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A hidden gem in Bangkok

Pattaya One

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Aeroplanes, especially a lot of them, are not the easiest pieces of machinery to conceal. If you happen to possess more than 50 examples and they’re proudly on display for anyone to gaze upon- should they so desire- then you might imagine great hordes of plane spotters and their ilk would be queuing from dawn to dusk to marvel at the aeronautical feast laid out before their eyes.


The sleek lines of the British-designed and made Spitfire

In the case of the Royal Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok, this is far from the case. Officially addressed as 171 Phahonyothin Road, it is difficult to find, especially if you can’t explain to the average taxi driver exactly what you’re after. It is doubtful if many taxi drivers have had call to drop fares off at the museum. Nevertheless, a little perseverance and a sharp eye and you’ll come across what must surely be one of the most extensive museums featuring a particular form of military hardware anywhere in the world. What’s even more remarkable in this land of two-tiered pricing is that entry is free. It’s also open from 9:00am to 4:30pm every day, except public holidays.

Inside the entrance is an area consisting of photos, newspaper clippings, and paintings celebrating the men responsible for the creation of the Thai air force, their exploits and some of the actions involving combat in the period from 1911 to 1945.


One of only two Tachikawa trainers

Another section is also given over to memorabilia, again including photos and paintings as well as cartoons, much of it concerning the lead-up to the beginning of the Pacific War in December 1941. Most of the captions are only in Thai in this section.

The planes are divided into three large groups and a number of smaller annexes. In one part, to the left of the entrance, are around eight aircraft, another (far to the right) houses a further eight or so of the oldest planes and then, outside, are the main body, consisting of upwards of a dozen aircraft and helicopters. There are also a few displayed on the front lawn area of the museum, clearly visible from the road, with another clutch in a hangar to the side of the main body.

The museum claims to have two planes reputed to be the last of their kind anywhere in the world. Another is claimed to be one of just two extant. This latter is the Tachikawa trainer. As the name might suggest, it was a Japanese-made aircraft that saw service with the Thai air force from 1940 until 1949.

There is a Breguet two-seater bomber, purchased from France and which served from 1919 until 1937; there are the American-constructed Curtiss single-seat monoplane and biplane, both in service between 1935 and 1949 and a Boripatra, built in 1927 and the first aeroplane completely designed and constructed in Thailand.

The Royal Thai Air Force had its beginnings in 1911 when three army officers were dispatched to France to learn how to fly. In November 1913 they gave a flying demonstration in front of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) at Sra Prathoom racecourse and thus was born the Aviation Air Unit.


Made in Thailand, the Boripatra

The first time the air force went off to war came when Siam joined the allies in the First World War in 1917. Although there were claims the airmen saw action on the Western Front, the reality is that they were still training when the war ended.

The first real ‘blooding’ of the air force occurred during the Franco-Thai border war of 1940-1941. The Thais admitted to losing seven planes in that conflict.

Since then the Thai air force has gone through the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and border clashes with Burma, Cambodia, and Laos.

One magnificent piece of pre-jet aircraft is a 1950 Spitfire, in immaculate condition. These fighters were credited with winning the Battle of Britain, and this example is an inspiring sight up close. Even today its sleek lines and confirmation give it an aura of imperial certitude, a beauty and grace many other machines, from any era, cannot seem to match.

The museum is definitely one of Bangkok’s unsung and hidden gems, albeit that it is ‘hidden’ on a main arterial road.

UPDATE: Rumours suggest the flooding in Bangkok in November has led to the complete destruction of the museum and rendered almost everything irreparable. As at the time of writing I have not been able to confirm this and the museum, I am told, is currently closed to the public. I sincerely hope these reports are exaggerated.

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