Every so often the Thai king is rowed down the Chao Phraya River in an elaborate procession of wooden longboats with ornate designs and depictions of Hindu/Buddhist icons on the bows. While the stunning processions take place no more than once every few years, you can swing by the Royal Barges National Museum to see some of the boats at any time.
Six traditional barges are on display, each carved out of a single tree trunk and done up in lacquer, coloured paint and reflected inlay designs that are similar to those found on Thai temple buildings. Detailed images of Hanuman, Vishnu and Garuda, among other Hindu gods and icons, are carved on to the prows. A type of mythological swan’s head fronts the late King Bhumibol’s barge, known as Suphanahong (“Golden Swan”). Rebuilt in 1911, it received a maritime heritage award from the World Ship Trust of Great Britain in 1992.
A number of English information boards explain some of the customs and history of the royal barges, which date back to the early Ayutthaya period, if not earlier. Powered by up to 100 rowers and capable of propelling over shallow water, the boats were the primary means of transport for Thai kings back when waterways were the main thoroughfares of Siam. Exhibits show how more than 30 barges can be used in a procession and some of the costumes worn by the crew.
The museum also serves as the permanent dry dock for the barges, which are suspended above the water of Khlong Bangkok Noi by mechanical arms that lower the boats down when they’re to be used. There are no railings so keep a close eye on small children. In this area you could also check out the Baan Bu Bronze Village and Siriraj Medical Museum before grabbing lunch at Wang Lang Market.
Known in Thai as Pi-Pit-Ta Pan Reua Phra Ti Nang, the museum is located near the mouth of the Bangkok Noi Canal and is often included on boat tours. If coming independently, head to the far southern end of Phra Arthit Road (just southwest of Khao San Road), take the stairs up and walk across Phra Pin Khlao Bridge, using the footpath on the southern side of the bridge. On the other side, take the stairs down and walk to your left then straight, then take a left down Soi Wat Dusitaram after about 200 metres. Follow this lane for another 300 metres, passing an interesting old temple, and there's a sign in English for the Royal Barge Museum pointing down a narrow lane on the right.
If starting at Wang Lang Pier and market, walk straight west on Wang Lang Road and go right on Arun Amarin Road; continue at street level towards the canal as the main road becomes a bridge and take the steps up to the footpath next to Wat Amarintharam. On the other side, take the stairs down and walk straight away from the canal, and you’ll see a Navy office marked by a black-and-white sign in Thai that’s directly across the street from an English sign for “Royal Barges Section”. Go into the Navy grounds and the guards will let you walk across to the other side, where a right will take you straight to the museum.
Address: Khlong Bangkok Noi, Thonburi
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º29'5.14" E, 13º45'43.55" N
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Admission: 100 baht + 100 baht to take photos.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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