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Boats, Barges and Thai Literature

Khunying Chamnongsri Rutnin and Tipsuda Sundaravej

The clement of water and the lives of the Thai people have always been inextricably related, Humidity of climate, heavy rains and flooded fields are inherent in the environment, and the presence of abundant water has permeated and coloured the consciousness of the people. With the wealth of rivers and waterways, in addition to long seacoasts, boats have served the Thai people as homes, mobile stores, means of transportation and recreation, and played countless other roles, It is inevitable the significance of water and boats is reflected in the Thai language and literature.

Words, Idioms and Proverbs

The aqueous element and boats frequently influence words, phrases, idioms, and proverbs. For example, nam is the Thai word for water; when it is used as prefix to another word, the result has added connotation of refinement and depth. The word jai, meaning ''heart"', when prefixed by nam, becomes nam jai, a compound word whose meaning conveys a quality of compassionate generosity.

Kam means "'word,'' but nam kam connotes words that have more emotional power to hurt or to soothe than mere ''words"', A person who has more rhetoric than sense speaks like nam tuam tung or "a torrent of water flooding a paddy field,'' while someone who loses all his assets is lom jom or ''capsized and sunken”. Kuen kan or ''left on the supporting beams (on which unused boats are placed for repair)'' is often used to describe women who are advancing in age.

To describe someone who acts more as a hindrance than a help, one often says mue mai pai ow teen ra nam, literally meaning ''not using the hands for paddling but dangling the feet in the water.” Of a wealthy bridal couple who are in the same family circle, one often hears the rhetorical question ruea lom nai nong tong ja pai nai, ''the boat capsizes in the pond, how can the gold be lost?’'

Lullabies and Children's Verses

In Thailand the influence of boats on a person's life begins at the cradle. The cradle's rocking motion, as well as its shape, resemble those of a boat. Rhythmic patterns of Thai lullabies and children's verses evolve from this rocking movement, and mentions of rocking, paddling, and boats are frequent.

It is easy to imagine this lullaby coming into being when a mother of long ago sat on the floor pulling the string of the swinging cradle and softly sang her baby to sleep:

Rolling boat, oh, Mo Yeh

Been away and seasick

Come, rest a while

Moor and sleep a night

When well and all right

You can sail out again

In southern Thailand, lullabies are called pleng rong ruea, literally “song sung for boats,'' not to be confused with pleng ruea or "'boat song.'' Like lullabies from other regions, the lyrics of pleng rong ruea are widely varied in subject. References to water and boats occur frequently. This example of pleng rong ruea has reference to boat races participated in by young men and women on religious merit-making occasions such as the chak pra(1) festival:

Oh, daughters, oh

Daughters of boat folks

Wearing flowered clothes

To paddle in the race

You're wet in the face

Eyes red with water

Hurry with your paddle

To race in the ...oh ...oh sea.

As the baby grows out of infancy, there are innumerable verses such as this very old one for playing simple games:


Back and forth

The clouds are flooded

The rabbit is covered

To his chin in water

The little green viper(2)

With curled up tail

Hugs the neck

Of rock-oh-rock.

The above is an old verse for very young children. The singers, a grown-up and a small child, sit on the floor, facing one another and holding each other's arms; as they sing they rock back and forth to the rhythm of the song. When they come to the end of the last line the child often jumps up to put its arms around the adult's neck in a playful hug.

As the children grow a little older, there are many verse games which have direct references to boats. In dek euy pai or "'boy, paddle, boy,"' Three or more children can take part. They sit in a row as if in a long boat. The child at the end of the row acts out the motion of paddling while the rest rock back and forth as though to help increase the forward momentum of the boat. These movements go on as they sing.

Boy, paddle, boy

Rock, master, rock

Reaching Sam Kok

Master can rock no more

Raise the handle

Of the paddle

Knock master on the head

With a loud ‘Gok'!

As they sing the last word, the paddling boy tries to knuckle the heads of his friends who scatter to escape the knock. Whoever receives the knock on the head plays the part of the paddler in the next round.

Pleng Ruea and Sakrawa

For those who live near waterways, boating has always been the primary means of transportation and entertainment -- and in the bygone past, just about everyone lived on or near waterways.

