The royal barge procession is one of the world’s great events. We have created a guide to help you pick out each of the historic Thai vessels that will help bring the royal coronation ceremony of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua to a close.
For Thais in all eras of history, boats have been a primary mode of transportation. There were boats that were used by commoners, but for the monarchy and royal family members, ruea luang — or royal fleets — were primarily used.
During wartime, ruea luang were used for military activities. When in peace, the barges transported the king and royal family on religious or ceremonial occasions.
The royal barge procession along the Chao Phraya River on Dec 12 concludes the royal coronation ceremony of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua which has been ongoing since May. Besides being a spectacular celebration of the monarchy, the centuries-old tradition is also an opportunity for the country to show the world the glory of Thailand’s traditional craftsmanship and culture. The entire procession features 52 vessels and 2,200 crew.
Here’s a guide to the vessels and oarsmen during the magnificent royal barge procession.
Built: In the reign of King Rama V (108 years old)
Dimensions: L - 46.15m, B - 3.17m, D - 94cm
Built in 1911, the Suphannahong is believed to be the most majestic of all barges. The name Suphannahong, or golden hamsa, refers to the swan-like mystical steed of the Hindu god Brahma and has traditionally been reserved for the principal royal barge used by the king.
The original Suphannahong, the prototype of the one still in use today, was built in the reign of King Rama I. The vessel was in constant use as the principal barge, until it became too old to be repaired.
Its successor, the present Suphannahong, was built in the reign of King Rama V and completed in the next reign.
The head of the hamsa is carved with gilded lacquer, decorated with mirrored glass and a crystalline ball with tassels dangling from its mouth. A pavilion in which there is a throne for the king is placed in the middle of the barge.
The barge took part in many illustrious events including the coronations of King Rama VI and King Rama VIII as well as for the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Bangkok held during the reign of King Rama VII.
Built: In the reign of King Rama VI (95 years old)
Dimensions: L - 44.85m, B - 2.58m, D - 87cm
The original barge was built in the reign of King Rama III and named Banlang Anantanagaraj, translated as the Throne of Ananta — king of the serpents. But the current Anantanagaraj was rebuilt in the reign of King Rama VI and launched in April 1914.
The most outstanding feature of the Anantanagaraj is the bow which is carved into a seven-headed naga, gilded lacquer and decorated with mirrored glass ornaments. The hull was painted green outside and red inside.
The Anantanagaraj is second in rank to the Suphannahong and is a testament to intricate craftsmanship. Set aside the seven-headed naga figurehead, the body of the serpent is equally marvellous, with a multitude of crafted small serpents densely woven into floral-looking vines.
Built: In the reign of King Rama V (102 years old)
Dimensions: L - 45.67m, B - 2.91m, D - 91cm
The Anekajatbhujonga appears plain in the outline especially when compared to the other three royal barges. The barge has no figurehead, but stands out due to its simple yet graceful design.
The Anekajatbhujonga is therefore best appreciated up close. Still, this majestically-plain barge is covered with innumerable naga figures which are crafted into the bow. The hull is painted pink on the outside and red inside.
Built: In the reign of King Rama IX (23 years old)
Dimensions: L - 44.30m, B - 3.20m, D - 110cm
The construction of the Narayana Song Suban in the reign of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great was commissioned by the Royal Thai Navy and the Department of Fine Arts to pay homage to His Majesty the King on the 50th anniversary of his accession to the throne.
The name was taken by King Rama IX himself from an earlier royal barge built during the reign of King Rama III called Mongkol Suban. It was modified to give it a more elegant look than in the reign of King Rama IV.
This new look featured an intricately carved wooden figurine of the Hindu deity Narayana mounted on top of the garuda. This was based on the ancient Brahmin myth saying the garuda serves as Narayana’s vehicle.
The construction of the Narayana Song Suban began in 1994. King Bhumibol presided over the keel-laying ceremony at the Royal Thai Navy Dockyard in September that year.
