During his long reign, His Majesty the late King Bhumbol Adulyadej, Rama IX, revived a number of disused ceremonies and traditions from the classical period of the Chakri Dynasty. In May 1957, for the first time since the absolute monarchy was overthrown, a Thai king was conveyed up the Chao Phraya River in a royal barge procession to offer robes at temples such as Wat Arun. Thailand’s Royal Barge Procession (Krabuan Phayuhayattra Chonlamak — กระบวนพยุหยาตราชลมารค) is a ceremony of both religious and royal significance which first took place nearly 700 years ago.
The exquisitely crafted Royal Barges are a blend of craftsmanship and traditional Thai art. The Royal Barge Procession takes place rarely, typically coinciding with only the most significant cultural and religious events. During King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, the Procession occurred 17 times. I was privileged to observe the Procession in mid-June 2006 as part of the lavish celebrations of His Majesty’s 60th anniversary as the king of Thailand; it was my first royal event since moving here. The most recent Royal Barge Processions marked the 100th day of Bhumibol’s death occurring on January 20, 2017, on the Chao Praya River in Bangkok and moving to Chuk Same Port in Chon Buri Province the following day.
The current Royal Barge Procession consists of 52 barges: 51 historical barges and the Royal Barge — the Narai Song Suban (the subject of today’s stamp, Scott #1692) — built by King Bhumibol in 1994-1996. It is the only Royal Barge built during King Bhumibol’s reign. These barges are manned by 2,082 oarsmen. The Procession usually proceeds down the Chao Phraya River, from the Wasukri Royal Landing Place in Khet Dusit, Bangkok, passes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, Wat Po (วัดโพธิ์), and finally arrives at Wat Arun (วัดอรุณ, Temple of the Dawn).
The tradition of the Royal Barge Procession most likely began during the Ayutthaya period in the 14th century. Western visitors witnessed and wrote about the “immense procession with 200 boats” upon their arrival in Thailand in the 18th century. During the processions, the oarsmen were kept in rhythm by the beating of drums, with accompanying music. The traditional boat song was written by Prince Dhamma Dibes of the late Ayutthaya period.
Most of the vessels in the procession doubled as warships, and when war erupted, the barges and boats would be used as instruments of battle. In 1767, Burma invaded Thailand, and, for the second and last time were able to capture the capital, Ayutthaya. Amid the destruction, the entire fleet was burned and destroyed after the Burmese found them at their hideaway. General Taksin rallied the Thais and established the new capital at Thonburi. During his short 15-year reign, Taksin ordered the reconstruction of the barge fleet, and used a fleet of 115 barges to carry a revered figure of Buddha to his new capital.
Chao Phaya Chakri succeeded King Taksin, and moved the capital to the eastern side of the river to what is now known as Bangkok. Chao Phaya Chakri, founder of the Chakri Dynasty, ruled as King Buddha Yodfah (Rama I) and began the Royal Kathin Ceremony Procession. The Kathin Ceremony is a presentation of Kathin robes and earns merit by honoring and supporting the Buddhist Monks. Soon after his coronation in 1782, King Rama I ordered construction of the Royal Barge Si Suphannahong. The Si Suphannahong was the principle Royal Barge for more than a century. In 1911, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) launched its successor, also named Suphannahong.
The Prince of Nakhon Sawan, during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), regulated the formations, which became the standard “Major” and “Minor” formations used today.
Processions took place occasionally until the absolute monarchy ended in 1932. Most of royal barge were kept near Thonburi train station. Bombing during World War II destroyed a large number of the Royal Barges. The Processions didn’t resume until the celebrations of the 25th century of the Buddhist Era in 1957. In 1959, Bhumibol Adulyadej revived the Royal Barge Procession as a method to present the Royal Kathin (Robes for monks) in dedicated ceremonies.
