Category Archives: Thai Culture

Photo Guide to the Royal Barge Procession

A spectacular procession of royal barges will be on show in Bangkok  on 9th November 2012, as part of the Royal Kathin Ceremony. Representing His Majesty the King, HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will preside over the ceremony at Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, in Bangkok. He will travel to the temple in a royal barge procession along the Chao Phraya River. The procession consists of 52 traditional style barges arranged in five columns, based on battle formation from ancient times. This is made up of four major royal barges, eight barges with animal figureheads and 40 smaller vessels. The five-column flotilla stretches 1,200 meters in length and 90 across. A total of 2,311 sailors serve as oarsmen.

PHOTO GALLERY 01: Royal Barge Procession >>>
PHOTO GALLERY 02: Behind the Scenes in the Navy Dockyard >>>

The bow of the Royal Barge Suphannahong is made into a head of a Royal Swan or Hamsa, painted with gold lacquer and richly decorated with glass ornaments.

The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban H.M. King Rama IX has a figurehead of the god Narai with four arms bearing a trident, a scepter, a discus, and a conch shell on his celestial transport, a Garuda.

The bow of the Royal Barge Anantananakkharat is made into the seven heads of a Naga, gold-lacquered and richly decorated with glass ornaments.

The graceful prow of the Royal Barge Anekkachatphuchong is intricately carved and gilded in a delicate pattern of small Naga figures.

Ekachai Hern How Barge and Ekachai Lao Thong Barge are Reua Ku Chak to lead and tow the Royal Barge Suphannahong in case it demands extra driving power. Both barges are gold-lacquered with the tapering column figureheads of a cross between a crocodile and Naga known as Hera.

Krut Hern Het and Krut Tret Traichak are Garuda barges with a painted and gilded figurehead of a Garuda holding a Naga, one in each of his hands and feet. A red body is Krut Hern Het and a pink body is Krut Tret Traichak.

Pali Rang Thawip and Sukrip Khrong Mueang are Krabi Barges with crown figureheads of Monkey Warlords, carved and gilded with a green body of Pali and a red body of Sukrip, respectively.

Krabi Ran Ron Rap and Krabi Prao Mueang Man are Krabi Barges with uncrowned figureheads of Monkey Warriors, carved and gilded with a black body of Nilaphat and a white body of Hanuman, respectively.

Asura Vayuphak and Asura Paksi are Asura Barges with carved and gilded figureheads of Ogre-faced birds. Asura Vayuphak’s face, hands and feet are indigo in colour with a purple coat. Asura Paksi’s face, hand and feet are green in colour with a coat of a purple front and green back.

Seua Thayan Chon and Seua Kamron Sin are tiger barges of the Reua Phiket class. The hull is ungilded but painted in the colour and style of a tiger’s body and with a tiger’s head painted on the bow.

Map of where to watch the Royal Barge Procession >>>

Watching the Rehearsals for the Royal Barge Procession

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.

What to expect if you are invited to a Thai Funeral

The longer that you stay in Thailand, the higher the chance is that you will one day be invited to a funeral. This might be for the parent of a colleague at work or a relation of your Thai wife or husband. I am not exactly an expert on Thai funerals, but I have attended a fair number. I have also been invited, strange as it may seem, to take pictures at funerals. Like this group photo in the first picture. For this particular funeral I had to take dozens of pictures of various groups posing in front of the coffin of the deceased.

If you are invited to a funeral, then the first question that might go through your mind is what to wear. As you can see from this photograph, you should wear either black or white or a combination of the two. You should avoid any bright colours but you could get away with it if it is a muted colour. For example, I have seen some people wearing blue jeans but with a white or black polo shirt. For myself I usually wear a white shirt and black tie for the main events and a black polo shirt for other times.

Funerals for Thai Buddhists can go on for much longer than what you may have seen before in the West. It could last from anything from one week to a year or two. Depending on how close you were to the deceased, you probably won’t be expected to attend every part of the funeral. For the parents of colleagues at work I probably would only attend the cremation on the last day. For relations of friends you probably would attend at least one if not all of the chanting sessions. If you are close to the family then it might be appropriate for you to bring a wreath. Either that or give the family some money in an envelope.

The Bathing Rite takes place on the evening of the first day. You would only attend this if you knew the deceased personally. The body is laid out on a table and covered with a cloth. Only the head and the right hand is showing. People then take turns to pour some scented water over the exposed hand. You can take this opportunity to make a blessing or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is then tied around the ankles and wrists. The hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth.The body is then placed in a coffin and placed on a high table. It is then surrounded by flowers. A portrait of the deceased is also prominently displayed.