Built: In the reign of King Rama I
Dimensions: L - 28.58m, B - 2.10m, D - 56cm
This pair of escort barges feature the figurehead of krut or garuda, the steed of Vishnu. Each garuda also holds two naga, carved and gilded with mirrored glass decoration.
The barges were built in the reign of King Rama I and were destroyed by bombs during World War II. In 1967, the Royal Thai Navy and the Fine Arts Department rebuilt the pair using the original figureheads. The hulls of the barges are decorated with gilded lacquer in traditional Thai motifs.
Built: In the reign of King Rama I
Dimensions: L - 27.50m, B - 1.97m, D - 60cm
The two barges were originally built in the reign of King Rama I but were damaged by the bombs during World War II. In 1965 they were rebuilt using the original bows and sterns by the Royal Thai Navy and the Department of Fine Arts.
The escort fleets in this class have a tapered cylindrical figurehead, representing the horn of the mythical hera or horned dragon. The head and the body of the dragon is also depicted on the hull in a pattern of gold leaf over black lacquer.
Built: In the reign of King Rama I
Dimensions: L - 26.80m, B - 2.10m, D - 51cm
The four barges in this class have crowned monkey figureheads as influenced by the Ramakian, the Thai literary epic based on India's Ramayana.
Two of these escort barges were built in the reign of King Rama I but evidence with regard to their names became clear only in the reign of King Rama IV. The barges, unfortunately, were severely damaged by the bombing during World War II but a restoration was later commissioned by the Royal Thai Navy and the Department of Fine Arts in 1965.
Built: In the reign of King Rama I
Dimensions: L - 31m, B - 2.03m, D - 62cm
The pair of the Asura escort barges were originally built in the reign of King Rama I during 1782-1809. They were repaired by the Department of Fine Arts and the Royal Thai Navy in 1965.
The figurehead of each Asura escort is a faced bird demon, carved and gilded with mirrored glass decoration. Asura means half-bird, half-ogre.
Built: No record
Dimensions: L - 22.23m, B - 1.75m, D - 70cm
Perhaps the most easily recognisable of all the escort barges, the two suea — or tiger — barges are painted with a ferocious looking tiger head and the hull decorated with tiger stripes.
Another distinguishing feature of the two suea barges is their cannons that stick out prominently over the bow. The barges — which took their design from ancient war-boats — were used as protection for the royal barges.
Marking the conclusion to the Royal Coronation Ceremony of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua, the royal barge procession on Dec 12 will exhibit the glory and great power of the monarch, in accordance with the traditional beliefs and court traditions handed down through generations.
His Majesty, accompanied by Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, will travel along the Chao Phraya River in a flotilla of ceremonial barges and boats.
Their Majesties the King and Queen will embark on the royal barge Suphannahong at the Wasukri Pier in Dusit district and will disembark at Ratchaworadit Pier, or the Temple of Dawn, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River.
During the ceremony, six temples on both sides of the Chao Phraya River will hold a Buddhist chanting ceremony in honour of Their Majesties. Wat Rachathiwat Ratchaworawihan, Wat Thewarat Kunchorn Worawiharn, Wat Sam Phraya, Wat Bowon Mongkhon, Wat Karuhabodee, and Wat Rakhang Khositaram will each begin the chanting ceremony when the royal barge is approaching the waterfront of the temple, and will conclude when the procession has passed the temple.
The trip will take about 45 minutes, with a length of about 3.4 kilometres. The procession consists of 52 ceremonial barges, including four royal barges: the Suphannahong, the Anantanagaraj, the Anekajatbhujonga, and the Narayana Song Suban.
Apart from four royal barges, the procession also includes several escort barges and lesser escort barges that are arranged into five groupings. Rhythmic barge-rowing songs are part of this ceremonial water-borne procession.
According to the Royal Thai Navy, the royal barge procession will be conducted in a formation called Dao Lom Duen, which was invented by Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Krom Phra Srisavangavadhana.
The Dao Lom Duen Formation is arranged into five columns, with the royal barges in the centre, and two rows of escort and lesser escort barges on each side.
