The Royal Barges Procession brings the normally bustling Chao Phraya river to a standstill as stunningly beautiful boats built by Thailand’s Kings over the last three centuries sail in formation through the heart of the city.
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Standing on the riverbank beneath an overcast sky, we’d seen the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings at the heart of Bangkok usually filled with hundreds of boats ferrying passengers and goods become empty. We could no longer hear the roar of boat engine motors, and soon the sound of car traffic that usually streamed endlessly across the river was absent too, the vast bridges standing silent. The river’s normally churning waters had become absolutely still.
I thought I knew what to expect when I went to see the Royal Barges Procession. I’d seen photos before, obviously, and already seen each of the main Royal Barges up close in the dry dock of the Royal Barges Museum. What I wasn’t expecting was that out of this already strange silence that had fallen over the river, the stillness was suddenly broken by the unworldly, undulating sound of thousands of voices chanting simultaneously, the oarsmen raising their voices in praise of the King as the Royal Barges hoved into view. It was an eerie and majestic sight, not to mention just utterly surreal to see within 21st century Bangkok.
This was a full dress rehearsal of the Royal Barges Procession, which only happens on auspicious occasions – the last time was five years ago. This time the Royal Barges have returned to the water in honour of His Majesty The King’s 7th Cycle Birthday Anniversary. The actual procession took place on 9th November 2012.
In all some 52 barges, including the four Royal Barges, sailed down the river and past the glittering Grand Palace. Royal Barge Suphannahong, with its distinctive swan figurehead, is perhaps the most important of the Royal Barges, originally commissioned by King Rama I in the 19th century and the current barge rebuilt during the reign of King Rama V.
At the front of each barge rode signalmen, directing the oarsmen by raising and lowering flags. It’s remarkable how close the barges sail to one another, arranged in perfect formation across the Chao Phraya. This was the point where I wished as I was in helicopter to get a better shot looking down onto the Barges.
This closeup of the seating area shows how intricate the costumes are of oarsmen and helmsmen on the boat. All of them usually serve in the Royal Thai Navy as sailors. You can see in the background here the Royal Barge Anantanakkharat, with its fearsome naga figurehead.
Mark Wiens at Migrationology shot this short video of the Royal Barges procession which provides a superb sense of the atmosphere and the sound.
The video also gives you a sense of the grace and precision with which the barges move.
The gold-lacquered Dang Pid Thong Teub barges are elegant in their simplicity, contrasting with the black hulls of the oil-lacquered Dang barges.
The Dang barges are the most simply designed of all of the barges – they surround and protect the Royal Barges.
As a celebration of Thai culture and history, the Royal Barges Procession is simply breath-taking. I just hope I’m in Bangkok next time they take to the water.