Four monks are then invited to chant daily for the deceased. This usually take place over a period of seven days. However, this might be shortened if the cremation needs to take place on a certain day, like the weekend. It also should be noted that cremations cannot take place on Fridays as the name for that day sounds like the Thai word for “happiness”. If the chanting sessions are shortened to say five days, the same amount of merit still needs to be created for the deceased, so on two nights the chanting sessions have to be done twice. Notice the ribbon in this photograph. It goes all the way to the coffin which is how the deceased receives the merit.

In Bangkok, the daily chanting sessions for the deceased will probably start at 7 p.m. and last for about an hour. Upcountry these are often done at the house and may go on all night as they are social events. It is not a completely sad affair. There are four main chants with regular breaks in-between. During the breaks people chat or listen to some traditional Thai music. There is also often a break with some Thai dancing. The hosts are always generous and you will find that you are also given drinks and snacks. Even full meals. Before my first chanting session I thought I would have to sit on the floor for hours. But, there are always seats and the time passes quickly.

After seven days of chanting the cremation can take place. Some families will do this straight away while others might wait a year or more. Quite often a young family member, usually the grandson, will ordain as a novice monk in order to make merit for the deceased. They do this for only a day or two. Even though it is only for a short time, they still have to do the full ordination which includes the shaving of hair and eyebrows. On the morning of the cremation there is more chanting and food is then offered to the monks.

Once everyone has eaten, it is time to move the coffin to the crematorium. The coffin is carried outside and placed onto an ornate cart. A procession then takes place to the crematorium. Leading the way are family members carrying a portrait of the deceased. Behind them are a couple of monks holding onto a white thread that is attached to the coffin. The mourners walk behind the coffin. If you have ever done a procession around a chapel at a Thai temple on a Buddhist holiday you know that you have to walk around it three times in a clockwise direction. However, for funerals, you must walk anti-clockwise.

The coffin is then taken up the steps and placed on a high table in front of the crematorium doors. The portrait of the deceased is also placed here. The crematorium itself is decorated during the afternoon with black and white cloth and beautiful flowers which were the favourites of the deceased. The cremation ceremony is often in the late afternoon. If you didn’t go to the Bathing Rite or any of the nightly chanting then the cremation ceremony is the one that you should really attend.

At cremations you don’t get to see much of the ceremony. Most people are seated far away. During the ceremony, honoured guests will come forward with monk robes and place them on a pedestal in front of the coffin. As you can see here, the same ribbon is being used to connect the pedestal to the coffin. A monk then comes to receive the robe as if it was offered by the deceased. The monk here is saying a prayer before receiving the robe. During the ceremony someone will also give an eulogy about the life of the deceased. There is often also some kind of traditional dance performance.

Cremation ceremonies are often over very quickly. Anything from 30 minutes to an hour. When you arrive you are given a flower made from wood shavings. You will need this for the last part of the ceremony. The monks at the cremation will go up the steps first with their “flowers”. These are placed under the coffin as if you were lighting the funeral fire. Once all of the monks have done this then it is the turn of the guests. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times with the flower then place it in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person.

At this stage, most people would go home. They have paid their respects. Unless you were close to the deceased, you would go home too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. The remaining sandalwood flowers are also thrown into the coffin. Everyone then goes down to the bottom of the steps where they gather around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets are fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas.

The friends and relations don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. A monk is present for this ceremony. Sweet smelling flower petals are mixed in with the ashes. Depending on the family, these might be placed in one urn or several.  Once they are collected they are taken to the prayer hall where there is more chanting and robes and food are again presented to the monks on behalf of the deceased. What happens next to the ashes will vary. Most will keep the ashes at the temple as there will be further merit making ceremonies on the 50th and 100th days. Some people keep them at their home.

A third option, which is seemingly becoming more popular these days,  is called “loi angkarn” which means the floating or scattering of ashes over the water. However, they might keep some relics, like pieces of bone,  in the shrine at home. It is not really a Buddhist tradition as it has been adapted from Hinduism where they often scatter ashes in the Ganges River. Some Thai people believe that floating the ashes of their loved ones in a river or in the open sea will help wash away their sins but also help them go more smoothly up to heaven. It doesn’t matter where you do this, but if you are in the Bangkok and Samut Prakan area then an auspicious place is the mouth of the Chao Phraya River at Paknam where I live.

There are a set number of rituals that have to be done in the correct order before the main ceremony. This includes paying respect to the guardian spirit of the boat and then later the god of the ocean and the goddess of water. Next comes the prayers where the mourners request the spirits and gods to look after the deceased person. It is then time for the white cloth containing the ashes to be carefully dropped over the side. They don’t actually scatter the ashes, they just let the cloth float away and then sink. As they watch it go, they say their final farewells while at the same time scattering flower petals on the water.

