Bangkok Royal Barge Procession and Museum

The Royal Barge procession is an ancient tradition

The Royal Barge procession is an ancient tradition

Having taken place for almost 700 years, Bangkok’s Royal Barge Procession is a ritual with massive royal, religious and cultural weight. The event is not an annual occasion, and only occurs to coincide with other significant religious and imperial events.

In fact, during the reign of the current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been in power for more than 60 years, the procession has taken place a mere 16 times. You really need to plan in advance to get a taste of this momentous event. However, the beautiful and ornately decorated barges are always on display at the Royal Barges Museum, across the river from the Grand Palace.

The procession’s origins probably lie in the Ayutthaya period during the 14th century, when hundreds or even thousands of boats were said to have sailed along the Chao Phraya River to the rhythmic beating of drums. In those days the river was the main course of transport and elegantly embellished barges were a sign of wealth and importance. It was seen as being of great consequence to maintain large quotas of boats in the imminence of war and unrest.

In the 18th century the Burmese invaded the country and destroyed hundreds of barges but shortly afterwards, the new king sought to restore some of the old splendour of Ayutthaya and a new fleet was built, of which more than 100 barges were used to carry Buddha images to the new capital of Bangkok. Until the 1930s, the processions came to pass intermittently but after the dissolution of the absolute monarchy, they stopped entirely until 1957, when Thailand celebrated 25 centuries of the Buddhist era.

The organisation of the procession was first regulated during the reign of Rama V and is divided into two formations. The Major Formation is used for only the most momentous occasions while the Minor Formation is used at other times. More than 50 oarsmen and other attendants row gold and silver oars in unison, bringing them high at the end of each stroke. The rhythm is kept by the tapping of a silver spear on the deck and boat songs are chanted by all onboard.

A Thonburi canal tour includes a visit to the museum

A Thonburi canal tour includes a visit to the museum

The newest barge to be constructed was the Narai Song Suban King Rama IX, built in 1994. A figurehead of the god, Narai, riding on his heavenly vehicle, the garuda, harks back to a barge that was built during the third reign. These days this magnificent royal barge is joined by 51 others as they travel down the Chao Phraya River, beginning at Khet Dusit’s Wasukri Royal Landing Place and landing at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). The fleets pass by the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace and Wat Po on the way.

The last procession to take place was in June 2006, and was staged in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the king’s reign. A crew of over 2,000 manned the barges and monarchs and representatives from around the world were invited as special guests. Before the event, two rehearsals took place on the lawns on the banks of the river. These were accompanied by light and sound shows and quickly sold out.

Though held at the height of the monsoon, the heavy rains could not deter the crowds, who were rewarded with the rare spectacle of the splendid and colourful fleet sailing over three kilometres. Restaurants and specially provided seating areas along the river were crammed full of people trying to catch a glimpse of this rare event.

In the absence of any majestic processions happening during your visit, you can view eight of the barges at the Royal Barge Museum, which is located across the river from the Grand Palace. Each barge on display has been carved from enormous pieces of teak and the prows are embellished with gilded mythical creatures and shimmering cut glass ornament. The Suppanahong (Golden Swan) barge is the most eminent of all vessels, with its vast golden swan figurehead, and a collection of oars and other memorabilia of past processions is displayed alongside it.

Admission to the museum is very reasonably priced, although an additional fee must be paid in order to take photographs. The easiest way to reach the museum is to take a boat along the Chao Phraya River. The closest express boat pier is Pinklao Bridge Pier, but an even easier option is to take the Chao Phraya tourist boat which stops directly outside. Many long tail boat tours include a stop at the museum on their itineraries, and these can be booked at all major tourist piers.

About the Author

Andrew Bond is a travel writer who has been living in Thailand and writing about the region for more than 10 years, contributing to numerous local magazines and major web travel brands. He travels around South East Asia by tuk-tuk, bicycle, cyclo, jeepney, taxi, moto, elephant or foot in search of new smells, sounds, sights, and atmosphere. Share your travel bits with him on Google +

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