The strange story of why King Vajiralongkorn has a Boeing 737 as a garden ornament

Thailand's monarch is constructing a vast palace complex in Bangkok, with nobody to restrain his grandiose plans. The tale of an airliner decorating the palace grounds is particularly revealing

Sometime in the second half of 2019 or early 2020, a Boeing 737 painted in the colours of Thai Airways was parked in the grounds of King Vajiralongkorn’s sprawling Amphorn Sathan Palace complex in the royal district of Bangkok as a garden ornament.

Satellite images show it wasn’t yet there by the end of July 2019, although a space had already been cleared for it. By late February 2020, it had been installed, surrounded by pathways and a manicured garden.

A few months after it appeared in the palace, I was sent a photograph showing the plane’s arrival. The source was not able to confirm the exact date, but it’s clear that getting the Boeing into the palace was a major operation.

Sources also sent me images from within the palace grounds, showing the plane inside the compound. The picture on the left was taken soon after its arrival, with wooden decking on the ground to enable the aircraft to be brought in. The photo on the right is from a few months afterwards, with the decking removed and the lawn looking immaculate once again.

The obvious question is — why? What is a Thai Airways Boeing 737 doing in Vajiralongkorn’s garden?

The answer begins with the king’s grandiose plans to totally remodel the heart of Bangkok’s royal district and build a massive palace complex after reclaiming land from several institutions that have been forced to relocate.

Since he became King Rama X in September 2016, Vajiralongkorn has overseen extensive renovations to Amphorn Sathan Palace, which is where he prefers to live when visiting Thailand from his usual base in Bavaria, and surrounding areas of old Bangkok.

As part of the project, the famous Vimanmek Mansion was totally dismantled and then rebuilt. Vimanmek was built in 1900, entirely out of golden teak wood, in a European style with Thai influences, as a 72-room palace in Dusit Garden for King Chulalongkorn. It became one of the most popular landmarks in Bangkok for tourists and Thais to visit, and was said to be the largest golden teak structure in the world. Since 1982 it was also used as a museum honouring the reign of Rama V.

The Royal Household Bureau announced that Vimanmek was being shut for renovations from July 21, 2016, and it has been closed to the public ever since. Satellite images show that between April and November 2018, the whole building was completely removed.

The most recent images, from earlier this year, show that the structure has been rebuilt, although it now looks more like concrete than golden teak. The Boeing 737 can be seen to the northwest of the mansion.

Journalists from Khaosod English visited the site of the demolished Vimanmek Mansion in July 2019, and were told the subterranean foundations of the building needed to be restored:

“Right now, they’re putting down ground columns,” a palace guard explained. “After that, the palace will be rebuilt exactly as it looked.”

Khaosod English reported that publicly available documents put the renovation’s price tag at 81 million baht. Officials said the mansion will never again be opened to the public.

Several historic institutions in the area have been forced to move after the Crown Property Bureau told them their lease would not be renewed.

The Parliament House complex, built in the 1970s to the north of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, was closed on the orders of the king, and so a new parliament has been constructed by the banks of the Chao Phraya river to the northwest, at a cost of tens of billions of baht. It is due to formally open soon, and its ghastly faux-religious architecture has been widely criticised.

The Royal Turf Club, founded in 1916 under the patronage of King Vajiravudh, also lost its lease and closed in 2018. The club, with a horse racing track, golf course, swimming pool and tennis courts, was a favoured meeting place for aristocrats, tycoons, politicians and military officers for decades.

Dusit Zoo, a beloved destination for generations of Bangkok children, closed in 2018 too. The royals had never been happy about having to give up land to host the zoo, as Duncan McCargo explained in an article for Nikkei Asia:

When the zoo opened in 1938, the reigning monarch was 13-year-old King Ananda, who had assumed the throne after the abdication of King Prajadhipok three years earlier. King Ananda was studying in Switzerland, and royal affairs were managed during his minority by a regency council. Power was in the hands of the People's Party, which had brought about the end of an absolute monarchy in 1932.

Clearly, the palace was not well-placed to resist the government's request to turn the royal garden into a public zoo. And while the zoo has delighted millions of visitors for decades, its presence at the core of Bangkok's old town has also served as a reminder that the monarchy's powers and privileges were once highly constrained.

Other institutions forced out of the area include Suan Dusit and Suan Sunandha Rajabhat universities, which were told they would have to relocate.

As the popularity of the monarchy plummeted last year, Vajiralongkorn donated plots of land elsewhere to the universities and various other institutions in a ceremony in November, in an effort to deflect criticism of his extraordinary land grab in the royal district. There have been vague pronouncements that a hospital and museum may be built on some of the land that Vajiralongkorn reclaimed for himself, but so far no firm plans have been revealed.

