If you only visit one museum in Bangkok, it should be this one, as it is the main collection of the country's art and archaeology.
The building housing the museum was built as part of the Grand Palace complex when the capital of Siam was moved from Thonburi to Bangkok in 1782. Originally the palace of Rama I’s brother, the deputy king and appointed successor, it was called the Wang Na (“Palace at the Front”). The position of the princely successor was eventually abolished, and Rama V had the palace converted into a museum in 1884. Thammasat University, the College of Dramatic Arts, and the National Theater were also built on the royal grounds, along with additional museum buildings.

To see the entire collection, take a map at the ticket office and give yourself a few hours; if you prefer not to wander, catch one of the English-language free guided tours on Wednesday or Thursday, beginning at 9:30am. Without a guide, you should start with the recently renovated Thai History and the Prehistoric Galleries in the first building. If you’re short of time, proceed to the Red House behind it, a traditional 18th-century Thai building that was originally the living quarters of Princess Sri Sudarak, sister of King Rama I. It contains many personal effects originally owned by the princess.

Another essential stop is the Buddhaisawan Chapel, built in 1795 to house one of Thailand’s most revered Buddha images, brought here from its original home in Chiang Mai. The chapel is an exquisite example of Buddhist temple architecture.

From the chapel, work your way back through the main building of the royal palace to see the gold jewelry, some from the royal collections, and the Thai ceramics, including many pieces in the five-color Bencharong style. The Old Transportation Room contains ivory carvings, elephant chairs, and royal palanquins. There are also rooms full of all kinds of memorabilia: royal emblems and insignia, stone and wood carvings, costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and Buddhist religious artifacts. At the rear of the museum compound, look for fine art and sculpture.

The museum seems to be in a somewhat constant state of construction, and some exhibits might not be open. Call ahead to check if there is a particular room or display you’re keen to see.