Royal Barges National Museum

Lonely Planet review

Every foreign country has its famous religious monuments and museums, but how many have their own fleet of royal boats on display? The royal barges were once used daily by the royal family to get about their realm, but are now used only for grand ceremonies. They are not barges like those wide, lumbering vessels you’ll see hauling sand and produce up and down Mae Nam Chao Phraya. These barges are slender like their mainstream cousins, the long-tail boats, and fantastically ornamented with religious symbolism. The largest is more than 45m long and requires a rowing crew of 50 men, plus seven umbrella bearers, two helmsmen and two navigators, as well as a flag bearer, rhythm keeper and chanter.

Suphannahong (Golden Swan) is the king’s personal barge. Built on the orders of Rama I after an earlier version had been destroyed in the sacking of Ayuthaya, Suphannahong is made from a single piece of timber, making it the largest dugout in the world. Appropriately, a huge swan’s head is carved into the prow. More recent barges feature bows carved into other Hindu-Buddhist mythological shapes, such as the seven-headed naga (sea dragon) and Garuda (Vishnu’s bird mount).

To mark auspicious Buddhist calendar years, the royal barges in all their finery set sail during the royal gà·tĭn, the ceremony that marks the end of the Buddhist retreat (pan săh ) in October or November. During this ceremony, a barge procession travels to the temples to offer new robes to the monastic contingent, and countless Bangkokians descend on the river to watch.

The museum consists of sheds near the mouth of Khlong Bangkok Noi. To get here take the 3B ferry across the river to Tha Saphan Phra Pin Klao and follow the signs. Most long-tail boat tours will stop here unless you ask them not to.