Your guide for the Royal Barge Procession in Bangkok, Thailand
The Thai Royal Barge Processional – part of the final ceremonies for the Royal Coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn – will be held on December 12, 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand. This cultural spectacle on the Chao Phraya River, sometimes referred to as the river of kings, offers a chance to see history in the making. The ancient longboats used in the water processional are now out of the museum where they are typically displayed.
[BTW, The length of Thai names as seen in the King’s name above, can be intimidating for Western tonungs. In fact, tour guides love to rattle off lengthy proper names to impress visitors to Thailand. But be of good cheer! Don’t worry about attempting to properly pronounce his majesty’s name – the western world calls him Rama X, and so can as you! X = ten, as he is the tenth king of the Chakri Dynasty, the current ruling royal house of the Kingdom of Thailand.]
So why such a rare occasion?
Royal Barge Procession is a Rare Spectacle
Arranged for special occasions only, the Royal Barge Procession, a parading fleet of 52 hand-carved longboats, is a rare spectacle indeed. In fact, the infrequent flotilla that dates back over 700 years has been witnessed only 16 times in almost 90 years. It is both a religious and political event.
The Thai Royal Barge Processional, part of the final ceremonies for the Royal Coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn, was scheduled to take place on October 24, 2019, but was postponed due to predictions of inclement weather.
It’s almost a funny story for Unstoppable Stacey…
I was sent to Thailand to report on the regal event. I boarded the Boeing 777 in LAX on October 16, flew over the dateline [thereby skipping October 17], and landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, two days later, so to speak, on October 18. Sometime during our flight – on October 17 to be exact – a Deputy Prime Minister announced to the Thai Parliament that the Royal Barge Processional would be postponed.
Of course, I was disappointed to hear the news. However, we learned that the scheduled October 21 rehearsal was still on. We would attend that Royal Barge Procession dry run. The gala boat formations would be the same. The only difference would be that the king and queen would not be present. Thai government officials explained that the full dress rehearsal was still on so that the Thai Navy could check the tide.
“Time and tide wait for no man.” – Old English Proverb
Even royalty could not stop the rising tide of the Chao Phraya River. The inclement weather stemmed from monsoon rains in northern Thailand. Rains were swelling the many rivers in the north that drain into the mighty Chao Phraya River flowing through Bangkok. There will be no chance of precipitation in December, and so the river’s current will be safer for the king and queen at that time.
Where is the Chao Phraya River?
Thai Navy Practices Ancient Maneuvers During Royal Processional Rehearsals
Because the ancient barges are used for ceremony only – and only occasionally, at that – the Thai Navy, which is proficient with modern war machinery, must practice navigating and sailing using the old, traditional ways. (No bow thrusters here, boys!)
Therefore, many rehearsals were run, and with a postponed Royal Barge Processional, more rehearsals are scheduled. That means that those visiting Thailand in the next 45 days have a chance to view this once-in-a-lifetime event.
A Sight to Behold: Thai Royal Barge Procession
The Royal Barge Processional is a remarkable sight. I witnessed the rare spectacle, if only as a dress rehearsal. The aesthetically pleasing waterborne procession of graceful, ornate boats floating in formation on the broad river was a sight to behold.
The scent of jasmine was in the air – I know not whether it was blooming in nearby trees or wafting from the jasmine floral garlands that are made to leave as offerings at the nearby temples. I looked down at the Chao Phraya River straining to see the first images of the flotilla. A white heron landed on a pier sticking out of the river’s edge.
Know Before You Go
Since I am interested in culture and history, I did some research before attending the rehearsal of the Royal Barge Processional. This is what I recommend that you know before you go:
The ornate grandeur is indicative of how the Thai people respect and revere their King. What’s more, I learned that some Thai people believe that the King is part of the cycle of the future Buddha.
The swan-shaped vessel that carries the King represents the idea that he is part of heaven. You see, the swan is the traditional carrier of the Rahman or Brahma, the God of creation in Hinduism. Thailand’s brand of Buddhism is woven with Hindu gods and beliefs. And so, the official coronation and Royal Barge Processional – court traditions that have been handed down through generations – is a mix of Buddhist religious ceremonies and Hindu Brahmin rituals.
