Tucked away just inside a canal across the river from the Grand Palace is the Royal Barge Museum. Here are displayed just eight of the over 50 barges that make up formal processions. That may seem like a lot, but during the Ayutthaya period, when the river was the main means of transport, royal barges apparently numbered in the thousands. The Abbé de Choisy, in his account of the first French embassy to Siam in 1685, writes of the embassy travelling upriver in hundreds of barges, some of which were the King's own.
The ornate and colorful prows of the royal barges.
That was then. When the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, all the barges were burned. Rama I, who established the new capital in Bangkok, had new barges built in the image of the old ones. By this time, the barges were reserved largely for ceremonial use, most especially the annual katin ceremony in October or November. The king and royal family would travel down-river in a procession of barges nearly a kilometer long to Wat Arun, where they would give new robes to the monks.
The use of the barges was largely discontinued after the coup of 1932 which overthrew the absolute monarchy. Most royal properties, including the barges, were confiscated by the civilian and military governments that came to power after the coup. To make matters worse, many of the barges were bombed by the Japanese during World War II.
His Majesty discovered the barges in the sorry state some time after ascending to the throne after the war. He had the barges restored and also re-started the annual katin ceremony. However, as the boats have gotten increasingly fragile, the barges on display here are only bought out on very special occasions.
The barges on display vary in size and function. The most important of all is the Suppanahong, or 'Golden Swan,' with its figurehead prow in the shape of a huge golden swan. The barge was built by King Rama I, but then had to be rebuilt by King Rama V. Next to it is the Narai Song Suban with King Narai riding a Garuda on its prow. This barge was built to commemorate the king's 50th anniversary on the throne. Around the sides and back of the warehouse are display cases with oars, flags and other paraphernalia of the procession ceremonies.
Admission to the museum is 100 Baht (2.56 USD) per person. If you want to take pictures, there's an additional fee of 100 Baht for a camera or 200 Baht for a video recorder. The museum is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day. The museum is closed on New Year's Eve (31 December) New Year's Day (1 January) and Songkran (13 to 15 April).
The best way to get to the museum is by boat. If you take the regular Express Boat service, the nearest stop is Pinklao Bridge Pier, although this involves a long winding walk along a narrow concrete walkway over the swampy land. The Barge Museum is also a standard stop on most long-tailed boat canal tours, which can be booked at the major tourist piers such as Chang or River City.