BANGKOK — As one spectator put it: You can watch it on your 50-inch TV screen but nothing beats watching the Royal Barge rehearsal in person.
Under the strong sun and considerable heat, hundreds crowded along the banks of the Chao Phraya River to watch the full dress rehearsal of the 52 ornate barges on Thursday afternoon. I spent an hour observing them before we learned that His Majesty the King defer the barge from next week, Oct 24 to Dec 12.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam on Thursday cited strong currents as the reason for the postponement.
Many at the café I am stationed don yellow for the rehearsal to express their loyalty to the king. The cafés and restaurants along that stretch of the river were full of people who bought tickets in advance in order to sit or stand in comforts to watch the rehearsal.
The café next to Santi Chaiprakarn Park I booked charged 500 baht for a seat including two small dishes and a glass of pineapple juice. They told me it’s already a good value as others charge 1,000 baht or even more for the afternoon.
Seeing the real thing is an unforgettable sight. The 1.2-kilometer flotilla of 52 colorful barges in five rows, piloted by about 2,000 oarsmen, gliding along the river is simply a majestic sight to behold even if you are not a Thai person, or a staunch supporter of the monarchy.
Equally impressive was the sound of trumpets and traditional chant from the barges that adds an air of sacredness to the event.
The next rehearsal is scheduled for Oct. 21.
Oarsmen are trained for 40 days in land and another 40 days on the water for six hours a day for the procession, according to the Royal Navy.
A palace official at the café told me securities will be tight on the real day and building along the stretch of the river will be checked and cleared.
When such procession took place back in the Ayutthaya period, as many as 200 boats were assembled. Now it’s down to 52. The largest one, the royal barge Suphannahong, is 46.15 meter long, manned by 50 oarsmen that propel the barge forward by 3.5 meter per one synchronized stroke.
Built during the reign of King Rama VI (reign 1910 to 1925), its gold-lacquer head which is richly painted resemble that of an elongated hamsa, or mythical swan.
It reinforces the stature of the king, elevating him closer to the semi-divine status some believe him to be. It’s a ritual dating back at least a few centuries, all the way to the Ayutthaya kingdom (1350 – 1767) when Bangkok was a small port town.
There was a hiatus which lasted two and a half decades after the revolt when ended absolute monarchy in 1932. The royal barge procession only resumed in 1957 during the reign of the late king, Rama IX. Under his seven-decade long reign, only 11 royal barge processions took place.
The royal barge procession this December with be the first ever under the reign of Rama X. It will definitely be an occasion to project the glory of the new monarch to Thailand and the rest of the world – the government said live broadcast of the event will be available for linkup in up to 177 countries.