If you are really lucky when you visit Bangkok you will get to see a Royal Thai Barge Procession. We say you are lucky because this is one of the world’s great spectacles, up there with the Kumbh Mela or a British Coronation, and it doesn’t happen very often – the last one was in November 2007.
The Royal Thai Barge Procession has a long history dating back some 700 years. The procession originally took place on the river in Ayutthaya, the old capital. When the capital moved to Bangkok so did the procession. This was only ever an occasional occurrence, never annual or scheduled at regular intervals. The dates when it happens are auspicious and often also mark significant events. The procession stopped altogether with the dissolution of absolute monarchy in 1932. The current King revived the tradition in 1957 to mark the start of the 25th Century in the Buddhist calendar. During the King’s 60 year reign the procession has only occurred a further 15 times.
The procession involves 52 traditional, and very old, wooden barges. These barges are impressively large and ornate. The largest barges are propelled by 50 oarsmen. The total crew for all the barges in the procession is 2,082, all Royal Thai Navy personnel dressed in traditional uniforms. Taking part in the procession is considered a great honour for sailors and the competition to take part is fierce.
The 52 barges are made up 4 royal barges, one containing the King, and 48 escort barges. The four royal barges, each built during the reign of a different King, are displayed in the National Museum of Royal Barges, which is on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. Each of the four Royal Barges has different prow design: Swan, 7 headed Nakkharat (mythical creature), Naga and Garuda. All 52 wooden barges are stored on land to limit their deterioration, and are only ever in the water for a procession or a rehearsal.
There had been a procession scheduled for 11 October 2011 but it was cancelled due to river conditions. It was then rescheduled for December 2011 but got cancelled again because the great flood in Bangkok. The rumour is that the procession is now going to be rescheduled for 2012, but we are not sure of the month at the moment. Keep your eyes on the news about this, if you can get to Bangkok on the day then this will be your chance to witness something special.