Royal Barge Processions were conducted 17 times during King Bhumibol’s reign:
- May 14, 1957: Royal Barge Suphannahong arrived at Wat Arun for Royal Kathin Ceremony during the 25th Century Celebrations of the Buddhist Era
- November 15, 1959: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- November 2, 1961; Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- October 22, 1962: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- November 15, 1964: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- October 19, 1965: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- October 27, 1967: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- April 5, 1982: Royal Barge Procession in the Bangkok Bicentennial Celebrations
- April 12, 1982: Royal Barge Procession to Transport the Buddha Image
- October 20, 1982: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun
- October 16, 1987: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun for His Majesty the King’s 60th Birthday
- November 7, 1996: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun for His Majesty the King’s 50th Anniversary on the Throne
- November 4, 1999: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun for His Majesty the King’s 6th Cycle Birthday Celebrations (72 years old)
- October 20, 2003: Royal Barge Procession for APEC Meeting
- June 12, 2006: Mass Royal Barge Procession (all 52 barges) for His Majesty the King’s 60th Anniversary of His Accession to the Throne
- November 5, 2007: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun for His Majesty the King’s 80th Birthday Celebrations
- November 9, 2012: Royal Barge Procession for Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun for His Majesty the King’s 7th Cycle Birthday Celebrations (84 years old); this was postponed from October 22, 2011, due to massive flooding in Bangkok
The Royal Barge Procession is conducted in one of two formations, the Major and the Minor. The Major formation, also known as the Petch Phuang Major Battle Formation dates from the time of King Narai. This formation is used for the more significant events, such as the Royal Kathin Ceremony, the movement of the sacred image of Buddha, or important occasions of state. The Petch Phuang Formation is arranged into five columns, with the Royal Barges in the center, and two rows of war barges on each side. In the Minor formation, there are three columns, the Royal Barges in the middle, and a single row on each side.
Major Barge Procession
Arranged in five columns.
- 1 pair of lead barges carrying high-ranking officials with the position of permanent undersecretary
- 1 pair of ancient Thai battle boats with cannons at the bow, carrying army conniellers
- 2 pairs of plain outer barges
- 4 pairs of inner barges with decorated mastheads in the shape of the garuda, monkeys, and ogres
- 1 outer drum boat, 1 inner drum boat, with six musicians each playing the Pi and the klong khaek
- 1 inner and 1 outer boat for the Royal Police
- the Ekachai Barge with covered throne for monks’ robes, the Buddha image or flower arrangements complete with regalia
- the Ekachai Hern Hao Barge and the Ekachai Lao Thong Barge, carrying musicians from the Traditional Band of the Royal Family of Thailand and the military bands of the Royal Thai Army to lead the Royal Barge
- The Royal Barge with covered throne and regalia
- Pavilion Barge for the king’s change of robes
- Second Royal barge
- 1 pair of Royal Police barges
- 2 pairs of Royal Thai Army barges
- 1 pair of plain rear barges
Minor Barge Procession
Arranged in Three Columns
- 1 pair lead barges
- 1 pair attack barges
- 7 pairs plain barges
- 4 pairs animal masthead barges
- 1 left drum boat, 1 right drum boat
- 2 Royal Police boats — left and right
- the Ekachai Barge with a covered throne for the monks’ robes, a Buddha figure or a flower arrangement complete with regalia
- the Ekachai Hern Hao Barge with musicians and the Ekachai Lao Thong Barge
- The Royal Barge with appropriate regalia
- The Second Royal barge
- 1 pair Royal Police Barges
The Royal Barge Suphannahong (the “Golden Swan” or the “Phoenix“) was built in 1911 during the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) with a bow resembling a mythical swan, or hong, adorned with gold lacquer and glass jewels, with a crystalline ball and tassel dangling from her mouth. This 46-meter craft was carved from a single trunk of teakwood, and was launched on November 13, 1911. There is a golden pavilion on board to house the king and his immediate royal family. Suphannahong is the regular royal barge, if a royal is travelling with the procession. Suphannahong‘s hull is painted black.
Suphannahong is 46.15 meters long with a beam of 3.17 meters. The hull depth is 94 centimeters with a draught of 41 centimeters and displacement of 15 tons. Its crew consists of 50 oarsmen, 2 steersmen, 1 chanter, 2 fore officers, 2 aft officers, 1 signalman, 1 standard bearer, and 7 bearers of the Royal Insignia.
The original Royal Barge Anantanakkharat (“Ananta, the King of Serpents“) was built during the reign of King Nangklao (Rama III). It was used as the primary Royal Barge of King Mongkut (Rama IV). The current Anantanakkharat was built during the reign of Rama VI, and launched on April 14, 1914. The bow is carved into the seven-headed Nakkharat, a mystical snake-like creature, in gold lacquer and glass jewels. Anantanakkharat carries a smaller pagoda-like structure to carry holy objects, unlike the others royal barges, which are equipped with pavilions. Her hull is painted green.
