Paul and I are pretty good travel partners. We like similar things – watching sport, visiting museums and lugging around our backpacks – and as such, we don’t have many disagreements on the road. He’s learnt things off me like a growing obsession with Asian food, and I’ve gotten used to the cycling and kayaking we tend to fit into our itineraries.
So apparently the Dutch used to hang around Ayutthaya, when it was all pretty and mighty and all that. The Dutch tended to pop up whenever there was even a sniff of some money to be made (why on earth did I type that in the past tense?), so they set up shop just outside the city proper in the eighteenth century. They built a tiny little settlement on the water, and called it Baan Hollanda.
Paul had caught a whiff of the fact that there was quite possibly a museum that commemorated this era somewhere in Ayutthaya. Actually, it was my fault – the only whiff of it resided in my Wikitravel app on my iPhone; hardly a reliable source. But Paul was bouncing with excitement. He’d been to a few old VOC (the Dutch East India Company) posts – Nagasaki, Melaka and Cape Town – but surely this one was the most obscure.
Me? I wasn’t so keen on the whole arrangement. But I decided I should be a good girlfriend, and as such I showed our tuk tuk driver the Wikitravel article.
He had no idea what we were talking about. We didn’t have an address, just a wishy-washy idea that it was near the river, a bit out of town. He shrugged and we took off.
Half an hour later we were pulling up at a Japanese museum. Our driver peered back at us with a hopeful look on his face. I gave Paul what was hopefully a ‘I’m-still-very-supportive-but-maybe-we-should-turn-back-as-this-doesn’t-look-very-positive’ expression. Paul ignored it, pleaded with the driver to ask someone at the Japanese museum, and we were back on the road. Five minutes later we turned down a dirt path that was not only uncleared, but full of potholes almost as big as our tuk tuk. We promised the driver we’d be back and set off on foot.
We hacked our way through the bushland in total silence. I was convinced that we were going to find nothing and would have to turn back. Who the hell would build a museum out here, without a road connection?
The Dutch would, as it turned out. Eventually we came to a clearing, and there it was; Baan Hollanda.
Only problem was, it was locked. We cupped our hands and peered inside; everything looked in order. But it just wasn’t open.
Paul looked crushed. We’d done the hard part; we’d found the museum. We poked around outside for a bit; there was a dock right in front which we assumed was for boat access to the museum. It was eerie. It looked as if the entire site had been abandoned the day before it was set to open.
Just as we were going to call it quits, we spied a motorbike next to the first floor entrance. There was someone inside! We waved and danced around, fighting for his attention.
‘Not open,’ the friendly Thai man greeted us. He beckoned us inside, showing us that indeed the museum wasn’t open. The museum looked almost ready; there was a little cafe in the corner complete with shiny appliances, but the tables and chairs still had their plastic coverings. Some of the light fittings were empty, and it simply felt untouched.
We thanked the man and withdrew. I saw the disappointment on Paul’s face and felt terrible for him. We climbed up to the exhibition floor’s balcony one more time and peered inside.
The Thai man must have realised then that my Dutchie wasn’t the type to let this slide, and joined us. He opened the locked door, turned the airconditioning and the audiovisual displays on for us, and left us to our own devices.
We could hardly believe our luck. Later, I was able to check on the status of the museum; it had been announced by Queen Beatrix in 2008, was finished in 2011 and has basically stayed dormant ever since. It’s as if its operating costs have been rejected in national budgets or something.
Anyway, we had a good potter about the museum. It’s in excellent nick (and I can vouch for the arctic air conditioning) and is simple without being underwhelming.
For the uninitiated, the VOC is basically the world’s first ever company. They essentially did all the exploring and trading east of the Netherlands (so mainly in Asia, rather than in the Caribbean, for example) rather than it being done by the national government like other countries had done. They had shareholders, contractors and all those modern things, and the Dutch became filthy rich because of their work.
But what did they actually do? Um, not a lot actually. They didn’t really bring anything new to the world, they just administered others’ trades. They were always the middle man. What, the Sri Lankans want timber? And they have some elephants? Well, the Japanese gave us some timber, and we know the Thais would love a couple of Dumbos. And we’d love some spices and a bit of pineapple for the folks playing at home. They talked the talk and walked the walk, facilitating trades and taking a nice cut along the way.
There were a few good maps in the museum which helped me visualise these trade routes, There were also a few Dutchy things; reproductions of paintings I’d seen in the Rijksmuseum the week before, photos of the Queen cutting ribbons, that sort of thing.
The museum is a funny one. It doesn’t feel Thai at all; it could easily be a wing of the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. I can’t think of any tourists or locals going there – save for the Dutch, of course. I compared the investment with the total lack of interest the Dutch Government has with the Death Railway; on the River Kwai everything was built by the British, Australians or Americans, but nothing by the Dutch.
We all choose what we want to remember, I suppose. The Dutch want to remember the VOC and their glory days, not the beginning of the end of their empire. For that reason, Paul goes cannon hunting all over the world, but didn’t know of the Dutch POW deaths on the Death Railway until we got to Kanchanaburi. Us Australians go on about the ANZACs, but most of us have no idea of what the Myall Creek Massacre was all about.
Most people head to Ayutthuya for the Siamese ruins. For a half an hour, I poked around a ruin of a different sort. It made my Dutchie happy and you know what? I kind of liked it too.