I think deep down transportation has always been my favourite aspect of travelling. My earliest travel memories are of the looming noses of planes, little windows with atmospheric wonders, cars — a constant from home — rumbling along through alien landscapes and subway trains being spit out of tunnels. When I think of Bangkok, motorcycle taxies — the little worker-ants of the city — often surface in my memories. However, after exploring the National Museum of Royal Barges my imagination has been chewing on thoughts of parading down the rivers surrounded by the golden boats of the kingdom.
The museum is pretty odd to access from land. Typically it is approached by water, which makes sense given it’s a museum for boats. Unfortunately for me the recommended pier, Wang Lang Pier, was being renovated so my plan to skip over after a cruise on the Chao Phraya Express Boat was knocked off its pedestal.
Over the years I’ve found stubbornness to be a useful tool to get me places, so naturally it kicked in and I headed for the nearest port at Siriraj Piyamaharajkarun Hospital instead. Funnily enough this pier is closer to the museum. I think the difficulty is the mess of streets leading off it.
After getting some directions I stopped by a market hidden under an overpass and had some soup. Boy were the locals amused to see me there since it’s not one of the tourism piers. I tried some Thai with one woman and she was giggling all through lunch. I suppose I’m always happy to make someone smile!
Before I headed off into the sweltering sun again I armed myself with a mystery drink from one of the stalls. As you may know from this previous post I was a super picky eater my first round in Thailand. This time around I largely let chance dictate what I drank and I ended up with many positive surprises. I will likely never find them again given my lack of Thai, but under a hot sun anything topped with ice tastes good and this tea lathered in condensed milk and dressed with ice was no exception!
Strengthened by the shade from my umbrella and the cold drink in my hand I managed to find my way up to the Arun Amarin Bridge and down to a small naval base. There a guard led me around the grounds and waved me through a tiny doorway into a small alley. I followed it past a smiling elderly couple waving away the afternoon from their front porch and found myself deposited at a ticket window.
Since I did my research I set down 200 baht and pointed to my camera. The woman behind the window nodded and set down a 100 baht blue entry ticket and a yellow tag tied to a string necklace. The yellow tag merely said ROYAL BARGE NATIONAL MUSEUM: THAI LAND and on the flip side NO. 2480: GRANTED PERMISSION TO PHOTOGRAPH. 100 BAHTS.
A smiling man ripped my entry ticket and allowed me to pass through a rope gate.
As TripAdvisor will tell ya’ it is hell’a hot under the museum’s metal roof.
Since the royal barges had been brought back into use during the rule of recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej they had to be easily accessible, so the museum is basically a decorated, open-air boat-shed. In fact, since it was originally a site of restoration for a number of the barges it literally is a converted boat-shed.
You quickly forget the heat though when you start to admire the exquisite detail on each of these barges.
At a glance you can tell they were designed to impress, to astonish! The beginning of their history has been attributed to the Ayutthaya period during the 14th century.
The ancestors of these gilded barges were first witnessed (or at least recorded) by foreigners in 1687 when Simon de la Loubère, a French ambassador for Louis XIV of France, and a group of Jesuit mathematicians were greeted by four enormous barges. One of the Jesuits, Father Guy Tachard wrote of the experience in his diary Voyage de Siam des Peres Jesuit:
“Four enormous barges came to welcome us, each manned by 80 oarsmen. I have never seen such a sight. The first two were in the shape of sea-horses and entirely gilded, looking extremely realistic as they sailed up from afar. Two members of the King’s Royal Guards accompanied the barges to receive the gifts from the King of France. Upon accepting the gifts, the barges stood by in the middle of the river as a sign of reverence to the precious cargo.”
Tachard later also had the chance to see a massive procession escorting the royal gifts out of Ayutthaya.
Of this he wrote, “the long Royal Barge procession that moved in an orderly fashion consisted of over 150 barges. Together with other boats, they covered the river as far as the eye could follow. It was a breathtaking sight. The sound of traditional chanting reverberated along both banks of the river, which were crowded with people who were waiting to see the spectacular event.”
Can you imagine!
Since the rivers were the most convenient and comfortable medium for travel at the time they developed deep ties with the Thais. The processions went from transporting soldiers and showing the kingdom’s military might to marking royal and religious celebrations.
Time and Japanese bombs on Bangkok ravaged the barges and they had to be reimagined from ancient descriptions several times under numerous Thai kings in the time span since. You can read more about the royal procession’s distant history on this page sponsored by the Royal Thai Navy.
As for recent history, as I mentioned above, King Bhumibol Adulyadej revived the tradition again—so many modern Thais have actually seen this spectacular event in person!
My massive Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946 created by the Bangkok Post first mentions the revival of the barge processions in 1959.
“For the first time since the 1932 coup, the King climbed aboard a royal barge on the Chao Phraya River and performed a royal kathin ceremony, held to mark the offering of gifts to Buddhist monks and temples.”
That procession featured 31 boats, including the Supannahong or Golden Swan barge which you can see in the foreground of this picture.
Also present was the Anantanakaraj barge, which carried the Buddhist robes the King set out to offer. The barge’s headpiece is very fitting for the barge’s task since Mucalinda, Nāgarāja (King of the Nãga), is believed to have sheltered the meditating Buddha from a storm with his seven snake heads.
This barge was completed in 1914, during the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI).
The next time the a royal procession is mentioned in the press is in the year 1963, when the Netherlands’ Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard visited Bangkok. Once again the Suphannahong (Golden Swan) barge was centre-piece.
In 1982, the royal barges took to the water to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Chakri dynasty and Bangkok’s title as the national capital. This time 51 barges decorated the Chao Phraya River.
In 1996, another procession marked the visit of the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
After the western millennium a procession was held in 2003 to open the APEC summit in Bangkok, in 2006 for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, in 2007 for HM the King’s 80th birthday and in 2012 a Royal Kathin Procession that had been postponed due to flooding in 2011 was held to celebrate the King’s 84/85th birthday. You can see photos and read about the experiences of locals and foreigners witnessing the most recent 2012 procession in the Bangkok Post!
The cool thing is contrasting the details on these barges with how they look from a distant riverside.
It’s also pretty neat to see barges with different time elements. Many were reconstructed due to time or war ravaging them. You can see three such boats below.
The Garuda Hern Het Barge: an original head with a reconstructed hull, completed in 1968.
The Krabi Prab Muang Marn Barge: an original head with a reconstructed hull, completed in 1967.
Can you see these gilded barges glittering down the Chao Phraya River? Maybe you will see them some time in the future! One can only hope the Thais will continue to adorn the waters of their home with these masterpieces!
Viewing the Royal Barges Up Close
Budget: 100 baht for entry (2016). 100 additional baht for photos and 200 for video.
Age group: Any. Youngsters might get bored though.
Clothes: You are out of the sun and rain, but the heat is intense. Dress lightly, but respectfully as these are royal vehicles.
Culture: Be respectful. Don’t touch the barges. Don’t spit anywhere near them etc.
Food: While they were fine with me sipping my drink as I admired the barges I wouldn’t recommend bringing food in. You are close to the touristic downtown of Bangkok though so no worries about lunch/dinner!
Transport: Some walking required, but otherwise you have access to ferries, taxies, motorcycle taxies (speediest!), tuk tuks (not recommended unless you have deep pockets and love the smell of exhaust).
Time: Less than an hour required. It is one hanger. I wouldn’t recommend visiting it in deep summer though, it’s more of a rainy season activity.