Friday, January 7, 2011

The Royal Barge National Museum

Duang and I have been to Bangkok more times than we care to remember; many of the visits related to business with the American Consulate.  On our last trip last month as part of Duang's process to obtain a US Green Card, we decided to visit some places and do some things that we had not experienced before.  One place that we had not visited before was "The Royal Barge National Museum".

According to many Bangkok travel guide books and web sites, people should arrive at the museum by boat.  The museum is located across the Chaophraya River in Thonburi. The guidebooks and the websites state that going to the Royal Barge National Museum by land is "long, hot slog from the road via jumbled alleys with scant signage".  First of I consider guidebooks as well as websites to be just that - "GUIDES".  They are like schedules in that they provide a means to develop your own itinerary based upon the information that they contain.  They provide a means to evaluate and modify your trip as situations develop.  They in themselves are not the end all or only means for determining your trip.  Interestingly as you perform more and more research on a location you find that the information more and more closely resembles each other.  Many websites and guidebooks are obviously based on the same source of information.  It reminds me of the saying about one bad apple ruining the whole bushel basket of apples.  How many guidebooks and websites caution against eating "street food"?  How many travelers never experience the delights of local cuisine because of fears inspired by guidebook recommendations.  Just about every guidebook cautions against using ice cubes in your drinks while in Thailand.  In reality the ice cubes are manufactured by companies using pure water and transported in plastic sacks in clean trucks.  I use ice cubes throughout Thailand just like the local people do.  The locals do not want to become ill any less than I do.  You haven't drank a beer here in Isaan unless it is from a glass with ice cubes in it - like the locals do.

As for accessing the barge museum from the road - our biggest problem was getting the taxi driver from the Lumpini Park area of Bangkok to understand where we wanted to go.  I told him in English, and pantomimed rowing a boat in the special style used for Royal Barges.  He was amused but did not seem to understand any better.  Duang spoke in Thai and he didn't seem to understand.  I mentioned "Thonburi" and the 1,000 kilometer stare started to recede from his eyes.  We showed him on a map but the map was entirely in English which doesn't help all that much with a Thai driver.  However it seem to boost his confidence if not ours that he knew where we wanted to go.  We set off in the heavy downtown Bangkok traffic for our intended destination.  Fortunately there was heavy traffic so that the driver had more opportunities to consult the map.  After awhile I recognized that we were in the Dusit Area where we had been the day before.  According to our map, Dusit was on the way to the Barge Museum.  As we crossed the modern bridge over the Chaophraya River, all confusion appeared to disappear - there was a sign in English and Thai for the Royal Barge National Museum!  We took the indicated exit and ended up on a side street.  There was a sign for the museum at the entrance of what appeared to be a high rise apartment building set a ways off of the street.  We continued a little further and ended up at the entrance to a Navy base.  The guard told the taxi driver where the museum was located.  We turned around and went back to the entrance of the high rise apartment building.  The driver told us to walk towards the building.  We thanked him and paid him approximately $4.00 USD for fare and tip.

We walked through a vacant lot type area towards the building.  When we got just about to the building there was a sign indicating the way to the museum.  We were also joined by a local man who appeared to be a guide.  He lead us through a maze of alleys to the museum.  I gave him $1.33 USD (40 Baht) for his "help".  To be honest I believe that we could have managed to find the museum on our own with the signs that were posted or by asking the many people along the way.  But it was reassuring to have a personal "guide".

Sometimes I get the impression that the concept of travel as put forth by many guidebooks and held by many tourists is to visit exotic places within a protective bubble as best can be maintained of your own culture.  There seems to be an emphasis on the "places" and not the "people" that you will encounter along your travels.  Because you have read some of these blogs you are mostly aware that Duang and I do not travel in that many.  Although we love exotic locations it is the opportunity to experience different cultures; to be able to interact with people outside of our comfort zone that is our passion.

Duang On the "Road" (alley?, path? street/) to the Royal Barge Museum
The guidebooks and websites failed to mention  that in avoiding taking the land route to the museum, you prevented glimpsing and experience a little of what life along or rather life on Rimkhlong Bangkok Noi (Little Bangkok Side Canal) is like.  The narrow alleys are bordered by wood or cinder block homes built on stilts.  In many places you could look directly into the homes to see the people working inside their homes.  Some of the homes were built over land and you could see chickens or other birds being raised by the family.  There was all kinds of vegetation growing high above the homes.  You could smell the scents of life along an urban waterway.  You came upon small groups of local residents socializing, working, or marketing goods to their neighbors.  This was a neighborhood where a car, or tuk-tuk had never been.  People walked along these alleys and either rode motorbikes or bicycles to come and go.