As a result of all the changes, a huge swathe of territory in the capital’s royal district is now reserved for the sole use of the king.

Many of the changes seem to be driven by Vajiralongkorn’s determination to erase all traces of the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy, and to restore Thailand to an idealised past era when the king could do whatever he wanted.

Most notoriously, Vajiralongkorn ordered the removal of the historic plaque in Royal Plaza commemorating the uprising of the Khana Ratsadon in 1932. The plaque was suddenly replaced with a new one inscribed with royalist slogans in 2017, and the Thai authorities have shown no interest in investigating what happened.

The king also wants to reshape Ratchadamnoen Avenue, the key artery of royal Bangkok, planning to tear down the Art Deco buildings erected during the Khana Ratsadon era and replace them with grim “neoclassical” royalist structures. Ten buildings along the road have been earmarked for demolition. In the meantime, as they await destruction, the buildings are empty, and the area has become a magnet for some of Bangkok's homeless and hungry, who find shelter in doorways and under trees on the once grand and thriving Avenue.

The whole area is now awash with anti-royal graffiti, like this slogan on the shutters of the old Government Lottery Office on Ratchadamnoen Klang: “No God, No King”.

The increasingly paranoid monarch has also ordered the construction of a high wall around his expanded domain. Building works are still ongoing. Signs have been erected in Royal Plaza and anywhere the king fears protesters may gather, proclaiming that the area is “Royal Ground” that must not be defiled by the presence of unruly commoners.

Protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak mocked the “Royal Ground” signs during rallies last year, bringing his own competing “Citizen Area” placard, but clearly Vajiralongkorn didn’t appreciate the joke — Penguin has been charged with multiple counts of lèse majesté and sedition, has been repeatedly denied bail, and is now severely ill after more than seven weeks on hunger strike.

Much of the area around Royal Plaza was designed by King Vajiravudh last century in homage to the opulent Palace of Versailles created 350 years ago by the absolutist French monarch Louis XIV. The statue of King Chulalongkorn riding a horse, rather than an elephant which would have been more in keeping with Thai traditions, was directly copied from Versailles. Vajiralongkorn’s renovations seem to be partly intended to further emulate Versailles, and the “Sun King” imagery which Louis used to promote himself. Some of the decorations on gates and fences at Royal Plaza, recently restored, clearly borrow from the solar cult symbolism at Versailles.

A dystopian landscape is emerging in Thailand’s royal district, but nobody dares say anything about the cultural vandalism and insane grandiosity, or even just the sheer ugliness of what is being built.

The massive remodelling of the royal district is not only happening above ground. A large network of underground tunnels has also been dug into the earth below, linking the various buildings in the complex. The extent of the subterranean construction is not known, but a video of one of the passageways was leaked in 2019.

So it’s clear by now that Vajiralongkorn is overseeing a massive project both above and below ground to change the face of the royal district of Bangkok forever and create an impregnable fortress for himself.

It’s a mad scheme, because he doesn’t even live in Thailand most of the time, and once he dies the power of the Thai monarchy will be irretrievably diminished. But like many kings and despots before him, he seems fixated on creating a vast monument to his greatness, oblivious to the futility of the project.

Which brings us back to the Boeing. Vajiralongkorn has been obsessed with flying throughout his adult life. It has always been one of his main hobbies alongside sex and shopping, although in his old age he now seems to prefer riding bicycles to piloting planes.

He also has a history of decorating his palaces with aircraft. As I wrote a couple of months ago in an article about his former residence Thaweewattana Palace — now a training centre for his elite King’s Guard force, as well as a punishment camp with a secret jail for those who displease him — two vintage planes, including a 1940s Douglas C-47, are parked in the grounds. They were previously on display at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum at Don Muang before Vajiralongkorn demanded them for himself in 2007, and they can be clearly seen on satellite photographs.

The king has decorated the grounds of Amphorn Sathan with plenty of aircraft too — satellite images show several fighter jets, probably F-5 planes which Vajiralongkorn was trained to fly, dotted around the gardens, including to the northwest and southwest of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.

But a Thai Airways 737 is an unusual garden ornament even by Vajiralongkorn’s eccentric standards. The F-5s are not the most tasteful decoration for the palace grounds but at least we can understand why he might want them there — he’s proud of his ability to fly fighter jets, and it is part of his mythology as a warrior monarch who went into battle to fight the communists and defend the kingdom. Displaying F-5s at his palace is a way to proclaim his martial prowess.

Putting a large commercial passenger aircraft in his garden is less easy to comprehend. But while we can’t read Vajiralongkorn’s mind, we can at least try to figure out what he was thinking.

