On the north bank of Khlong Bangkok Noi lies a museum where eight principal royal barges reside
Brief History: The Royal Barge Procession
The river has always been the most used transportation and commutes in Thailand. The Royal Barge Procession began over 700 years ago. It is a ceremony with both religious and royal significance. It does not only showcase traditional Thai craftsmanship and traditional art but also marks the nation’s significant cultural and religious events.
During the Ayutthaya period, the royal barges have more use than just being a part of the royal processions. They were used for major religious occasions, receiving and transporting foreign delegations, boat races, royal ceremonies and even battles where river warfare was more common than sea battles.
Unfortunately, these barges were mostly burnt and destroyed after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. Though once King Rama I ascended the throne and established Bangkok as the new capital, he revived the tradition and ordered the construction of the new barges.
However, after World War II and a period of political turmoil during King Rama VII’s reign, the royal barges’ services were disrupted and the unused boats were destroyed by air bombardment and neglect.
That was until King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1946-2016) initiated an extensive restoration of war-damaged vessels. The dock and barges were restored by the Fine Arts Department in 1949 as part of the Thai cultural heritage preservation.
The first procession after the restoration took place in 1959 to present Royal Kathin robes to monks. During the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej which spanned over seven decades, the procession occurred 16 times. All processions brought out an immense crowd to both banks of the river.
Today, the Royal Barge Procession comprises of 52 barges: 51 historical barges and one Royal Barge, the Narai Song Suban, which was ordered by the late King Rama IX in 1994. It is the only barge built during His Majesty’s reign, which takes up to 2,802 oarsmen to row the barges in the procession.
The Royal Barge Procession proceeds down the Chao Phraya River from the Wasukri Royal Landing Place in Dusit District, passes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and arrives at Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).
The Royal Barges Museum
Today, the museum is under the care of the Royal Thai Navy and the Royal Household. In 1972, the dock became the National Museum of Royal Barges after the repairs were completed.
Once arrived, visitors are required to pay for the admission fee and camera permit. Stepping inside, each wall of the building is lined with photographs and illustrations, preserved original decoration pieces, remains of previous vessels and pictures of past processions. One can also read the operating techniques for the barges.
The museum houses eight principal vessels from 52 barges for the procession. Each vessel is exquisitely carved from teak wood with engraved prows and beautifully gilded mythical creatures as figureheads.
Each barge has a specific figurehead and name. Royal Barge Narai Song Suban (Rama IX), with Vishnu God mounted on a garuda holding Nagas as a figurehead, requires 50 oarsmen and 2 steersmen. Anechatbhuchong, adorned with a pattern of small nagas gilded with colourful glass pieces, requires 60 oarsmen and 2 steersmen.
Royal Barge Anantanagaraj, boasting seven-headed nagas decorated with gold lacquer and glass ornaments, requires 54 oarsmen and 2 steersmen.
Ekachai Hern How Barge, featuring Naga-headed dragons on the prow, requires 38 oarsmen and 2 steersmen. The smaller Krabi Prab Muang Marn, showcasing a white monkey Hanuman in a gold finish and glass as a figurehead, requires 36 oarsmen and 2 steersmen.
Asura Vayuphak Barge with an ogre-faced bird as a figurehead requires 30 oarsmen and 2 steersmen. Krut Hern Het Barge comes with a garuda clutching a naga on the prow, requires 34 oarsmen and 2 steersmen.
Among them, the most elaborate and significant is the Royal Barge Supannahong, a majestic 50-metre long barge carved from a single piece of teak wood with a golden swan as the figurehead. It is considered the King’s barge, which requires 50 specially trained oarsmen and 14 additional crew members to operate.
There are two ways to reach the museum. One is by boat. Take the Express Boat service on Chao Phraya River to Pinklao Bridge Pier and then make your way through a maze-like winding walkway following the periodic signs along the path. Or take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Wang Lang Pier, which is a short walk to the museum. One can also hire a longtail boat tour to visit the museum.
Another way is by car. Take the Arun Amarin Road and look for a small Navy Station under the Arun Amarin bridge. Request for a parking space at the gate and the officer will direct you. The Royal Barge Museum is in the back of the station.
Admission Fee: Admission to the museum is B100 Baht per person.
If you want to take pictures, there’s an additional fee of B100 for a camera (whether it’s a proper camera or mobile phone camera) or B200 for a video recorder. This fund goes to the restoration and maintenance of the vessels and the museum facilities.
The National Museum of Royal Barges
80/1 Rim Khlong Bangkok Noi, Arun Amarin Rd
Open daily: 9am-5pm
Tel: 02 424 0004
Note: The barges might not be in the museum during the preparation for the special ceremonies.