Order of the five rows
The whole procession measures about 1,200 metres in total length, and 90 metres in width.
The Royal Thai Government has extended an invitation to the general public from both sides of the Chao Phraya River to witness Thailand’s historic event and congratulate and pay respects to Their Majesties on this auspicious occasion.
Various sites along the two banks of the Chao Phraya River have been arranged for the public audience with Their Majesties, including the following six official locations which can accommodate up to 10,700 people:
The people participating in this event may wear yellow shirts.
The government recently announced that it has made available 39,000 parking spaces in Bangkok for people wanting to watch the royal barge procession.
People can park their vehicles and ride the mass transit system to where they plan to watch the royal barge procession.
Based on information provided by the Government Public Relations Department, people can leave their vehicles on the day at car parks at Lat Phrao MRT station, the Attorney-General's Office, the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road and the Siam Commercial Bank headquarters. These locations have a combined parking capacity for 8,550 vehicles.
Other parking spaces will be set aside at Muang Thong Thani, the Government Complex on Chaeng Watthana Road, the Thupatemee Sports Stadium, the Ikea stores in Bang Na and Bang Yai, Bitec Bang Na, Central Department Store on Rama 2, Central Westgate Department Store and MRT Purple Line station at Tha-it. The locations can handle 30,450 vehicles in total.
Shuttle buses provided by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority will also be available free of charge between parking locations and train stations.
Kitchens will set up close to procession vantage points to provide food for spectators and medical units will be offering free check-ups.
The royal barge procession is believed among historians to date back to the Sukhothai era. But it wasn’t until the Ayutthaya period more than 600 years ago when details surrounding the tradition became clear as recorded historical evidence.
Around the middle of the 14th century, during the reign of King Boromatrailokanat of Ayutthaya, a boat race called the Asayucha ceremony was held in the 11th lunar month. It was a “predictory” race between the king’s Samathachai barge and the queen’s counterpart named Kraisoramuk. According to traditional belief, if the queen’s barge won, it signified prosperity and the country would enjoy flourishing crops and happy citizens in the subsequent year. On the contrary, if the king won, it meant disaster.
From historical records, it is evident that royal processions were held on many occasions. A century later, for instance, during the reign of King Naresuan, a barge procession was held on his return journey from a war with Burma. Then during the reign of King Narai in the 17th century, he welcomed the ambassador sent by France’s King Louis XIV with a fleet of royal barges. King Narai also led hundreds of barges on a pilgrimage to Wat Phrabuddhabat in Saraburi province to pay homage to Lord Buddha’s footprint.
In 1767, Ayutthaya fell to Burma. Hundreds of royal barges were burnt by invading Burmese soldiers. Yet in the following year, King Taksin ascended the throne and established Thon Buri as Siam’s new capital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. During his 15 years on the throne, he built new war fleets and hundreds of other barges specifically for a grand procession to transport the revered Emerald Buddha from the old capital of Ayutthaya to Thon Buri.
King Rama I — the first of the Chakri Dynasty — moved the capital city to the other bank of the Chao Phraya River in 1782. That was also the beginning of the Rattanakosin era. During his reign, many more royal barges were built including the original royal barge Suphannahong. His intention was to restore the royal barge procession to mimic the country’s glorious days from the Ayutthaya period.
In the reign of King Rama III, the original Anantanagaraj, featuring a seven-headed naga prow, was built. During the reign of King Rama IV, seven new barges were built.
Following World War II when some of the royal barges were damaged by allied bombing, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great ordered the barges to be restored and the royal barge procession revived. After decades of hiatus, a royal barge procession was held once again on the Chao Phraya River in celebration of the 25 centuries of Buddhism in 1957.
During the reign of King Bhumibol, the royal barge procession was held on various occasions — the royal kathin ceremony in 1959, 1961 and 1967, the bicentennial celebration of the Rattanakosin era in 1982, and the 1987 royal barge procession as part of the celebrations for the 60th birthday of King Bhumibol.