Watching a Thai Shadow Puppet Show

Before the age of television soap operas and movies, Thai people entertained themselves by watching Shadow Puppet Shows. In Thai these are known as “Nang Talung” and were popular in Southern Thailand. Although you cannot see them so much these days, you might be lucky at a village festival, temple fair or some other kind of celebration such as a wedding. I was fortunate to see this show at a temple fair in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The size of a puppet theatre will vary. At the very least there will be a puppeteer, Nai Nang, who manipulates all of the puppets and will also provide the voices. In addition there will be a small group of people from folly artists who provide sound effects to others who play musical instruments. However, this particular puppet show was a one man band and this old guy was doing everything by himself. Quite an incredible feat as you can see by the number of puppets he has to manipulate.

Like these children, I was just as fascinated by what was going on behind the screen as I was watching the show from the front. The puppets are made from cow’s hide which has been dried and flattened. These are then cut into the different figures, coloured and then varnished. This can take anywhere from hours to days, if not weeks for the more intricate designs. Once ready, two pieces of bamboo sticks are fixed to the cow’s hide which are used to manipulate the puppet. Some puppets might have extra sticks to manipulate other limbs.

A puppet theatre can have as many as 150 different puppets if not more. These are as varied as kings, princes, ladies, ogres, villagers and a large group of clowns. There are also stage props such as trees and houses.  Sizes of the puppets range from one foot to two and a half feet. Although many of the characters are traditional and haven’t changed for generations, you will also sometimes see more contemporary outfits. For example cowboys, movie stars and gangsters with guns. In the old days, many of the female puppets showed more of the face while the men were always shown in profile.

Although you may not be able to understand what is going on in the show as it is all narrated in Thai, you should be able to appreciate the humour. I certainly found it fascinating to watch as I had never seen a genuine shadow puppet show before. I think these puppet theatres are surviving as they are adapting by putting on performances with contemporary themes.  If you want to learn more about this ancient art, then I suggest that you visit the Thai Shadow Puppet Museum in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Thai Shadow Puppet Museum

In the old days, before movies and T.V. soap operas, people were entertained with Nang Talung. This is the art of shadow puppets that first became popular in Southern Thailand two or three generations ago. It has since spread to other parts of Thailand, like the north-east, but many people still see it as an art form from the south. Unfortunately it is very rare to be able to see a shadow puppet show these days. Movies and T.V. shows are the preferred form of entertainment these days. However, during my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was lucky enough to be able to watch three shadow puppet shows.

Thailand’s most famous shadow puppet master is Mr. Suchart Sapsin. He has been making puppets and putting on performances since he was a teenager. He is now 72 years old and has been named a national artist of Thailand. In 1985, he said that he had a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform for H.M. The King. Apparently the performance greatly impressed the King and he thanked Suchart for keeping the ancient folk art alive in these modern times. “He also asked me not to hold back my knowledge and skill, and that I should pass it on to the next generation.” Suchart went on to say that “it was then that I decided to build a museum”.

The Shadow Puppet Museum, or “Ban Nang Talung Suchart Supsin” in Thai, is located in the same compound as his family home in Nakhon Si Thammarat. It is only a short ten minute walk from the famous pagoda at Wat Phra Mahathat. The museum is open every day and has no admission price. However, near the entrance there is a small shop selling genuine puppets and it is appreciated if you buy something or at least make a donation for the upkeep of the museum. Suchart’s son is now involved in the running of the museum so at least the shadow puppets will last another generation at least.

The museum itself is on the second floor of an old wooden building built on stilts. Here you will find a large collection of artefacts which trace the history of shadow puppets back more than 200 years. As well as a large collection of puppets, there  are also the different musical instruments that are used during the performance. In the old days they didn’t have any electricity so they had to use a lantern which is now on show here. Not all of the items on display have English labels, but they have produced a couple of excellent brochures in English which will help guide you to understand what you are looking at.

Downstairs we had a chance to see how they made the shadow puppets. These are made from buffalo or cow hide which are treated and then dried on a frame for three days. Once ready, the design is drawn on the leather and then small intricate tools are used to cut out the shapes. A basic puppet could take 3 or 4 hours to complete. But more complicated designs will take days if not weeks to complete. Once the puppet is finished, they are then painted using black, green, red and yellow colours. Bamboo sticks are then fastened to the puppets. Some only need 2 or 3 sticks but others need more as they will move things like eyebrows and tongues.

While we were there we were very fortunate to be given a performance by Suchart himself. These are not regular shows. If you want to see a shadow puppet show you would need to telephone in advance to make an appointment. Suchart operated all of the puppets himself and also did the different voices. However, there was one other person that provided the music and sound effects. It was actually really good as he managed to blend an ancient art form with modern contemporary issues. In the show that we watched some of the props included mobile phones, motorbikes and airplanes. It was a really good show and we all enjoyed it immensely.

I have posted more pictures on my Facebook Page.

The Shadow Puppet Museum can be found at 110/18 Si Thammarat Road, Soi 3. For further information, please call 07 534 6394.