Garuda and Hongsa Figureheads

The National Museum of Royal Barges in Bangkok accommodates an absolutely fascinating collection of superbly crafted (if not a little ostentatious) regal boats that display magnificent mystical creatures associated with some of Asia’s most famous legends. There are a grand total of eight beautiful big and bold barges all housed within an enormous (if not rather nondescript) warehouse-like structure on the north bank of Khlong Bangkok Noi just off the Chao Phraya River.

Ever since the Ayutthaya era, the kings of Thailand have been conveyed along the country’s many waterways in royal barges. For centuries, these exquisitely elegant black and gold slender wooden vessels were used on all royal outings.

Once every year at the end of the rainy season prior to 1967 during Bangkok’s modern era, King Bhumibol would sail down the Chao Phraya River in a flotilla of royal barges to donate new robes to the monks at Wat Arun. Nowadays, though these vessels are rarely seen cruising the Chao Phraya River.

Seven-Headed Naga Serpent Figurehead

National Museum of Royal Barges

When the original barges used by the kings of Ayutthaya fell into disrepair, Rama VI commissioned exact copies to be reconstructed. Although still in use today, the barges you see now are close to two hundred years old. Over time they had become a little frail, so much so that they are rarely used in events now. Then in 1981 the royal barges at the national museum underwent extensive facelifts.

In 1982 the barges came out in all their gilded glory during Bangkok’s  Bicentennial celebrations followed by King Bhumibol’s 60th birthday in  1987. Thereafter, in 1996 for the Golden Jubilee of his reign. The last full-scale royal processions seen was in 1999 to mark the king’s 72 birthday and in 2006 to celebrate his 60th year on the throne. In 2007 the barges came out to celebrate the king’s 80th birthday.

For such auspicious occasions more than fifty barges with over two thousand oarsmen dressed in traditional uniforms and luscious brocades, would fill the width of the Chao Phraya River and then drift slowly to the measured beat of a drum and the hypnotic chanting of ancient boating hymns called bot heh reua. The lengthy procession then continues along the river for almost a full kilometre.

Ekachai Barge in all its Gilded Glory

National Museum of Royal Barges

Of all the barges on display here, the most important is Sri Suphanahongsa, which is reserved for the king. Two seven-tiered umbrellas are placed in front of and behind a golden pavilion to shelter the king during the royal processions. Gracing the prow is a glittering five-metre-high golden swan-like bird known as the Hongsa which represents the mount of the Hindu god Brahma.

The barge was built in 1911 from a single piece of teak and stretches 46 metres (150 feet) in length and weighs 15 tonnes. When in action, Sri Suphanahongsa accommodates about 64 highly trained crew of which 54 of them are oarsmen. There are also two steersmen, two officers, a flagman, a rhythm keeper and a singer on board. The singer chants to the cadence of the oars.

Anantanagaraj is a name given to a barge reserved for conveying monks robes and it bears the multifaceted seven headed golden Naga Serpent on its prow. The Anekchatphuchong is a barge built in 1914 during the reign of Rama IV.

Narai Song Suban Rama IX is the newest addition to the royal fleet and was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne. The barge is 44 metres (145 foot) long and can carry up to 50 people.

Four other royal barges on display are used as escort vessels. The first one is the Ekachai barge and bears the horn of a mythical dragon on its prow. The next one is the Krut barge and has a Garuda  figurehead on its prow. The third is the Krabi barge and has the monkey god Hanuman on its prow. The last one is the Asura Vayupak barge and bears a half bird and half-ogre on its prow. 

Garuda Figurehead Krut Barge