The Chao Phraya River is strangely quiet. The normal hustle and bustle replaced by calm. There are no river boat taxis ferrying commuters and tourists. No longtail boats buzzing between the khlongs (canals) that stretch out from the river into the Bangkok suburbs. It may be an ordinary day in the Thai capital, but it is an extraordinary one on the Chao Phraya River. A solitary navy patrol boat glides past with the Grand Palace in the background and then, in the distance, the rhythmic chanting of hundreds of oarsmen can be heard. A faint rumble at first, but growing to a goosebump inducing crescendo as the Royal Barge Procession comes into sight.
Just as it has done for centuries, the magnificent royal flotilla is making its way gracefully along the Chao Phraya River. The Bangkok skyline may have changed over the years, but the pomp and pageantry of the Royal Barge Procession provides an important link to the past and is a powerful reminder of Thailand’s heritage.
This is the scene at a dress rehearsal ahead of the main event on December 12 which will be presided over by His Majesty the King. Although there is no royalty present at this rehearsal, everything else is as it would be for the actual ceremony and witnessing this first-hand is an unforgettable experience.
River of Kings
The Chao Phraya is known as the River of Kings and looking at this incredible spectacle it’s easy to imagine the scene from a few centuries ago. The Royal Barge Procession was a regular and important event for the Kings of Siam dating back to the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) and continuing during the Chakri dynasty (1782-present). The ceremony temporarily ceased in the 1930s, but was restored in the 1950s during the reign of King Rama IX. The Royal Barge Procession is a rarely held event which makes it extra special when the spectacular ceremony does take place. The procession in December 2019 honours the Royal Coronation of King Rama X.
Royal Thai Navy
As the late afternoon sun glistens on the spires of the Grand Palace and neighbouring Wat Pho, the royal flotilla commands the Chao Phraya River. The men taking part are all sailors from the Royal Thai Navy and being selected for the Royal Barge Procession is an incredible honour for them and their family. It takes weeks of solid practice, on land and on water, to perfect the techniques used. Signalmen at the front of each boat raise and lower flags to direct the oarsmen. The standard bearers sit at the helm with two oarsmen on either side acting as the rudder for the intricately decorated boats.
Royal barge decorations
The procession involves 52 barges with around 2,000 oarsmen providing the power and chanting in perfect unison as the boats are rowed along the river. The boats are formed into five columns as they span the Chao Phraya River with the principal royal barges in the middle flanked by the escort barges.
The largest boat is the Suphannahong Royal Barge which carries the King. The boat is manned by 50 oarsmen and features a beautiful golden figurehead in the shape of a mythical swan-like creature known as hong. A decorative lotus-shaped crystal and tassel dangles from the beak of the celestial hong. According to ancient Thai belief, when this sways in the breeze prayers are lifted to heaven.
Rehearsal dates for the Royal Barge Procession
With the Royal Barge Procession rescheduled for December 12, there will be additional rehearsal dates in the lead up to the main event. These are the additional rehearsal dates:
- November 12
- November 19
- November 26
- December 3
- December 9 (full dress rehearsal)
The rehearsals are scheduled to commence at approximately 3.30pm, but please note that dates and times are subject to change.
Attending the Royal Barge Procession
The public are invited to attend the event, but there are some protocols to be aware of. Please dress politely and cover your knees and shoulders. Many Thai people attending the dress rehearsal or main event will be wearing a yellow top in honour of the King who was born on a Monday and whose birth colour is yellow.
The public are kindly asked to respect Thai culture and the rules of etiquette at royal events. There will be restrictions on what can and can’t photographed on December 12. Selfies with the procession in the background are not allowed. There may also be restrictions on zoom cameras in the public viewing areas on December 12. Please respect any advice given by stewards and security staff on the day. With extra security in place, the public may need to go through screening areas where bags are searched and you may also be required to show your passport or ID. All Thai people are legally obliged to carry their ID cards with them.
The procession will commence from the royal pier, Tha Wasukri, in the Dusit district of Bangkok. The barges will then be rowed along the Chao Phraya River towards Ratchaworadit pier near the Grand Palace . The ceremony on December 12 is scheduled to commence at 15.30 with the barges expected to take approximately 45 minutes to complete their journey.
A number of viewing areas on both banks of the river will be open to the public. These include:
- Under Rama VIII Bridge, Thonburi (for 4,000 people)
- Santichai Prakan Park (for 1,500 people)
- Chaloem Phra Kiat Public Park (for 1,000 people)
- Siriraj Hospital (for 1,000 people)
- Thammasat University (for 1,800 people)
- Nagaraphirom Park (for 2,300 people)
Hotels and cafes along the route may also be open to the public for the rehearsals although many will be ticket only. For the ceremony attended by royalty on December 12, some venues overlooking the river may be asked to close for security and etiquette reasons.
Restrictions will be in place on the Chao Phraya River on the day of the event and also for the rehearsals in the weeks ahead of the actual procession date. This means that river boats and ferries won’t run for at least part of the day and some bridges will also be temporarily closed. Away from the Chao Phraya River area, it will be a normal day in Bangkok. However, with temporary road closures in place and with no river boats allowed, there will be an impact on traffic in the riverside areas which could have a knock-on effect in other parts of the city. If you are travelling by road in Bangkok, allow extra time for your journey on the days where there are rehearsals planned (see dates above) in addition to the main event on December 12.
For anybody not able to attend in person, Thai news channels will feature live coverage of the event and the official broadcasts should be available to view via YouTube and Facebook. We will add more details as they become available. Please also see the link below for more details:
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