Recently, Thailand celebrated the Royal Barge Ceremony for the presentation of the Kathin Robes to the monks at Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) on the 9th of November 2012. There has been only 16 such ceremonies since the reign of King Rama IX, the present and longest reigning Monarch of Thailand. The Royal barges are the pride of the Thai nation and reflects the supreme craftsmanship of the artisans throughout the ages. The barges are a reflection of the intricacies of Thai craftsmanship which spans several areas such as the naval architects, ship pattern designers, wood carvers and painters over the centuries in the history of Thailand. These Barges are worth a closer look for the beauty, grace and skilled craftsmanship.
Visitors to Thailand should take the opportunity to visit this museum which is located near the Bangkok Noi Canal banks that also happens to be beside the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. One can walk there but it would mean navigating the small Soi or street to get to this museum. The best way to get there is to take a river cruise in Bangkok where the Royal Barge Museum is listed on one of the tour destinations. You can find out about these Chao Phraya River Cruise tours, of which there are quite a variety that will bring you to a few places of interest along the Chao Phraya.
The royal Barge Museum is both a wet and a dry dock, which is actually on the Thonburi side of the canal near the Phra Pin Klao Bridge. There are two other locations where the barges are kept, which is a total of fifty odd barges of various classifications. The primary barges used for Royal ceremonies are also kept at the Royal Thai Navy Royal Barge dock and the Royal Motorboat Dock. A river cruise of the Chao Phraya will bring you right up to the doorstep of the royal Barge Museum and you can take some time to look around at the beautiful barges kept in both the wet and dry docks. There are approximately 8 barges in this museum, and mostly berthed just above the water in the docks. Four of the barges are the Royal Barges which have been kept exclusively for use by the royal family.
The most recent barge to have been completed is the Royal Barge Narai Song Suban Ratchakan Thi Kao or The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM King Rama IX which means “God Narayana on his carrier, Garuda“. It was commissioned by the Thai Department of Fine Arts and the Royal Thai Navy for the 50th anniversary of the ascension of His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej to the throne in 1996 on the 6th of May. The keel of the barge was also laid by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej earlier in 1994 making it the only barge to be constructed during his reign. The barge is easily recognized by a figure standing atop a bird like human figure known as the “Garuda” on the prow. The Figure is black and gold trimmed whereas the “Garuda” is red with gold trim. The whole barge is intricately carved, trimmed in gold and has a canopied pavilion in the center as well as a cannon up front.
The next barge is no lesser known and in fact has been awarded the Maritime World Heritage Award by the World Ship Trust, in 1992. This Royal Barge is none other than the Suphannahong or better known as “the Golden Swan” or the “Phoenix“. The Royal Barge Suphannahong was commissioned in 1911 in the reign of King Rama the VI. The beauty of this barge is that it was constructed and carved from a single trunk of teakwood and measures 46 meters in length. It was launched on the 13th of November 1911. The Royal Barge Suphannahong, is the predecessor of the Royal Barge Si Suphannahong which was the centerpiece of all Royal Barge Ceremonies during the Ayutthaya period of King Buddha Yot Fa Chulalok the Great, Rama I of the reigning House of Chakri, until de-commissioned in 1911 and replaced by the newly commissioned Royal Barge Suphannahong. The Suphannahong is well recognized as having a prow like a Phoenix or mythical swan. It is adorned with glass jewels and gold lacquer, and hanging from the swan’s mouth is a crystalline ball and tassel. A mid-ship is a spired-roofed pavilion for the King and his entourage. The barge holds 50 oarsmen whose rowing movements represent a swan gliding or flying gracefully. The motion of rowing can be changed by Royal decree depending on the occasion of the Royal Barge Ceremony. The Royal Barge Suphannahong was symbolic of the Thai national identity and on the 4th of June 1994, was also awarded the status of Maritime World Heritage by the World Ship Trust citing the “beauty and craftsmanship” of the vessel.
The Thai people believe that every boat or ship has a spirit as its host, and the spirit is on most occasions female. It is customary for the crew of the vessel to perform a ritual of respect before setting sail. This ritual of respect includes the traditional “Wai” which is to clasps both hands together and raise towards the forehead. The higher the hands are raised, the higher the honor of respect.
The third Royal Barge on display is the Anantanakkharat or “Ananta, the King of Serpents“, reconstructed in the reign of King Vajiravudh or better known as Rama VI. Launched in 1914 on the 14th of April, it is recognized by the seven-headed “naga” or serpent on the prow. The Serpent is a mythical creature much like a dragon known in Thai as “Nakkharat” and symbolizes water. Decorated in gold lacquer and glass jewels, as well as intricately carved with images of small serpents weaving among floral vines, it is a marvelous sight to behold. A garland and decorative pendent adorns the “naga” figure head, and below it is a singular canon which indicates the original purpose of the barge as a war vessel. It is now used as the carrier for the “Kathin” which are robes meant for the monks as well as a vessel for the procession chanter.