In about 5 minutes we arrived at the museum.  Entrance fee for me was about $0.30 USD and because Duang is a Thai citizen - free for her.  Since I intended to take still pictures - I had to pay a 100 Baht camera fee ($3.00 USD).  I have read where the author of a blog suggested that only one person in a group pay the fee and take the photos for everyone in the group.  Please - give me a break!  Objecting and whining about $3.00 to take photos seems to be way too frugal to be polite especially after paying $0.30 to enter.  That is definitely a group that I would not want to be part of.

Barges On Display
 The museum was great.  There are actually 52 barges that take part in the infrequent Royal Barge Processions.  Typically 8 barges are on display in dry dock at the Royal Barge National Museum.  Of the eight barges on display, there are four Royal Barges.  The four Royal barges are:  Suphannahong, Anantanakkharat, Anekkachatphuchong, and Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX.  However on the day that we visited there were seven.  The newest Royal Barge, Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX was being worked on at the nearby Navy Yard.  However there was a bonus, in my opinion, one of the barges was being reconstructed!

The Asura Vayuphak Under Reconstruction - 2.03M wide, 31M long, 0.62M deep
An Asura Class Barge, the Asura Vayuphak , last restored in 1982 was under reconstruction by workers employed by a  private company.  I was told that only the Navy worked on any of the four Royal Barges. This explained why the Narai Song Suban HM Rama IX built in 1996 was not being worked on at the museum.   I spent a great deal of time observing and photographing the reconstruction work.  The work reminded me of the work by shipwrights past and present at the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum near the town where I was born and raised back in Connecticut.  I found it extremely interesting.

A Thai Shipwright At Work
I scrambled about the dock and even ventured out onto the scaffolding planks to get better views and different photographic perspectives of the restoration work.  The workers did not mind and actually seemed a little amused at my efforts.  They were accustomed to the typical visitor spending 10 to 15 minutes at the museum before moving on to the next stop of their tour.  The naval representative did not like me sitting on the scaffold plank over the water and politely informed me that it was not allowed.  He was a good guy and apparently did not hold a grudge.  Later when I returned to the boat to take more photographs, he moved out of the way at his guard station so that I could get a different perspective.

Placing A New Board In Position

Drilling Ribs In Preparation For A New Plank
 In addition to the static displays there are four videos that are shown to visitors of the museums.  They are extremely interesting and worth watching.  Again, most visitors if they even watch will view only one of the videos.

The barges are like works of art.  They are intricately carved and are decorated with colorful paint and colored glass.  The level of detail and mastery is breathtaking.

My favorite Royal Barge was Suphannahong also called Suphannahongse (Golden Swan).  The Suphannahong carries the King of Thailand and other members of the Thai Royal Family.  It is a very graceful boat - carved from a single teak tree and completed in 1911.  The boat is 46.15 meters long, 3.17 meters wide, and .41 meters deep.  It is propelled by 50 oarsmen.  In addition to the Royal passengers and oarsmen it also carries 2 steersmen, 1 chanter, 4 officers, a signalman, a standard bearer, and 7 Royal Standard Bearers.

Close Up Detail of Suphannahong, "Golden Swan"
The boat is intricately carved, painted gold and accented with colored glass.  It is very impressive.
Prow of Royal Barge "Anantanakkharat"

Prow of Royal Barge "Anekkachatphuchong"

Bow of Krut Class Barge - "Krut Hern Het"
The figureheads of the barges are depictions of mythological creatures from the Thai epic "The Ramakian".  Garudas, Nagas, Hongsa, Hanuman are intricately carved and decorated with colorful paint giving each vessel a unique identity.

Figurehead of "Asura Vayuphak"
After two hours, Duang and I exited the museum and stopped at the little as in three table restaurant on the other side of the alley.  Some naval officers were enjoying their lunch while the restaurant owner's young child half way played and slept close by.  Duang and I each enjoyed a soft drink and interacted with the people before setting off along the alleys back to the main road to catch a taxi back to the center of the city.

We had enjoyed our visit to the museum and the opportunity to glimpse at some aspects of life on, over, and along a river canal.


  1. I noticed the muzzle of the cannon in the bow of Krut Class Barge - "Krut Hern Het". Better safe than sorry.

  2. In the old days the barges were used in combat. Today the cannons are only replicas. Any fighting will be left up to newer, more modern, and much more lethal vessels. Glad to see that you are reading the blog.

  3. It seems criminal to classify these exquisite vessels as barges as the term brings to mind the cargo hauling barges we see here in the US. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos and letting me share in some of your experiences.

  4. Perhaps referring to them as barges is indicative of some aspects of the Thai culture - a lack of braggadocio and a great deal of humility.

    You are quite welcomed. I am always pleased to learn that others enjoy learning a little more about other peoples and their culture.