By Michael Moore
The Royal Barges are one of Bangkok's most fascinating
sights. Housed in sheds in The Royal Barge National Museum
on Bangkok Noi Canal on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya
River, they provide a fascinating insight into Thai history
and culture. These are not barges in the sense of vessels
employed to carry cargo up and down the river. Rather, they
are ornately decorated boats with magnificently carved prows
that at one time served a military function, but today are
limited to use in State ceremonies and celebrations.
The most impressive and important of the boats is Suphanahong,
the King's personal barge. Built in 1911 to resemble
a mythical swan, the 46 metre craft was hewn from a single
tree and is covered with intricate gilt carvings and colourful
pieces of glass, forming an eye-catching mosaic. There is
a golden pavilion on board to house the King and his Royal
family. It is not an easy task to get this vessel moving;
it requires 54 oarsmen, who paddle in time to the rhythmic
beat of a drummer following a melodic chant called a "bot
In addition to Suphanahong, there are several other barges
in the museum. On their bows sit a variety of figureheads
taken from Thai mythology, Ramakian. One barge features a
sacred Garuda; another Hanuman the monkey and yet another
possesses the seven heads of Naga, the mythical serpent with
white fangs that is often portrayed giving shelter to Buddha.
The most recently created barge is the royal barge Narai Song
Suban H.M Rama IX built in honour of the current King's 50th
year on the throne. Its prow has the head of the Hindu god
Narayana mounted on a Garuda. All of these barges are fascinating
to view as they possess a remarkable degree of craftsmanship
and are absolutely unique. Said with more simplicity, there
isn't anything quite like them anywhere else in the world.
To see the barges gliding through the water is a spectacle
but one must plan well in advance or just be lucky enough
to catch them, for they are only used sparingly. Each year
at the full moon marking songkran the Thai New Year, a grand
procession of barges is formed to transport the King from
his palace to the temple of the Emerald Buddha, for the ceremonial
change of Buddha's clothes. The fervently respected Emerald
Buddha has its dress changed by the King three times a year,
signifying the three seasons of Thailand; hot, rainy and cool.
One of the best times to see the barges is during the royal
kathin ceremony that marks ok phansaa - the end of the Buddhist
period of lent that stretches from around July to October,
calculated by three full lunar cycles. This celebration marks
the end of the rainy season and prompts a massive procession
of barges on the Chao Phraya to carry robes to monks at the
Temple of Dawn. The procession was revived by HRH King Bhumibol
in 1959 and has become a national event of cultural importance
ever since. Re-establishing the procession required the rebuilding
of several barges, some in their entirety and the re-attachment
of some mastheads previously kept in the museum.
The cavalcade is truly massive and consists of a formation
of five rows of barges that is 1,110 metres long and 90 metres
wide. The 52 vessels are propelled through the water by 2,082
oarsmen. They proceed down the Chao Phraya from the Wasukri
Royal Landing Place, past the Temple of the Emerald Buddha,
the Grand Palace and Wat Po until they reach the Temple of
Dawn, a distance of about three kilometres.
Four royal barges are at the centre of the flotilla, including
the Anantanagaraj, carrying robes for the monks and Suphannahongse,
carrying His Majesty the King and other members of the Royal
Family. Lesser barges surround the royal ones in a protective
frame as they flow upstream.
When King Rama IX revived the procession of barges and the
kathin ceremony at the Temple of Dawn, a significant element
of Thai culture and history was preserved for future generations.
Those who view the procession see Thailand as it used to be
and gain a little more some valuable insight into the unique
culture that this wonderful country contains.
The Royal Barge National Museum can be easily reached by
boat. Take the Chao Phraya Express Boat and get off at the
Rod Fai Pier. Then walk down the street parallel to the railroad
tracks until you reach a bridge over the canal. Cross the
bridge and follow the wooden walkway to the Museum. It is
open daily and there is a 10 baht admission charge.