Few of us will have the opportunity to see one of Thailand's Royal Barge Processions in person; they're only held every few years for occasions such as a coronation or historic anniversary. So, the next best choice is a visit to some of the most spectacular barges at the Royal National Barge Museum in Bangkok.
Part of the procession for the coronation of King Rama X in 2019
The 52 barges—it took me a bit of mental effort to view these long and graceful boats as barges—are rowed in the processions by over 2,000 oarsmen and hundreds of musicians, chanters and other staff in colorful uniforms, with the most attention given to the four special barges that carry the royal family and high officials. If you'd like to see what it looks like in action, here's a video from the 2012 celebration of the then-king's 84th birthday (7th cycle of 12 years) !
What is now a ceremonial event actually began in the 14th century as a military maneuver, with as many as 200 boats full of attacking soldiers, with the crew and army kept in sync by the beating drums. By the 18th century, peaceful processions were taking place beside the military purpose. When Burma invaded Thailand in 1767 and captured its old capital, the boats were burned.
The Thai forces, under General Taksin, who proclaimed himself King, established a new capital across from present-day Bangkok. One of the first tasks was building a new fleet, not for show, but for defense. In 1782, Taksin was succeeded by Chao Phaya Chakri, or Rama I. Rama I moved the capital across the river and founded Bangkok; the oldest of today's barges date to his time, such as the one below, which was rebuilt in 1968.
Over the years, the succeeding monarchs had more barges built, while older ones were maintained. Designs and deities varied, with one constant: the King's personal barge carried a stylized swan's head at its prow, and was named Suphannahongsa; the present version was built in 1911.
George G recognized this view as our One-Clue Mystery this week
A variety of mythical and religious figures appear among the figureheads of the barges. Below, Asura-Wayuphak, a 'demon who eats the wind' on a barge from Rama I's time; a multi-headed 'serpent king' from 1914 and 'Lord Narai mounted on Garuda,' built for the 1996 50th anniversary of Rama IX's accession to the throne.
Seating areas on the barges, other than for the rowers, vary in size and ornateness.
Some of the barges carry shrines or pagodas rather than a seating section.
During World War II, Japanese forces used parts of Thailand and especially Bangkok's harbor for their war effort, and the port area and railyards were repeatedly bombed by Allied forces; in 1945, numbers of the royal barges were destroyed or damaged by bombs. While some were later rebuilt, the museum also displays remaining parts of some that weren't.
After the war, the King visited the royal dockyard and examined the barges. In 1952 he ordered a program of rebuilding and one new-build barge, although there hadn't been a procession since the 1932 coup that imposed a constitution on the monarchy. At present, there are 52 barges, eight of them on display in the museum which opened in 1974.
The barge processions didn't resume until 1957, when one was held to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism. Another 25 years passed before the next, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bangkok. There have been 16 in the forty years since then, but only half were full-scale.
The museum is located in a modern building along the Bangkok Noi canal, near its meeting with the Chao Phraya River. On the landward side, it's surrounded by a teeming neighborhood of small streets and narrow alleys, so your best bets are either Google maps in hand, or hiring one of the long-tail boats that can take you to the museum's pier.