Anantanakkharat has a length of 44.85 meters, is 2.58 meters wide at the beam with a hull depth of 87 centimeters, draught of 31 centimeters and displacement of 15.26 tons. She carries 54 oarsmen, 2 steersmen, 1 chanter, 1 signalman, 1 standard bearer and 7 bearers of the Royal Insignia.
The Royal Barge Anekkachatphuchong (“the Variety of Serpents“) is the oldest of the four Royal Barges, being the actual barge built in the late 19th century during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). While no mythical figure is readily visible on the bow, numerous small ornamental Naga figures are carved into the bow. The hull of Anekkachatphuchong is painted pink.
Anekkachatphuchong is 45.67 meters long, 2.91 meters wide at the beam, has a hull depth of 91 centimeters, draught of 1.46 meters, and weighs 7.7 tons. Its crew comprises 61 oarsmen, 2 steersmen, 1 chanter, 1 signalman, 1 standard bearer, 2 officers (one four, one aft), and 7 bearers of the Royal Insignia.
The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban Ratchakan Thi Kao or The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM King Rama IX (“God Narayana on his carrier, Garuda“) is the only barge built during the reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej, who laid the keel in 1994. It was built under commission by the Royal Thai Navy and the Thai Department of Fine Arts and was launched on May 6, 1996, to coincide with the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne. It temporarily took over the role of the main royal barge from Suphannahong for one occasion and has a red hull. The original Narai Song Suban started life as Mongkol Suban, and had only the Garuda as a figurehead, before having a statue of Narayana retrofitted to her by King Mongkut and being renamed Narai Song Suban.
Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX has a length of 44.30 meters, beam of 3.20 meters, a hull depth of 1.10 centimeters, and displacement of 20 tons. It carries 50 oarsmen and 2 steersmen.
The names of the four Royal Barges are composed in a consistent rhyme: “Suphannahong“, “Narai Song Suban“, “Anantanakkharat” and “Anekkachatphuchong“. The Royal Barges’ arrangement in the Procession would have Anantanakkharat leading, with the Suphannahong, Narai Song Suban and Anekkachatphuchong following respectively.
The escort barges consist of a few different classes of barges. Most of these boats’ bows are decorated with either a painting or a figurehead of a mythical creature. Other types have less elaborate designs. The barges with figureheads have their rowers dressed in decorated purple uniforms with pink trousers and red ancient-style helmets with a tall crown and wide brim, while the oarsmen on the Ekachai class are dressed in white uniforms with pink trousers and small red headgear resembling havelocks.
Ekachai Class Barges are the two barges with a gold painting of a horned creature that is half-nāga half-dragon, Ekachai Hern How and Ekachai Lao Thong. They might be used to tow Suphannahongse in case of a strong current or if the royal barge needed assistance. Unlike other escort barges, Ekachai class barges are not equipped with cannon. The two barges can be distinguished by their slightly differing eyes. In the past, there have also been Ekachai-like royal barges, but none are in commission today.
Krut Class Barges are the two barges with garuda figureheads with nagas caught on their wings and feet. The garuda on Krut Hern Het (“Flying Garuda“) is red while the one on Krut Tret Traichak (“Garuda Travelling through the Three Worlds“) is pink.
Krabi Class Barges consist of four barges with Vanara figureheads: Pali Rang Thawip (“Vali Rules the Land“), Sukrip Khrong Mueang (“Sugriva Rules the City“), Krabi Ran Ron Rap, and Krabi Prap Mueang Man. The bow of Pali Rang Thawip depicts Vali, the elder brother of Sugriva on Sukrip Khrong Mueang, rulers of the Kishkindha Kingdom. Both have crowns on their heads with the body color green and red respectively. Krabi Ran Ron Rap and Krabi Prap Mueang Man (“Monkey Defeats the City of Evil“) feature uncrowned warriors of Vanara Nilaphat (black body) and Hanuman (white body), respectively.
Asura Class Barges consists of two barges with half-bird, half-ogre figureheads. The bow on Asura Vayuphak has an indigo body in a purple coat, while Asura Paksi has a green body in a purple (front) and green (back) coat.
Suea Class Barges are the barges with the painting of a tiger, Suea Thayan Chon and Suea Kamron Sin. The names of the barges are clearly written on the bow in red lettering.
