The National Museum of Royal Barges
On the north bank of Khlong Bangkok Noi lies the National Museum of Royal Barges, where eight principal royal barges reside.
Story by Morgan JT / Photo by Jessica Boisson
The Royal Barge Procession: A Brief History
The river was long Thailand’s most popular method of transportation. The Royal Barge Procession began over 700 years ago. It is a ceremony with both religious and royal significance. It not only showcases traditional Thai craftsmanship and art but also marks the nation’s significant cultural and religious events.
During the Ayutthaya period, the royal barges were used for more than just the royal processions. They were also used for major religious occasions, receiving and transporting foreign delegations, in 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 new barges.
After World War II and a period of political turmoil during King Rama VII’s reign, royal barge 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 occurred 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 immense crowds to both banks of the river.
Today, the Royal Barge Procession comprises 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 and it requires up to 2,802 oarsmen to row in the procession.
The Royal Barge Procession moves 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.
Visitors are required to pay for an admission fee and camera permit. Stepping inside, the walls of the building are lined with photographs and illustrations, preserved original decorations that remain from 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 used in 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 two steersmen. Anechatbhuchong adorned with a pattern of small nagas gilded with colourful glass pieces requires 60 oarsmen and two steersmen. Royal Barge Anantanagaraj, boasting seven-headed nagas decorated with gold lacquer and glass ornaments, requires 54 oarsmen and two steersmen.
Ekachai Hern How Barge featuring Naga-headed dragons on the prow requires 38 oarsmen and two 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 two steersmen.
Asura Vayuphak Barge with an ogre-faced bird as a figurehead requires 30 oarsmen and two steersmen. Krut Hern Het Barge comes with a garuda clutching a naga on the prow and requires 34 oarsmen and two steersmen.
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 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 long-tail boat tour to visit the museum.
Another way is by car. Take the Arun Amarin Road and look for the small Navy Station under the Arun Amarin bridge. Request a parking space at the gate and the officer will direct you. The Royal Barge Museum is in the back of the station.
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 and requires 50 specially trained oarsmen and 14 additional crew members to operate.
Admission to the museum is 100 baht per person. If you want to take pictures, thereis an additional fee of 100 baht for a camera (whether it’s a proper camera or a mobile phone camera) or 200 baht for a video recorder. These fees go to help pay for 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 special ceremonies.