Barging into Bangkok

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Barges are a common sight on the Chao Phraya River in modern-day Bangkok.  Unfortunately, these happen to be huge, ugly, industrial things that, pulled by tugs, crawl along the water like convoys of giant, mutant cockroaches, their cargoes sealed under dark tarpaulin, their sides and ends padded with chains of car and truck-tyres. 

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But to view the traditional barges of Bangkok – those famously sleek and gliding vessels that were often propelled by ‘more than 100 oarsmen’, went on their way ‘accompanied by the harmonious sounds of rhythmic chanting’, were ‘delicately carved with gilded lacquer and mirrored glass decorations’ and had prows fashioned in the forms of ‘mythical creatures’ – you need to pay a visit to the city’s National Museum of Royal Barges.

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The museum is next to the Bangkok Noi Khlong (Canal) just before it joins the Chao Phraya River.  If you go there by river-ferry, you can disembark at the Phra Pin Klao Bridge pier north of the canal-river junction and make your way by foot.  Be warned that the route from the pier to the museum is a slightly torturous (albeit signposted) one, which takes you through a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleyways.  These are lined with low, sun-bleached walls, large potted plants and the doors, verandas and gardens of tightly-packed houses; and punctuated with occasional tiny shops, occasional crumbling spirit-houses and occasional footbridges straddling narrow waterways.  An added piece of local colour for my partner and I when we traversed this area was a drunk Thai guy sitting on some alleyway steps and happily shouting “Happy New Year!” in English at everyone who went by.  (It was only noon at the time but it was almost New Year.)

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We were starting to wonder if we would ever find the Barge Museum in that charming but disorientating neighbourhood when, suddenly, we arrived at its side door.  The museum is contained in a hangar that opens onto the canal, with the canal-water entering the building between a series of indoor piers.  The barges are moored in the channels between the piers.  Each vessel is accompanied by a sign giving its vital statistics – its length, width and ‘depth’, its number of oarsmen and crewmembers (apparently, oarsmen didn’t count as proper ‘crew’) and the years when it was built and when it was restored.  As well as complete ones, there are also a few sections of barges, resting on girders above the water.  The signs by these truncated specimens usually feature the line: ‘Damaged by a bomb during World War II.’

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Some of the exhibits here are gorgeous.  Their gold-lacquered hulls are patterned with vines, leaves, flowers and processions of serpentine naga and squatting garuda.  The ‘pavilions’ in the centre of their decks are topped with gracefully tiered or spired roofs.  And their figureheads are fantastically sculpted.   The most striking of those figureheads include a golden dragon’s head on a high, slender neck and sporting a long, gharial-like snout; a pugnacious-looking, red-bodied, golden-beaked garuda; and a spectacular naga with turquoise-centred, gold-edged scales, great flame-like crests and a tangle of seven heads.  I have to say that, thanks to my inner movie nerd, that last one reminded me of King Ghidorah in the Godzilla films.

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Another sign informed us, apologetically, that ‘craftsmen are restoring the decoration of the Royal Barges preparing for the Royal Barges Procession in 2019.’  Accordingly, individual restorers and pairs and teams of them were hard at work on most of the barges when we visited, scraping, cleaning, repainting and polishing their intricate carvings, patterns and figureheads.  These restorers were of all shapes, sizes and ages and their presence didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the museum at all. 

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Indeed, watching them carry out their painstaking restoration work was rather inspiring.  They exuded a quiet enthusiasm for and pride in their craft.  I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere out there is an alternative universe where I entered a different line of work from the line I entered in this universe and where I ended up having as my professional title: Restorer of Thai Barges.  (Just as I sometimes like to imagine there are other alternative universes where I’m employed as an Egyptologist, or as a wolf biologist, or as a repairer of 18th century automatons…)

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