The Four Royal Barges
Of the 52 vessels in the procession, four are designated as ‘royal barges.’ They are:
- the Suphannahong, or Golden Swan,
- the Anantanakkharat, or multi-headed Naga, the half-human and half-cobra demigod of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
- the Anekkachatphutchong, or innumerable Naga figures, and
- the Narai Song Suban King Rama IX, or the four-armed god described in the Thai version of the Ramayana.
The focus of the procession is, of course, the royal barges. The four royal barges are positioned in the center row, with two rows of battle barges protecting each side. The battle barges include protectors, destroyers, eight mythical animal barges and towboats.
The formation of the processional is similar to a presidential motorcade where a police car drives ahead and motorcycle police surround the presidential vehicle in the center of the convoy.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The fleet of 52 ceremonial barges is arranged into five columns as they come down the river towards you. You’ll first see surveillance, security and police boats that are not actually part of the official formation.
After watching the modern patrol boats cruise the area, I soon spotted the ancient armada coming for us. They were low on the water, looking like a magic carpet ride floating on the river as if through the sky. The seemingly unending line of boats stretched on past my line of vision, and the armada looked formidable.
I wondered if this is what the people of Seville saw when the intimidating Vikings came sailing in along the Guadalquivir River, ready to attack the Spanish city. The rhythmic barge-rowing songs seemed to cinque the Thai oarsmen’s strokes.
Sailing together in a set pattern
Perhaps the fleet looks so formidable because of the formation in which it floats. Floating together in a set pattern is a show of military power. The name of the pattern that you will see is a traditional formation called the Phet Puang formation. The first barges that you see in the formation are the escort vessels.
Escort Barges Decorated with Depictions of Thai Mythical Creatures
The escort barges are decorated with either paintings or figureheads depicting the Thai mythical creatures that represent ancient noble ranks. Watch for the nose of black cannons sticking out through a porthole under the figureheads. The figureheads are mounted at the prow of the battle barges. According to the Thai Navy, Asura Paksi (above) was built during the reign of Rama I (1782-1809) and carried warriors. I wonder when the last time those canons were fired.
Most Prominent of the Four Royal Barges
The most prominent of the four royal barges are the Anantanakkharat (king of serpents,) which carries a statue of Buddha or other holy objects and the Royal Barge Suphannahong (Golden Swan,) which brings Their Majesties the King and Queen. To spot the Golden Swan from afar, look for the tall, seven-tier umbrellas placed on each end of the golden pavilion at its center. The seven tiers display the rank of monarchy. Perhaps you will spot the royal couple under the golden pavilion in the center of the barge.
Secondary Royal Barges of the Thai Royal Water Processional
The two most prominent royal barges are escorted by the secondary royal barges, the Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX and Anekkachatphutchong. King Rama III commanded that the Narai Song Suban be built. Anekkachatphutchong, on the other hand, was built during the reign on Rama V (1868-1910.)
From the side, you might be able to see Anekkachatphutchong’s pink hull, which is decorated with simply patterned, gold gilded prows. The plain pattern is made up of small serpents or Nagas and so, the barge is called Anekkachatphutchong (derived from Sanskrit) or “innumerable Naga figures.”
Harmonious Rowing: Three Movements of Rowing
Thai Navy sailors have been rehearsing and practicing the three movements of rowing over this past year. Dressed in ornate regalia, they rehearse harmonious rowing with three rowing postures:
1.) Regular paddle stroke
2.) Kra Diat – against the waist
3.) Nok Bin – birds flying – swing paddle high above head.
There are a number of officials that keep the boats floating in formation. Watch for the following (they are typically standing):
Chanters – chant the boat songs that give rhythm to the paddlers.
Barge Masters – controllers or supervisors of the barges.
Steersmen – control the rudders.
Post poking officer – Hold long, straight wooden stick which is painted white and pound it to the deck to kept the rhythm for the oarsmen.
When to see the Royal Barge Procession?
Before the Royal Barge Procession on December 12, minor rehearsals will be held on November 12, 19, and 26 and December 3, 2019. One full dress rehearsal is scheduled for December 9.
The processions begin at the Wasukri Pier and end at the Ratchaworadit Pier, about 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers.)
Won’t be in Bangkok on any of these dates? Then make sure to visit the Royal Barges Museum when you are in town.
As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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