On Friday afternoon, a Royal Barge Procession took place on the Chao Phraya River as part of the celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 85th birthday. The three-mile long route began at Vasukree pier (point A on map below) just above the Rama VIII bridge. It went past the Bank of Thailand (B), Fort Phra Sumen (C), Thammasat University (D), Siriraj Hospital and the old Thonburi Railway station (E), and the Grand Palace (F), before arriving at Wat Arun (G).
The Royal Barge Procession was initially scheduled for last year in honor of the King’s 84th birthday, but it was postponed because of the flooding. Thais, like the Chinese, have a special celebration on every twelfth birthday since this marks a complete cycle of the 12 animal years. In Thailand, they are:
- Year of the Dragon (this year)
- Year of the Snake
- Year of the Horse
- Year of the Goat
- Year of the Monkey
- Year of the Rooster
- Year of the Dog
- Year of the Pig
- Year of the Rat
- Year of the Ox
- Year of the Tiger
- Year of the Rabbit
Under an overcast sky, tourists and citizens lined every open space along the riverbank to watch over 2,000 oarsmen from the Royal Thai Navy propel 52 barges down the Chao Phraya in the first procession in five years. Because the King is not well, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn presented new robes to the Buddhist monks at Wat Arun on his behalf. The presentation is part of the merit-making in honor of the King’s birthday on December 5.
My brother-in-law came to Bangkok earlier in the week, and he and I watched this spectacle from the riverbank in front of Fort Phra Sumen, just south of the Rama VIII bridge. I had seen the barges twice before — back in May in the Royal Barge Museum when crews were preparing the boats for Friday’s procession and then again in September at a Royal Navy Shipyard where the boats were berthed during the practice for the procession. While I saw the Royal Barges up close on those occasions, it is very different and more inspiring to watch the grandeur of the entire fleet moving as one down the river, with the chanting sailors and the attendants in their colorful, historic uniforms.
The barges were in a formation of 5 columns with the four Royal Barges in the center and with two columns of various escorts and war barges on both sides. The flotilla took about one hour to pass by my vantage point and you could clearly hear the sailors chanting throughout the procession.
The first chant, called the kroen-hay, says that the beautiful boat is ready to begin moving. As the boats begin to move forward, the second chant, called the chalawa-hay, is begun; it has a slow tempo and its words praise the king. Throughout most of the procession, the sailors chant the moonla-hay, a very rhythmic and haunting melody. On most barges, one of the attendants bangs a large pole onto the craft to keep the rowers in rhythm (see the white-topped poles in the pictures below). The sound fills the river and is clearly heard by the spectators on the banks. When the boats reach Wat Arun, the sailors begin the fourth chant are about merit-making as the prince presents the new robes to the monks.
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© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.