Many religious events take place during the annual three-month Buddhist Rains Retreat which coincides with the monsoon season. Towards the end of this period, the water level is at its highest and the paddy fields are flooded.

Merit makers in the past travelled to the temples by boat. After the ceremonies came the festivities, particularly enjoyed by young people. Men and women congregated on different boats to "'play'' pleng ruea or ''boat song." Playing pleng ruea required a quick wit, a healthy sense of humour, a good and strong singing voice, and a gift for versification. In this song game, men and women exchanged impromptu verses sung in a courting dialogue. The sequence began pleng plob or pleng krern, whereby the men sang their invitation for the women to play the game. If the women decided to play, they would sing back their verses. If not they would remain silent. After venturing two or three pleng plob without receiving any response, the men would paddle away to try pleng plob on another boat of women. Once a response was given, the interchange of impromptu verses continued. Puns and double meaning with sexual connotations were typical of pleng ruea. The following is an example of pleng plob, the response of the women, and the beginning of the game:

Men: We see you girls afloat.

All other men are remote.

So why not turn around and see

Our handsome faces as we

Patiently wait in our boat.

Women: We hear your calling

And won't keep you in suspense.

As this is not a dance,

But a game of verbal dalliance,

We will answer you men.

Men: Your sweet voice rings clear

Like sugared words to our ears.

To our first calling cry

You gave an instant reply.

A sweeter voice we never hope to hear.

Women: Since you have come our way

And asked us to play,

If we didn't answer,

It would've been a cold shoulder,

So we won't turn you away.

Men: Thank you you are good and kind.

Readier women are hard to find.

The moment we reach out from our end,

Your gates are thrown wide open.

We have the same thoughts in mind.

Following the invitation and response verses came the “body" of the game, in which they exchanged double-edged flatteries and sharp verbal duels, or played the parts of elopers. The more sophisticated games involved two boats of men vicing for one boat of women, or two boats of women fighting over one boat of men. After the game, they would exchange parting songs as the men escorted the women to their homes. Parting songs were generally more courteous the rest of the game.

Pleng ruea had its place in other activities than the festivities that followed religious ceremonies. For excursions during the flood season, people often paddled their boats out on the flooded fields for a full day's enjoyment, indispensable parts of which were pleng ruea and what might be called a picnic on water. Of the latter, chili dip and salted fish with rice in banana leaf comprised mouthwatering fare for the common folk. Part of the fun was in pulling water lillies and eating their long stems as vegetables for the dip. Pulling a particularly stubborn lily with tough stem could cause a boat to capsize to the delight of dry occupants of other boats. Impromptu versifying enlivened the atmosphere.

The court version of the meal was more elaborate. People of the court and the nobility added fluffed, crisp fried catfish, sweet braised pork, salted eggs, pickled garlic, and numerous vegetables to the humble chili dip, which was then mixed with rice and wrapped in lotus leaves. This dish came to be called Nam Prik Long Ruea, literally "chili dip boarding a boat''. Today it has become a popular dish, more often consumed in restaurants than on boats.

Just as the court version of the chili dip for the boat trip was more elaborate, the court version of pleng ruea, called sakrawa, was more refined. The crudity of the language was removed and there were additional instruments to the two used in pleng ruea. Sakrawa was also less spontaneous in that the singers merely sang the words called to them by the versifiers. The verses always opened with the word ‘sakrawa’. The players would sometimes take the parts of characters in well known episodes from literature and play out a scene, not necessarily keeping close to details of the original. Each boat would represent a character. The versifiers would need good knowledge of literature in order to put to good use the idiosyncrasies of the characters in enlivening the impromptu dialogue and make the game sparkle with wit. Each boat would play the part of one character.

In the central province of Patumthani, there used to be a tradition of tak bat phra roi or "'giving alms to a hundred monks'' towards the end of the Rains Retreat. The villagers world moor their boats in a long row along the riverbank, while exactly one hundred monks paddled their own boats to receive the alms early in the morning. After the alms giving was over, the young men and women would paddle their boats and stop at landings to sing songs asking for contributions of uncooked rice and other items for kratin offerings to monks at local monastries. The songs are called rampa khao sarn or "wandering to beg for rice."

