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A Thailand Experience
by René Hasekamp

Procession

On 4 November 1999 my wife and I were in Bangkok. That gave us the opportunity to see a "Royal Barges Procession", which was held that day on the occasion that HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej completed his sixth Astrological Cycle, in other words he became 72 years of age, in that year.
Royal Barges Processions are quite seldom. In recent years they only were held when HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej was King for 50 years, when Bangkok was 200 years the Capital of Thailand and when HM completed his fifth Cycle, that is when he became 60 years of age.
So we felt that we certainly should attend this event, that would possibly not be held any more during the reign of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej.


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After we had been disappointed by Tammasart University (see the description of the shameless behavior of this University above) my wife had decided that we should go to a Temple to see the barges, as nobody would charge us for watching the event from the Temple grounds. Wat Rakhang seemed the best place to go. It is near Wat Arun, where the procession ends and where HM The King will give new robes to the monks of that Temple. The Procession is part of the Kathin period Ceremonies. (More information about Thai Festivals and Ceremonies can be found in the FAQ section of this site).
We arrived at Wat Rakhang at about 11 a.m. and many people were standing or sitting at the riverside already. Of course there was no charge, but if you know something about the Thais, you should know that they have a sixth sense for doing business. On this day this meant that you could stand near the river for free, but that you also could rent a chair for 200 Baht. The procession was due to pass at about 4 p.m. so of course we rented two chairs!

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Now, what do you do when you have to wait from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.? First we visited Wat Rakhang. The person from whom we rented the chairs could guarantee them for half an hour. And after that? Just sit, wait and watch! You do not have other options. It was not very hot that day. In fact it looked as if it was going to rain, but my wife assured me that it was unthinkable that there would be rain on this day, when the King would pass! We had books to read with us, so we could pass the hours reasonably comfortable. And of course (what else can you expect in Thailand) there were plenty of stalls with food and drinks around. So no fear to starve either was necessary.

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And also on the water there was plenty to see.
From 12 p.m. on, all traffic on the Chao Phraya River was suspended and on the Express Boat pier several uniformed persons appeared, in order to effectuate this and in order to watch every movement on and around the river. Every now and then Police boats passed with no direct visible task, but probably to inspect our uniformed guards on the pier.
Small boats with military appeared then to pick up any irregularity from the water. Every piece of paper, every empty bottle or can, literally everything that could possibly bother or hinder HM The King was removed from the river! And not just once, but with regular pauses those boats reappeared and picked up whatever had appeared since their latest round!
From 3 p.m. on the officials were becoming more and more nervous and they were using their communication devices almost continually. We though that this was a sign that the Royal Barges were due to appear soon now, but -as it appeared to us later- this was because HM was leaving his Palace in order to go to the pier where the procession would start. We were near the end of the route, so we would have to wait considerably longer.

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But, as always, time does pass (faster than you wish sometimes) and finally we heard the chanting of the ancient songs, that are being chanted on the occasion of a Royal Barges Procession only. Very slowly the first escorting boats appeared. The sight was breathtaking. I looked most of the time through my camera, because I was (and am) convinced that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I should take as many pictures as I could. Everything went not very fast, but too fast to make the "picture of your life". The procession had its own tempo, and as a photographer you had to accept this.
The minutes during which the procession passed left many impressions: A mixture of boats, beautifully uniformed men, exact synchronized movements of paddles, important persons in the large boats in the middle of the procession and finally ... (very small, but not too small through my camera zoom lens) ... HM The King himself! This really was a special moment, because HM is not going out so very often any more and if he does, it is difficult to catch a glimpse of him. Well, I did! And I must say that the sight impressed me very much. There, exactly in the middle of the procession, was the beloved King of the Thais! As you can read elsewhere on this site, I too am a great admirer of HM, so I almost felt like I was a Thai at that moment!

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One thing that struck me, was that everybody stayed absolutely silent when HM passed. In my country, when my Queen passes, people start to wave and shout, but not so here in Thailand. Everybody was absolutely silent. Some people made a "wai", but that was it. The only sounds that could be heard were the paddles moving through the water and the chanting. Fore the rest there was absolute silence. The procession went past us and continued slowly towards Wat Arun. We could just see it approach Wat Arun, from where we sat. After that we silently walked out of the Temple grounds, to find a taxi. We had spent about five hours there, on the Temple grounds, and after what we had seen, we had not regretted one minute of it!

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You will probably not be able to see a Royal Barges Procession when you visit Bangkok in the coming years. You can visit the Royal Barges Museum, however. It is worth a visit, taken into consideration that you will have no chance to see these beautiful boats in action. But if you ever get the chance to see a Royal Barges Procession, do everything within your power to see it! Even if you have to stand and wait for five hours. You will never forget what you saw! And, as I experienced, the grounds of one of the Temples along the River is the best place to see it.
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This special experience is illustrated below with three pictures: -Public waiting for the procession (at around 11 a.m.), -HM The King in the center of the Procession (on the left hand side of the picture) and -the newspapers the next day. There was not one newspaper that did not open with the Royal Barges Procession!

Public waiting for the Royal Barges HM The King
The newspapers next day

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