds and fungi living in the air conditioning systems can precipitate attacks of hay fever in susceptible people.
One day in 1990, someone discovered that water was boiling madly and dead fish were floating near the bank of the pond not far from the shrine of the guardian angel. It turned out that the demon of the pond was not angry - - the bubbling came from an electrical short circuit of the main underground electrical cables.
In order to complete the renovation quickly and cheaply during the Prem administration, it was decided that the underground wiring did not require any metal conduit for protection.
When a gardener accidentally struck the plastic jacket of the main cable with his gardening tool, a short circuit current of several hundred amperes boiled the water in the pond. After the Metropolitan Electricity Authority repaired the leak, there were plenty of the plastic-coated cables left in place, waiting for another accident to occur. Although I love swimming, I would never swim in the ponds of Baan Phitsanulok.
A few weeks ago, PM Secretary Thawat Wichaidit explained to the press that Baan Phitsanulok would allow better security protection for the Prime Minister. Unfortunately a former police commander in the Special Branch Division once called the mansion a “security nightmare,” since the compound was not designed for top security. Half of the nightmare has to do with physical security. A couple of months ago police caught some thinner-inhaling burglars who jumped over the rear wall from a lower income neighbourhood to steal valuables in the compound. These criminals might have also committed other sinful acts, thus creating dim-witted rumours about Roman stone statues coming alive late at night to rape some tenants and even a security guard.
The main building itself is a sitting duck for explosive projectiles. Although the double-wall construction helps conceal the whereabouts of the tenants to a certain degree, the walk-in safe was designed for valuables, not VIPs. Apart from a few installed fire extinguishers there is no fire alarm system to my knowledge.
The other half of the nightmare has to do with electronic security, i.e. hidden surveillance microphones and tiny video cameras installed by someone who had access to the mansion during renovations. Any prime minister would be in deep political trouble if he was secretly video-taped in compromising positions inside the master bedroom, or in any other room for that matter. To certify the rooms as bug-free would require tearing apart some of the questionable walls, windowsills and mirrors.
In the middle of the “Crisis of Faith,” Prime Minister Chuan chose to move into Baan Phitsanulok. Just a week after he moved in, the Supreme Court overturned the NPKC’s asset seizure order, which shook the PM’s throne by effectively re-qualifying his political rivals as PM candidates. To sum up, I think the PM needs more than a disbeliever’s courage and “shaman” Samphan to survive in Baan Phitsanulok.
Dr. Lerson Tanasugarn worked in Baan Phitsanulok for more than two years as a Science and Technology advisor to Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan. He now lectures at the Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University, and is a contributing editor to The Nation. The author thanks General Fuangchaloei Aniruth-deva for detailed historical information.