Thais across the nation prepare to celebrate the final event to mark the coronation of King Rama X with a royal barge procession, a Thai tradition that dates back over centuries.
On 24 October, the glories of Thai culture and pageantry come to life in a spectacular royal barge procession, the last of five historic events marking the coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua (King Rama X).
Rarely held, the royal barge procession, or praratcha phithi phra yuha yatra cholamak, is a uniquely Thai tradition that transports viewers to a bygone era. This month, thousands of well-wishers will throng the banks of the Chao Phraya River – “The River of Kings” – to get a glimpse of the incredible visual spectacle and their new king.
The last time the procession was held was on 9 November 2012 to commemorate the 85th birthday of the present king’s father, the beloved late king, HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great (King Rama IX). The barge procession is a Thai tradition that dates back centuries, and there is evidence that royal barges were used for ceremonial purposes as far back as the Sukhothai period, an era known as the Dawn of Happiness (1238-1438). Grand waterborne processions are also known to have been held throughout the Ayutthaya period (1351-1776) with kings taking part in kathin luang ceremonies to present robes to resident monks in royal monasteries to mark awk phansa, the end of the three-month Buddhist rainy season retreat in October.
Royal barge processions astonished emissaries to Thailand and many wrote eloquently about the experience in dispatches home. Theodorus Jacubus van den Heuvel, chief of the Dutch East India Company’s operations in Ayutthaya recalled witnessing such an event on 6 March 1737, writing:
“… the waters of the Pasak River, a tributary of the great Chao Phraya, were garlanded with a long procession of narrow, elegant boats. The finest were carved and gilded to resemble mythological beasts, such as the naga serpents who normally slumber beneath the waves. King Borommakot of Ayutthaya sat in the most splendidly caparisoned of the fleet surrounded by eight other vessels carrying his royal seal and regalia. Despite the warmth of the air, he was fully dressed in a suit of red velvet trimmed with gold. Burdened by the tall golden crown on his head, he leaned on the pommel of his jewelled sword.”
Even royalty was in awe of the grace and beauty of barge processions. In the poem “In Praise of Barges” penned by Prince Dhammadhibet (1715-1755), the eldest son of King Borommakot wrote:
When the king journeys on water
He graces the jewelled throne
Amid his magnificent entourage
Of golden barges in proud procession.
The king journeys by water
On the glorious royal barge
That sparkles like jewels
Gleaming paddles dip and rise.
Barges shaped like mighty beasts
Throng the sovereign fleet
Attendant barges with flying banners
Stir the turbulent tide.
Sonorous music swells
Voices and drums resound
Barge songs echo loud
Intoned by the jubilant crews.
Royal barge processions continued to be held when the capital moved from Ayutthaya to Thonburi and then Bangkok until the dissolution of the monarchy in 1932. However, HM King Bhumibol, who was known for his devotion to the preservation of the Thai arts and culture, revived it in 1959, although it was reserved for all but the most auspicious of occasions and witnessed only sixteen times during his 70-year reign.
A Glorious Ceremony for a New King
This month, the royal barge procession leaves from Wasukri Pier at 4 p.m. on Thursday, 24 October 2019, the day of the full moon. The highly choreographed event will carry His Majesty King Rama X in the principle 46.15-metre (151.4-foot) boat known as Suphannahong or ‘golden swan’. In other exquisitely-carved vessels will be members of the royal family and the revered Buddha image, Phra Buddha Sihing. In all, 52 boats in five groups and rowed by 2,200 oarsmen, all proud sailors from the Royal Thai Navy, will stretch for more than one kilometre along the river. With oarsmen dressed in scarlet red uniforms, rowing rhythmically in perfect unison and to the sound of traditional songs and chants, the procession will be a colourful awe-inspiring spectacle like no other.
The flotilla will proceed 4.5 kilometres along the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun. Here, His Majesty and the royal family will take part in an ancient ceremony marking awk phansa by presenting monks with offerings of saffron robes, food and other necessities. The official ceremony is expected to end at approximately 5:30 p.m.
As Prince Dhammadhibet so eloquently described, when His Majesty King Rama X “journeys on water… amid his magnificent entourage” on 24 October, it will indeed be “in proud procession”. A proud moment for a new king and a proud moment for an entire nation.
For those not fortunate enough to witness this incredible event, royal barges are normally housed at the fascinating Royal Barges Museum in Bangkok Noi.
THAI Launches Royal Barge Livery
To mark the auspicious occasion of the Royal Coronation Ceremony 2019, Thai Airways recently unveiled a special Royal Barge aircraft livery on its Boeing B777-300. Sumeth Damrongchaitham, president of Thai Airways International, presided over a sacred ceremony conducted by Phra Maha Raja Guru Bidhi Sri Visudhigun. The new B777-300 Royal Barge aircraft also carries the royally bestowed name Lahan Sai and the Royal Coronation Emblem.
The project to design and apply the livery took four months to complete. Meticulous research involved studying historical photographs and paintings of past royal barge ceremonies to ensure accuracy.
Kittiphong Sansomboon, THAI director of brand and advertising, said recently, “The Thai Airways team feels immensely proud to have worked on the royal barge livery project. Thai Airways is more than simply our national carrier. It acts as an ambassador for Thai culture and hospitality across the world.”
The image depicts a royal barge called Si Suphannahong and is reproduced on the plane with beautiful attention to detail. “The wonderful artwork extends the entire length of the plane and not only celebrates the Royal Coronation but highlights a fascinating aspect of our rich heritage,” added Sansomboon.
The livery appears on the aircraft until 31 December 2022, flying routes from Bangkok to Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Sapporo.