The history of the most delicate of boats: royal barges.
by Harold Stephens
For nearly 700 years, royal barges have been plying the waterways of Thailand in ceremonies both religious and political. And twice they almost disappeared forever: once when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya, and again during World War II, when the Allies bombed installations along the river.
The story goes that the grandest of all royal barge processions occurred in 1683 when Siam opened her doors to the nations of Europe. The first country to send an ambassador was France. To show that Ayutthaya was the most magnificent city in the East, if not the entire world, King Nawrai welcomed the French embassy by sending his fleet of royal barges downriver to Pak Nam to honor the new arrivals.
The official record of that splendid diplomatic voyage up the River of Kings was lost when the Burmese invaded and sacked the city in 1776, but accounts do survive in the form of the journals kept by the French, Dutch, and Portuguese who lived in Ayutthaya at the time, as well as in biographies and letters. From these, while doing research for my book “For the Love of Siam,” I was able to piece together that voyage. It’s a beautiful story I didn’t mind re-telling, but it’s too long to recount here.
When the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya in 1767, General Taksin ordered barges to seek cover to the south, but still the enemy destroyed almost all of them. Taksin succeeded in driving the Burmese back, and he set up his new capital at Thonburi, near the small village of Bangkok. He brought with him several of the badly damaged royal barges. However, it wasn’t until King Rama I ascended the throne in 1782 to become the first king of the present Chakri dynasty that he initiated the renewal of national arts and crafts, which included the construction of new royal barges.
Kings Rama II and Rama III had royal barges built in their honor, and the traditional art of royal barge building was passed on from generation to generation. During the reign of Rama IV, seven new barges were constructed. King Rama V built a new 44.9-meter barge, Suphannahong, carved from a single teak log. He died before it was completed, and it was left to his son, Rama VI, to dedicate it on November 13, 1911. It is still in use to this day.
April 1932 marked the 150th celebration of the Chakri dynasty. King Rama VII rode Suphannahong in a grand procession that could well have been the last of its kind. No one foresaw the coming of a coup, and that the kingdom would move from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Many changes took place, one of which was the termination of the royal barge procession. The annual ceremony on the Chao Phraya River ceased for 25 years.
In the meantime, World War II had dealt another devastating blow to the royal barges. Stored during that period in dry docks on Bangkok Noi Canal, the barges shared their berths with Japanese naval vessels and unfortunately became the target of Allied bombers.
In 1949, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, after his return from school in Europe, went to see the barges. He was taken back by their state of deterioration and ordered their complete restoration. Artisans and craftsmen under the direction of the Fine Arts Department were assigned to repair the damage. Then in 1959, the king decided to revive the tradition of the Royal Barge Procession for the Kathin ceremony. Today the procession takes place only for the most significant cultural and religious events. During the reign of King Bhumibol, spanning more than 60 years, it has only occurred 16 times, most recently commemorating the His Majesty’s 80th birthday on December 5, 2007.
Today, the vessels used for the procession consist of 51 historical barges and the Royal Barge Narai Song Suban. His Majesty built Narai in 1994, the only barge built during his reign.
Maintaining and caring for these vessels is not a simple task. Royal barges are the most delicate of boats, between 40 and 50 meters long, with several being hollowed out of a single log. They must carry up to 80 oarsmen and assorted crew, and for special occasions, the biggest and most splendid of these barges, Suphannahong, must carry the King of Thailand and his retinue downriver from the Royal Palace to Wat Arun, the temple of dawn.
The National Museum of Royal Barges, which is open to the public, is no ordinary museum; it’s more like a workshop staffed by teams of artists and artisans. An amazingly large shed, the boathouse can house no more than eight barges at any single time. The rest of the fleet is scattered around Bangkok’s docks and shipyards.
Barges are maintained in long berths, and raised high above water level with mechanical lifts. Individual berths are connected by a network of walkways. From morning to night, workers can be seen climbing high on scaffolds, or on the walkways, applying paint and trim to the hulls. I watched teams of artists apply pure gold leaf patches to the ornate woodwork of one of the royal barges, and as I looked down the length of the shed, to all the other barges, I could only imagine the man-hours involved in making these vessels ready for the royal barge processions. Much like painting the Sydney Harbor Bridge, it is work that never ends.