Our boat is waiting

We bring you merits

To the steps of your landing

Our boat is waiting

Right at your very steps



Your house poles are as big

As the spreading banyan

Oh, they are as large

As the spreading bodhi tree



In this life you spoon rice

In next life you'll spoon gold

May every wrong come right

May every wish come true



May your ten fingers

Be as round as candles

May your figure be supple

Like a painter's dream

And not even angels

Shall rival your beauty

It is interesting to note that the ancient Palace Codes of Ayudhya prohibited the singing of pleng ruea and music-making in boats in the vicinity of the royal palace. The inborn urge to versify, sing and make music must have always been irrepressible for the Thais, becoming particularly powerful when they came in contact with water and, of course, boats.

Nirat: Literature of the Traveller

Nirat are long poems describing the feelings of a character or of the poet himself when away from his home or his beloved. The general mood is one of nostalgia. The poet often laments his loneliness and associates what he sees with what he has left behind, or his present unhappiness with a brighter past. Later nirat poems often come close to poetic travelogues. Since most journeys in the past were made by water, it was only natural to find numerous references to boats in these works.

A gem of the nirat genre in Thai literature is the 144 stanza "Nirat Narin”. Its author was Nai Narintibet, a page of the Uparaja (Deputy King) of King Rama II. This 'travel poem' was written when Nai Narintibet travelled in the entourage of the Uparaja who led royal troops to the south to drive out the Burmese invasion army. The first half of long journey was made on water, by klong (canal) and along the sea coast. This excerpt shows how naturally boats belong in the world of Thai literature of this genre.

Our parting will be long, my love.

Be happy and fret not, for our faith

Will bring us together again

The call of war urges, and so, farewell.

Into the boat, the boat rolls as does my soul

Sitting, my sighs blow storms in my breast

Turning to look back, my heart overturns

Taking last glance, I glimpse your lovely face.

Out of the klong, across the river

The boat glides pulling my heart taut

Like filament of a broken lotus stem --

Though apart, our hearts are joined.

The most prolific author of nirat, is Sunthorn Bhu, court poet of King Rama II. His 70 years of life were colourful with ups and downs -- periods in the royal palace, in prison, and in no less than four monasteries as a monk. He made numerous long journeys and spent much of his time travelling on boats. The following excerpt from “Nirat Phu Kao Thong” has the same literary conventions but distinctly different flavour and substance from "Nirat Narin"

It was probably written in 1828, four years after the death of his royal patron, King Rama II, who was an accomplished poet and artist. The excerpt conjures the image of the king and his court poet composing verses on the Royal Barge.

Passing the landing, I shed tears at memories

Brought back by the sight of the Royal Barge

Where I used to wait with Phra Jamuen Wai

For our king to embark; on the golden throne

Your Majesty was wont to compose verses

Which I, by gracious command, read aloud;

Till the waters receded and Kratin season ended

Never did I offend my beloved king.

Once I used to sit in close attendance

And breathe the fragrance from the throne.

With the end of the reign, my fortune waned

Like the fading of the fragrance.

Bot Heh Ruea Verses for the Royal Barge Procesion

In the past, not only royal and religious ceremonies involved riverine procession of the royal barges but also, on different scales, royal excursions. For the Bangkok era, the most significant procession was probably the religious occasion on which the royal barges bore the Emerald Buddha from Thonburi’s Temple of Dawn to the present Chapel Royal of Wat Phra Si Rattanasasdaram (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) when the Thai capital was Bangkok over two centuries ago.

Since the barges were manned by large crews, necessity arose for the coordination of the movements of the crewmen. To serve this purpose and uplift the spirit of the men, rhythmic barge songs were chanted. Verses sued for this purpose are known as bot heh ruea, which in themselves have become a poetic literary genre. Different verse forms are used to give varying rhythms to fit the different speeds of the strokes and patterns of movement of the paddles.