The biggest clue to help us work out why he put the 737 in his palace is the registration code painted on the side — HS-TDK.

Records show that HS-TDK is a Boeing 737-4D7, built and delivered to Thai Airways in 1998. The airline named it Sri Surat. Here’s a photo of the aircraft when it was still in use by Thai Airways. You can see the registration HS-TDK behind the wing, and the name Sri Surat beside the cockpit. The plane in Amphorn Sathan Palace is painted exactly the same way.

Was there something special about this particular plane that would make Vajiralongkorn want to display it in his palace garden? As I investigated, my hunch was that this was the aircraft on which Vajiralongkorn first met his queen, and this is why it is so important to him. It turned out that I was both right and wrong.

On January 5, 2007, Vajiralongkorn piloted a Thai Airways charity flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, with his third wife Srirasmi Suwadee and his son Prince Dipangkorn on board along with several grandees including prime minister Surayud Chulanont.

Among the cabin crew was a 28-year-old woman from Hat Yai called Suthida “Nui” Tidjai, who had been a Thai Airways flight attendant for three and a half years. As I reported in an article about Suthida last week, she had been used in promotional materials by Thai Airways, and this brought her to the attention of Vajiralongkorn, who wanted to meet her.

Soon after they met aboard the flight to Chiang Mai, Vajiralongkorn became infatuated with Suthida, and within a few months he moved to Bavaria to live with her there. She became his main consort, and on May 1, 2019, she was crowned queen of Thailand.

Photographs from January 5, 2007, show that the aircraft on which Vajiralongkorn met Suthida was indeed HS-TDK. This image of Vajiralongkorn playing with Dipangkorn in the cockpit clearly shows the plane was Sri Surat.

This is confirmed by another photograph, showing Vajiralongkorn at the flight controls the same day. Look at the small panel just above his right hand.

Zooming in on the image shows the panel is inscribed with the registration of the plane, HS-TDK.

So the most probable explanation of why he wanted a giant Boeing 737 in his palace gardens is that it was a romantic gesture. Either for his own nostalgia, or to try to impress Suthida, he wanted a permanent reminder in his palace of the place where he met his queen. And because he is out of control, and nobody dares restrain him, if he wants a 737 as a garden ornament, he gets it.

By the time he put the plane in his palace, Vajiralongkorn was already bored of Suthida, preferring to spend his time with his “noble consort” Sineenat “Koi” Wongvajirabhakdi and a large harem of other women, as I reported in my recent article on the queen. But maybe he thought she would be impressed and placated by the gesture.

However, there is another twist to this story. The plane in the grounds of Amphorn Sathan Palace is not Sri Surat after all.

We know this because publicly available records show that HS-TDK was sold in 2017 to a British air freight company called West Atlantic. It was given a new registration, G-JMCK, and its passenger windows were removed. The plane is still in active use, mostly flying between UK airports carrying cargo. Here’s what it looks like today:

So the plane in Vajiralongkorn’s palace gardens is not really the aircraft aboard which he first met Suthida. It’s another Boeing 737 that the king has somehow procured from Thai Airways, and it has been repainted with a fake registration so it looks like the plane where he met her — which in fact is hauling cargo around the UK.

The whole thing is an outrageous deception, an apparently spectacular signal of his love for Suthida that is actually an elaborate fake. A random Thai Airways 737 has been repainted with a bogus registration number to make it appear to be the plane aboard which the king and queen first met 14 years ago, and parked in the gardens of his palace in the middle of Bangkok.

Thai Airways is bankrupt and collapsing after decades of mismanagement and corruption. I contacted them to ask how a Boeing 737 ended up in Amphorn Sathan Palace with a fake registration. It’s a question shareholders have a right to know the answer to, because even an old 737 is worth around 100 million baht on the resale market, and presumably this plane was just gifted to the king. But they refused to answer, and kicked me out of their investor relations group on LINE for asking inappropriate questions.

There is still one mystery surrounding the plane that we will probably never know the answer to — who was fooling whom?

Did the king want to impress Suthida by preserving the plane where they met as a monument to their love, and when he found out he couldn’t because it had already been sold, secretly arrange for another 737 to be turned into a fake Sri Surat, hoping she would never realise it wasn’t the real one?

Or did Thai Airways try to trick Vajiralongkorn by pretending the plane was HS-TDK? The king is notorious for his rages when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s possible that on a whim Vajiralongkorn demanded that Thai Airways give him Sri Surat so he could use it as a garden decoration, and the airline’s managers didn’t dare tell him the plane had already been sold, so they just arranged for another 737 to be repainted with a fake registration, and presented it to him, assuming he would never notice the deception.

Whatever the answer, there are few better symbols of the absurdity and dishonesty of the reign of Rama X.