Thong Class Barges are the twin barges in the extreme front of the procession, and lead the procession. They are shaped much like a smaller, much less elaborate version of Anekkachatpuchong and are painted with their names in white on their bow freeboard area; the tips of their bow and stern are painted in gold. The men on these boats are dressed in a similar manner to those on the royal barges, but are not entirely alike.
The largest number of barges in the fleet is the Lesser Escorts and Attendants such as Ruea Dang, Ruea Saeng, Police barges and Drum barges. They have no figurehead and no cannon. They are painted mostly black, and their type, number and name (if they have one) is painted on their bows in white. They can be differentiated as follows:
- Police Barges have rowers dressed in black and have a relatively flat bow and stern, with the stern raised slightly higher than the bow.
- Saeng barges also have rather flat bow and stern, but the rowers are dressed in white and black headgear; there are also slightly more rowers on these boats. The boats number from 1 to 7.
- Dang barges have a more pronounced bow and stern, with their shapes similar to those found on the Anekkachatpuchong and the Thong barges, but are smaller, painted black, and significantly less elaborate. These boats number from 1 to 22. Their oarsmen are dressed in black uniforms similar to those of the rowers on Royal barges, with a red trim on the uniform items.
- the Tangmo (“Watermelon“) and the E. Leeung barges is in front of the royal barges. They are shaped like the Police and Saeng barges, but are smaller and sit lower in the water than the aforementioned vessels. The oarsmen here are dressed like the ones on the Saengs.
The present fleet of barges was restored during the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as some had suffered damage in bombing raids on Bangkok during World War II. The dock that stored them, located in the Bangkok Noi district, became the National Museum of Royal Barge. Only eight important barges, including all four Royal Barges, are displayed in the museum due to space limitations. Displayed with the boats are a number of smaller historical artifacts related to the barge processions, such as old procession layout plans and some partial remains of the older decommissioned and/or damaged boats, including the bow and figurehead of the old Narai Song Suban. The remainder are kept at Wasukri Pier, next to the National Library of Thailand. All are stored out of the water to prevent deterioration. They return to Chao Phaya River only for a Royal Barge Procession.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) issued four wide stamps portraying the four Royal Barges. Each of these was accompanied by a souvenir sheet consisting of a single stamp. Additionally, one of these sheets received overprints for two different stamp exhibitions plus a surcharge in 2010.
The first to receive the philatelic treatment was The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban HM King Rama IX with a 9-baht stamp (Scott #1692) and souvenir sheet (Scott #1692a) released on November 7, 1996, on the occasion of the Royal Barge Procession marking King Bhumibol’s 50th anniversary on the throne. The souvenir sheet sold for 16 baht at post offices in Thailand. These were printed by Helio Courvoisier S.A. of Switzerland on unwatermarked granite paper, perforated 11½, in the huge quantity of 10,000,000 copies for the stamp. There were 1,000,000 souvenir sheets printed.
The Royal Barge Suphannahong was portrayed on a 9-baht stamp (Scott #1776) and souvenir sheet (Scott #177a). These were once again printed by Helio Courvoisier S.A. in quantities of 6,000,000 for the stamp and 500,000 for the souvenir sheet using the photogravure process on unwatermarked granite paper which was perforated to a gauge of 11½. The souvenir sheet sold for 20 baht and saw several further releases. The first added an overprint for the Thai-China Stamp Exhibition held in Hetei, China (Scott #1776b). There were 30,000 copies of the sheet released at the exhibition itself on October 16, 1998, and another 40,000 copies were overprinted for CAT membership subscribers. On July 7, 2000, an unknown quantity of the souvenir sheet was overprinted with the logo of the World Stamp Expo 2000 in the United States (Scott #1776c). Finally, the souvenir sheet received a surcharge of 200 baht printed in gold; this was released on June 16, 2010 (Scott #2512).
On November 15, 2000, a 9-baht stamp (Scott #1950) and souvenir sheet (Scott #1950a) portraying The Royal Barge Anantanakkharat were released. The souvenir sheet sold for 15 baht. These were both printed by Joh. Enshedé Stamp Security Printer B.V. in the Netherlands using photogravure and perforated 13½ x 14. Five hundred thousand copies of the stamp and 200,000 of the souvenir sheet were printed.
The House of Questa in England printed the stamps (Scott #2001) and souvenir sheets (Scott #2001a) bearing The Royal Barge Anekkachatphuchong which were released on November 15, 2001. Printed using the photogravure process on granite paper and perforated 14½, were 500,000 stamps and 120,000 souvenir sheets.