There are two distinct styles of bot heh ruea. Verses written for chanting in royal barge processions on ceremonial and auspicious occasions are formal and serious in subject. Others belong to the emotive-imaginative style, reminiscent of the nirat. The subject matter of the latter is quite unrestricted and may have nothing to do with boats. They range from romantic associations of the sights of fish, flowers, birds, and food with romantic memories of beloved women to episodes of old stories or earlier pieces of literature.

One of the greatest poets in the history of the Thai literature was Prince Dhammathibet, the oldest son of King Baromakot who reigned towards the end of the Ayudhya period. The poet prince must have been in the royal barge procession on several occasions. With his exquisite poetic skill, he left legacies of some of the most beautiful poetry in Thai literature. Among his masterpieces is this bot heh ruea describing the barges as they move in spectacular procession.

When the King journeys on water

He graces the jewelled throne

Amid his magnificent entourage

Of golden barges in proud procession

The King journeys by water

On the glorious Royal Barge

That sparkles like jewels

Gleaming paddles dip and rise

Barges shaped like mighty beasts

Throng the sovereign fleet

Attendant barges with flying banners

Stir the turbulent tide

Garuda-seize-Naga(3) Barge glides

Like garuda in windswept skies

Crewmen ply their golden blades

And intone the royal bargesongs

Four-sided pavilion as exquisite

As if wrought in celestial realm

With curtains of woven gold

And dragoned roof of scarlet

Samatchai be-diamond the water

With sparkles of reflected light

In double lines they proudly glide

As if flying down from the skies

Golden Hamso(4) holding his tassel

Rides acrest the flowing tide

Beautiful as Brahma's bird

As he wings his aerial flight

Armed Barges fast as wind

Skim the current in two files

Bargesongs resounding high

As the crews urge their craft

Kajasi(5) ready to pounce

Seem as real as though alive

Rajasi(6) rearing high

Move in two alternate pairs

Horses speed forward

Shaped as slender and sleek

As fleet-footed steeds

Of the swift Wind God

Singha(7) Barges prance

Atop the dancing waves

More arrogant and brave

Than proud lions of the jungle

Naga(8) Barges with faces

That seem as though alive

Dragon Barges speed by

Overtaking the serpents

Rearing Mountain Goats

Spring forward on the water

Barges with faces of eagles

Glide as though winging the sky

Sonorous music resound

Drums and voices boom

Songs echoing loud

Intoned by the jubilant crew

Barges leave the capital

In regal magnificence

With joy and exultation

Over paths of myriad fish

The versatility of themes used in barge songs derives from the fact that poets, mostly those who were royal, would compose poems on subject of their choice and then use them for chanting in the royal barge processions. Barge songs by Prince Dhammathibet include one that tells the story of the abduction of a human queen by an amorous garuda king and its dramatic sequence.

King Buddhalrtla Napalai, Rama II, who was the poet King mentioned in the excerpt from Sunthorn Bhu's Nirat Pu Khao Thong, wrote a barge song describing culinary delicacies prepared for him by a young princess who was later to become his queen. In this work he associates the taste, the appearance, Or the name of the dish with his romantic recollections and feelings for her. The following are excerpts from this well known work

Steamy nest of swallow

Warm and mellow to the taste

Seeing the nest without a bird

I hunger for my lover's nest



Ruby red pomegranates

Adorn the plate like jewels

My love wears a ruby ring

With alluring red sparkles



Tiny morsels in pleated wraps

Rich to taste, delightful to behold

Remind me of my beloved

And her garment's delicate fold



Floating Lotus(9) in lush bloom

Full and sweet in blossom

Luring my senses to lust

For the softness of your bosom

The versatility of barge songs can be proven further by an excerpt from the work of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) who was often described as ‘the scholar king'. He was the first Thai king to have received his education in Europe. During his reign, from 1910 to 1925, Thai readers were exposed to western literature through translations into Thai. Prince Chula Chakrabongse wrote of King Vajiravudh in 'Lords of Life': ". ...His knowledge of English was perfect and he was especially impressed with the works of Shakespeare, and his translation of three of the master's plays were not only close in idiom and accurate even to punctuation, but it was poetical. While a student in England he had loved the theatre, and back in Siam he wrote or translated from English and French, of which he also had good knowledge, nearly on hundred plays... .”

