On Saturday, we visited Thailand’s National Museum of Royal Barges that is located on the northern edge of the Bang Noi canal right off the Chao Phraya in Thonburi. Although Royal Barges were in use as early as the 14th century, most of the barges from this period were destroyed when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767. After Rama I (1782-1809) established the new capital in Bangkok, he had new barges built. Some of the eight barges in the museum date back to this time.
Barge processions took place annually on the Chao Phraya until 1932, the year when the absolute monarchy was replaced with a constitutional monarch. However, during the 65 year reign of Rama IX, the current King of Thailand, there have only been sixteen barge processions. Barge processions can contain 52 barges that collectively are propelled by nearly 2,100 oarsmen. With proper spacing between the barges, the flotilla can stretch out for a full kilometer on the river. A Kathin Ceremony procession, in which the Royal Family presents robes to the monks at Wat Arun, was scheduled for last October, but this procession was cancelled because of the flooding.
In the museum, the four Royal Barges and four of the major escort barges are suspended in dry dock slips above the water. There are twelve major escort barges altogether and nearly 40 minor escorts and attendants. The Royal Barges are easily distinguished from the major escort barges by their size, the Royal Pavilions, and the elaborate figureheads. The barges are made of teak with intricate designs carved into the prow and stern of even the more modest escorts. Most of the barges have cannons mounted in the bow with a port in the figurehead.
Anantanakaraj Royal Barge
The current Anantanakaraj was constructed in 1914 during the reign of King Rama VI to replace an earlier version that was built during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851). Ananta means King of the Serpents and a seven-headed Naga is carved into the bow of this vessel. The prow, the pavilion for the king, and the stern are covered with small serpents interwoven with vines that are painted in gold lacquer and covered with glass jewels. This Royal Barge is 147 feet long and 8.5 feet wide, it is manned by 54 oarsmen and carries a crew of 18.
Anekkachatphuchong Royal Barge
The Anekkachatphuchong is the oldest barge in the museum; it was constructed during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910). From a distance, this barge appears to have a very plain prow. However, up close intricate carvings of nagas (snakes or serpents) are evident throughout the vessel. This Royal Barge is 150 feet long and 9.5 feet wide, it is manned by 61 oarsmen and carries a crew of 14. Workers were performing maintenance activities on this barge and several others when we visited the museum.
Suphannahongsa Royal Barge
The Suphannahongsa was constructed from the trunk of a single teak tree in 1911 during the reign of Rama VI. In Thai “Hong” means swan, in this case the mythical steed of the Hindu God Brahma, and the figurehead on this barge resembles a golden bird in flight. This Royal Barge is 151 feet long and 10.5 feet wide, it is manned by 50 oarsmen and carries a crew of 14. Workers were performing maintenance activities on this barge and several others when we visited the museum.
Narai Song Suban Royal Barge
The Narai Song Suban Ratchakan Thi Kao is the newest barge and the only one constructed during the reign of the current king, King Bhumibol (Rama IX). Construction began in 1994 and the barge was launched two years later to commemorate the king’s Golden Jubilee. This Royal Barge is 145 feet long and 10.5 feet wide, it is propelled by 50 oarsmen and carries a crew of 14.
The two Asura Class Barges have half bird, half ogre figureheads. The barge on display, Asura Vayuphak, is 102 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, it is manned by 38 oarsmen and it carries a crew of 17. This barge was last restored in 1981-82.
The four Krabi class escorts have figureheads depicting brave Varana (ape-like humanoids) warriors. The barge on display, Krabi Prab Muang Mara, is 95 feet long and 7 feet wide, it is manned by 36 oarsmen and it carries a crew of 17. This barge was last reconstructed in 1967.
The two Ekachai class escorts have figureheads that are half naga and half dragon. Neither of these barges has a cannon. The barge on display, Ekachai Hern How, is 98 feet long and 7 feet wide, it is manned by 38 oarsmen and it carries a crew of 6. As you can see in the pictures below, the hull is now white; this is a primer coat over which craftsmen will put a black lacquer finish. On the lacquer, they will then create a dragon’s head and body in gold leaf. This barge was last reconstructed in 1965.
The two Krut Class Barges have Garuda figureheads holding serpents in their claws and with their feet. The barge on display, Garuda Hern Het, is 98 feet long and 7 feet wide, it is manned by 34 oarsmen and it carries a crew of 7. This barge was last reconstructed in 1968.
Happy Memorial Day!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.