It’s been a while since I’ve done any sight-seeing, a good week perhaps, so I figured I may as well hit some spots on the river as it was another hot and cloudy days and a day on the water, or near to it, seemed like the perfect diversion. Looking at my lonely planet map I’d planned a route that looked both convenient in terms of getting back to work in the afternoon, and pleasant, in terms of being on the river for as long as possible. I now know that it can sometimes be pointless to try and plan things such as routes in Bangkok, unless your taxi driver knows where he’s taking you.
I had planned to head from home to the ferry that would take us to the Royal Barge Museum; the cab driver took us all the way to the museum. Well, not quite. In order to get to the museum by foot you must first walk down a rather narrow alley off of Arun Amarin Road that twists and turns around a series of canals and homes for a good 200m before reaching the museum, which is on the water, hence my initial plan to go by boat.
When we got to the museum we were ushered towards the ticket booth by a sleepy looking guard where we paid our entrance. A note to those who wish to take photos, there is the admission fee and then there is the photography fee, each is 100B, so I would recommend taking as many photos as you can of every inch of the eight magnificent barges housed inside.
When I say magnificent, I truly mean it! The barges were unlike anything I had seen before. I’d seen pictures on the Internet but of course, a picture can only say so much, in order to really appreciate something like these you really need to be standing there, looking up at the giant Nagas that make up the bow of one of the larger barges, you have to be standing next to the huge Garuda statue to fully appreciate the sheer size of these things. If I had to give a ballpark figure, I would say that the largest was probably around 50m long.
The largest and most important of the barges is called Suphannahongsa and was carved from a single tree in 1911 and was built to resemble the mythical golden swan, is the King’s personal barge and takes some 30-plus oarsmen to move and a team of coxswains, or helmsmen, to synchronize their movements. I used to row once upon a time and I can’t even begin to imagine the precision that must go into steering and coordinating the movements of these enormous boats, especially with the whole nation watching and the single most important person in your country aboard.
Walking around the museum doesn’t take very long, it’s basically a small aircraft hangar adapted for the barges. In one corner you can get the usual postcards and souvenirs and there are some old relics from previous barges, which were either damaged as a result of either deterioration or destroyed in bombings during WWII. That isn’t to say that touring the museum a quick fix, you can’t admire the craftsmanship of these beautiful barges on the run, you need to really stop and appreciate the detail and care that has gone into keeping them the way they are today.