His barge song reflects his outlook and the modernization that was concurrently taking place:

Shadows of mountains.

Created by the evening sun,

Bring back memories

Of the great city to my vision.

Tiered buildings line the roads.

Marked by streetlamps so bright,

As brilliant as they would be

In full and glaring daylight.

Townsmen sport their motorcars.

Women, colorfully dressed,

Show off the newest styles,

Hoping the men would be impressed.

But none, in my eyes,

Could ever be so pleasing

As the sight of my love;

Her charm is never ceasing.

I recall those sweet,

Dark eyes of my girl,

And how the luster of her teeth

Resembles that of a pearl.

She is just as well-versed

As a woman should be;

And yet, with perfection,

She masters her household duty.

Some women are obsessed with books,

And toward housework are not inclined.

Being so scholarly,

No husbands can they find.

Unlike them, she is artful,

Savory delicacies to devise,

So as to please me,

And that is truly wise.

Poets have continued to write verses for barge songs, but no longer purely for the pleasure of creating beautiful poetry. In modern days there are no more royal excursions on the royal barges and processions occur only on ceremonial occasions. Consequently, bot heh ruea written after the day of King Vajiravudh are ceremonial in style because they are specifically written for occasions in which the romantic nirat type of barge songs would be out of place. An example is bot heh ruea written by Prince Bidhyalonkorn for the opening of the Buddha Yodfah Bridge by King Prachathipok (Rama VII)

In 1932. The bridge was built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Bangkok and of the Royal House of Chakri. The verse opens with a description of the city from which this excerpt is taken:

Krung-thep, created by the gods

Magnificent to behold

Shining in jewelled splendour

Gleaming with gem and gold

The sovereign palace

With myriad golden spires

Reaching the heavens with radiance

Like diamonds of the skies

Powerful fortresses surround

The city in mighty embrace

Defying all adversaries

With unconquerable strength and majestic grace

This is followed by homage to the greatness of the monarchy. Then it continues to briefly relate Thai history from the fall of Ayudhya in 1767 through the reign of King Rama I. The description of the ceremony follows, and the composition ends with the prayer for the Royal House of Chakri.

Looking back, no barge songs have surpassed the beauty of those composed by Prince Dhammathibet in those far off days preceding Ayudhya's fall in 1767. Imagine the golden procession of royal barges gliding in the mellow light of

the tropical evening to the chanting of these lines

Longing, oh, longing, the sun declines

Sighing, oh, sighing, daylight dies in dusk

Longing, oh, longing, my heart sighs for you

Sighing, oh, sighing, I yearn for your soft glance

Sighs, oh, sighs of longing

With the setting of the sun

Softly the evening darkens

And fills with visions of you

Sighs, oh, sighs of yearning

Flying birds slant the sky

One flies alone without a mate

As alone and lonely as I

Seeing peacocks dance and turn

I yearn to see your nimble dance

Soithongs step demurely

Like my shy beauty steps along her path

Mynahs perch in pairs

Sharing lovers' tender joy

But I am drowned in desolation

At this cruel absence of my love..



1 See Sumet Jumsai, Life and Riruals Based on Water.

2 Dog, instead of green snake, in some versions.

3 classical motif showing mythical bird garuda seizing his serpent prey

4 mythical bird vehicle of the god Brahma

5 mythological beast, a cross between elephant and lion

6 king lion

7 lion

8 mythological serpent

9 A Thai dessert


I. Prince Damrong,"Essay on Bot Hae Ruea," Complete Collection of Barge Songs, in Thai, Guru Sabha Publishers, 1985.

2. Prince Chula Chakrabongse,Lords of Life, Alvin Redman,London, 1967.

3. Anake Nawigamune, Songs outside the Centuries, in Thai, Muang Boran Publishing

Company, 1984.

4. Pinyo Chitdharma, Folk songs of the South: Pleng Rong Ruea

or Lullabies, in Thai, Women Teachers College of Songkla

and Asia Foundation of Thailand, 1966.

5. Ministry of Education of Thailand, Children Games of Central Thailand, 1979.


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