By Jason Rupp and Carla Marie Rupp
If you listen, you can hear them coming.
The chants, the ancient boat songs, the music wafting over the water…all the same as it was in the 17th century.
Then they appear…a fantastical, storybook-like sight with brilliant red and gold boats shaped like mythical sea creatures and swans, gliding down the great Chao Phraya River of Bangkok…a super-colorful, wonderful Thai Royal Barge Procession, complete with a Prince!
The Royal Barge Procession and the Royal Kathin ceremony, which dates back 700 years, was revived in 1959 by His Majesty The King and is held on special auspicious occasions. During the previous King’s reign it only took place 16 times. It take take place for the present king’s cornonation.
It is a breath-taking water-borne procession and ceremony at which offerings, including saffron robes, food and necessities, are given to the monks at the Temple Wat Arun. The majestic barges in the procession are the only ones of their kind in the world and the procession is one of the grandest spectacles in Thailand…indeed, the world, for lucky viewers.
This year, the previous procession was held to celebrate His Majesty the King’s 85th birthday, although he did not partake in the event due to poor health (he later passed). Instead, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand presided over the procession from atop the grandest and most majestic in the fleet. The impressive Royal Barge, the Golden Swan, has a huge swan’s head carved into the bow.
The stunning parade of vessels is truly a sight to behold, with its five columns based on a battle formation from ancient times. The Prince’s vessel was built in the time of King Chulalongkorn, the 19th-century King of Siam, to replace the original one.
Spectators at the Thai Royal Barge Procession were in awe at the sight and the rhythmic precision of over 2,000 oarsmen, all sailors of the Royal Thai Navy who practiced their skills for months and wore uniforms similar to those worn by oarsmen in ancient times. Along the banks of the “River of Kings” visitors of all ages and from all over the world watched the procession, many wearing the color yellow in honor of the King. Sellers of yellow clothing, of course, were in abundance throughout the crowds.
There are 52 amazing and intensely colorful barges in the Royal Barge Procession, and all, with the exception of the Prince’s barge, are original, kept in superb condition through ongoing restoration. Each has a specific purpose in the procession.
One barge, for example, carries the robes for the monks for what is called a Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Barges also carry the deeply revered Buddha image (Phra Buddha Sihing). There are four major barges – the Suphannahongse (Golden Swan), Narai Song Suban H.M. King Rama IX, Anantanagaraj and Anekhatbhuchongse – plus ten barges with animal figureheads.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, the ninth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782, is beloved by Thais and is the longest reigning monarchy in Thai history. When HM the King turned 80 years old, a grand royal barges event was also held on the river.
At any time of year you can view several of the historic barges at the Royal Barges National Museum in Bangkok. It’s located on the northern rim of Noi Canal on the Chao Phraya River near Phra Pin Klao Bridge opposite the Thonburi Railway Station.
The admission is reasonable, and it would be worth paying the extra fee to take photos with the beautiful barges, especially the Suphannahong, used in the traditional processions.Other barges feature bows that are carved into other Hindu-Buddhist mythological shapes such as naga, a sea serpeant, and garuda, Vishnu’s bird mount.
Editor’s note: you may also enjoy Photo Essay: Bangkok and Environs, Thai Royal Barge Procession, and Incredible Experiences Not to Miss in Bangkok (video).
If you go:
Royal Barges National Museum
Tel: 662 246 6700
Tourism Authority of Thailand
1600 New Petchaburi, Makkasan,
Bangkok, Thailand 10400