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Thailand Marks King's Diamond Jubilee with Spectacular River Procession

Thailand is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the coronation of its revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch. Dozens of royal leaders from around the world are attending the celebrations, which include religious ceremonies, royal exhibits and lavish tributes to the Thai monarch. The most spectacular of these is a procession Monday night of 52 royal barges down Bangkok's Chao Praya River before the king and his guests. Correspondent Scott Bobb has this report from the Thai capital on the months of preparations that go into the rare performance.

It is midday at the Thai Royal Navy boatyard on Bangkok's Chao Praya River and Captain Kamphol Rahong is barking instructions as his men prepare for the royal barge procession.

The 700-year-old ceremony displays the traditional way in which Thai kings travel for important events such as coronations and major religious ceremonies.

During the procession, four royal barges, each the length of several city buses and about two meters wide, glide down the river escorted by 48 other barges in a formation of five columns.

Kamphol captains the king's barge, which is the considered the most beautiful. It is called Suphannahongse after a swan-like steed from Thai mythology. Hewn from a single giant tree nearly 100 years ago, it is carved to look like a swan and is ornately decorated in gold and red.

It is powered by 50 oarsmen, and carries two steersmen, nine standard bearers and two officers.

The oarsmen of the four royal barges use a special stroke. They raise their oars high in the air, emulating a swan spreading its wings, before they dip them into the water.

There have been only 14 royal barge processions since King Bhumibol Adulyadej was crowned 60 years ago. The occasion this time is to mark the anniversary of his coronation. The king, the world's longest reigning monarch, is revered by the Thais, because of his many good deeds and his discreet intervention during several political crises.

Kamphol, who trains the 2,000 oarsmen in the procession, says the crews have been practicing for more than seven months.

"First, we practiced on land for 40 working days and then we practiced on the water for 49 days. We held minor rehearsals for two days and four nights, and finally three dress rehearsals," he said.

Two steersmen guide each barge. Standing at the stern, they use long oars to keep the boats in position in one of five columns in the middle of the river.

Chief Petty Officer Viroj Photites is the senior steersman on the king's barge. He says the greatest danger comes from the wind, which can blow the barges into each other.

"The Suphannahongse Royal Barge must stay in the middle of the river," he said. "If I cannot control it, the other steersman must help until we are out of danger."

The oarsmen synchronize their strokes by chanting. Lieutenant Nattawat Aramklua, the cantor, says all crewmen consider it a great honor to serve the king in this important part of Thai culture.

"It is Thai tradition, Thai culture inherited from the ancestors from a long time ago," he noted. "It's a tradition that links us to the king who is respected by every Thai."

During the procession, Nattawat will sing for more than two hours without stopping.

The song, written especially for this occasion, glorifies the king and praises his kingdom.

Once the oarsmen are seated in their boats for this rehearsal they pray and then practice their stroke.

The barges are then backed out of their berths and into the river channel.

The barges are positioned up the river and about an hour later they sail past the royal palace.

Thousands of spectators line the shores. Many are wearing yellow shirts, with the royal crest on the front, made especially for the occasion. They have been waiting for hours in the heat to watch this rare ancient performance.

As the stately barges glide by, silence descends on the crowd, and only the sound of the drums and the chanting of the oarsmen float across the river.