Thailand's royal barges - Bangkok's most fascinating sights
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phuket Leisure: Thailand's Royal Barges

 Thailand's Royal Barges

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 heh rua.".

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.


- December Issue, 2002

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