If you are in Thailand at the moment then you are in for a treat. During October 2012 they are conducting a series of rehearsals for the Royal Barge Procession along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. I took these pictures during the rehearsal last Friday. There will be three more this month on 19th, 25th and 29th October. There will then be two full dress rehearsals on 2nd and 6th November. The real event is then on 9th November. If you want to watch, then you are advised to attend one of the rehearsals as it will be very crowded on the final day. Click here to see my map of places to watch the procession.
Once you have found a place to watch, you need to make sure that you can be there before they close the river down. After 11 a.m., you won’t be able to cross the river by boat. In fact, you won’t even be allowed to stand on any of the public piers. They also stop the Chao Phraya Expres boats. They are very strict about this. So, don’t get the idea of watching the procession from a boat. The picture above shows some of the security forces that patrol the river all day between Rama VIII Bridge and Wat Arun. I took this picture at about 1 p.m.
The reason that they close the river so early is that the barges have to be towed up river to the starting point beyond Rama VIII Bridge. This has to be done slowly as these boats are very old and are national treasures. I have been on the river before when the express boats pass and they do produce quite a high wake. There would be a danger of one of these boats getting swamped and sinking. They start towing shortly after the river closes at 11:00 a.m. I spotted the last boat passing the bridge at about 2 p.m.
The smaller boats were already moored at the pier near Wat Racha at Soi Samsen 9. These are towed upriver straight away after the rehearsals have finished. Only these more beautiful boats were being towed upriver on the day of the rehearsal. I presume this is because they are stored at the Royal Barge Museum while not being used. My first set of pictures were taken at Rama VIII Bridge. I could see that all of the boats were waiting between Wat Racha and the bridge. Some of the sailors had been on the boat all day and speedboats were going up and down doing toilet runs.
The procession then started at about 3 p.m. Everything was synchronised in order to make sure that all of the boats kept in their correct positions. Each boat had flagmen to help with this. As they rowed, royal boat songs were played over loudspeakers with the oarsmen joining in with the chorus. There are 52 boats taking part in the procession. Out of these, there are eight animal masthead barges like the one above, 22 lesser escort barges, and 18 other vessels. In total, 2,200 oarsmen take part in the procession.
I am told that the journey to Wat Arun, commonly known as the Temple of Dawn, takes nearly an hour. There are a number of vantage points along the river where you can watch the procession. For example, at the riverside park for Phra Sumen Fortress. I took most of my pictures from Praya Palazzo Boutique Hotel which is directly opposite the fort. The smaller vessels past us so close that we could almost reach out and touch them. However, the more beautiful barges with animal mastheads kept to the middle of the river.
The last royal barge passed us at 3:30 p.m. and so that means it took only 30 minutes. You would think that they would then re-open the river but they didn’t do this until about 6 p.m. This is because the last boat wouldn’t have reached Wat Arun until about 4:30 p.m. and then they had to be towed back upriver to Wat Racha. Like I said before, I presume the animal masthead barges were towed to the nearby Royal Barge Museum. I am planning on going to another rehearsal and hopefully will have some more information for you.