The fourth Royal Barge is the Anekkachatphuchong or “Variety of Serpents” and is the oldest among the other three Royal Barges. The Anekkachatphuchong was constructed by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the 19th Century. This barge has no visible prominent figurehead at the prow but the beauty of the vessel is in the many wonderfully carves Naga images from stern to bow. The Anekkachatphuchong is best viewed up close to admire the craftsmanship of the carvings which are highly detailed. This vessel seats 54 oarsmen with a length of 45 meters. It might also interest you to know that all these four Royal Barges starting with Suphannahong, Narai Song Suban, Anantanakkharat and Anekkachatphuchong rhyme consistently.
The other barges on display at the Royal Barge Museum are escort barges of the Ekachai, Krut, Krabi, Asura and Suea Class. There are in total 12 escort barges in the flotilla and in the Ekachai Class there are two barges known as the Ekachai Hern How and Ekachai Lao Thong. These two barges contain paintings of a horned half “Naga” and are distinguishable from the slight variation of patterns. The two barges do not carry cannons on the prow and are used sometimes to tow the Royal Barge Suphannahong in strong currents.
The Krut Class contains two other barges noticeable by the “Garuda” with “nagas” in a captured position on their wings and feet. The “Garuda” is a human bird-like figure found on the Krut Hern Het which has a red “Garuda” while the Krut Tret Traichak has a pink “Garuda”. The other four barges are the Krabi Class Barges with the Pali Rang Thawip which contains the figurehead of Vali and Sukrip Khrong Mueang with the Sugriva figurehead on the prow. These two Venara figureheads are the rulers in the Kingdom of Kishkindha. The bodies of these figures are painted in green and red for each and crowns are placed atop their heads. On the other hand, the Krabi Ran Ron Rap has the figurehead of the Venara Nilaphat while the Krabi Prap Mueang Man has the figurehead of “Hanuman” the monkey. These are the uncrowned warriors in the myth of the Ramayana and are painted black and white respectively.
The two remaining class of barges are the Asura Class Barges with two barges of figureheads depicted in half-bird, half-ogre images. The figurehead on the Asura Vayuphak is painted with an indigo body with a purple coat and the Asura Paksi is painted with a green body with a purple in the front and a green coat in the back. Whereas the Suea Class Barges called Suea Thayan Chon and Suea Kamron Sin have paintings of a tiger and the names of the barges painted clearly on the front. These other barges of the Escort class can also be seen at the Wasukri Pier which is located just near the Thailand National Library due to space limitation at the Royal Barges Museum. Most of these barges were restored by the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej, because most of the barges were in a bad condition due to deterioration and damage from the previous World War bombing raids. They are used only for special occasions now such as the Royal Barge Procession and other Royal Ceremonies.
It is also interesting to note that the largest formation in any of the Royal Barge Procession is formed by the lesser escort barges such as the Ruea Class barges, Police and Drum barges. All these barges have no figureheads, are less decorative and do not have mounted cannons on the prow. Walking in the museum aside from looking at the barges on display, one can also go around the back and all along the sides where there are displays of the items used for the Royal Barge Procession such as oars, the different types of costumes used as well as flags and other items of interest. There are some interesting notes on the history of these barges, how they came about and the roles they played in the custom and traditions of Thailand.
As these barges were built for the purpose of war in the olden days, it is only natural that the formations adopted for use during the Royal Barge Ceremonies would be that which is very similar to Naval War formations. The two formations normally adopted are known as the Major and Minor formations and this does not refer to the notes of a musical write-up! They are actually the Major and Minor battle formations formed at the time of King Narai and used till today. If you happen to see a bird’s eye view of the formation during the Royal Barges Ceremony recently, you will notice that the barges sail with the main Royal Barges as the core of the formation and the war barges on each side in two rows which is known as the Major Formation. Most of the rowing crew, chanter and helmsmen are from the Royal Thai Navy but that does not mean they are all pomp and splendor on the day of the rehearsals and ceremony. You can actually see their nervousness as they step gingerly onto the crafts which do not have very wide berths, sits low on the water and plus the fact that they will be rowing down the Chao Phraya River which is strong in the currents, very deep, very wide and very intimidating, which has gained it the name of “The River of Kings”!
So if you are lucky enough to be in Thailand at a time when they are having the Royal Barge Procession, make it a point not to miss it as it truly is one of the Great Events in Thailand that displays the rich heritage and culture of a truly exotic and Amazing Thailand!