BANGKOK (Reuters) - Powered by 2,000 chanting oarsmen, a glittering flotilla of Thai war barges glided past royalty from 25 nations on Monday to honour the diamond jubilee of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The 52-strong fleet of red, blue and gold royal barges was also watched by thousands of Thais lining Bangkok's Chao Phraya river in a spectacular show of the southeast Asian kingdom's ancient traditions.
The lavish naval event was the peak of a five-day national party honouring King Bhumibol's 60 years on the throne. Millions of his subjects wore yellow to symbolise their attachment to the world's longest-reigning monarch.
"It was magnificent. The power of His Majesty the King has made it possible," said Suthee Jaesiri, 65, who watched the event with 30 family and friends on a riverside terrace.
The Thai king and queen presided over the dusk ceremony attended by one of the largest gatherings of royals in recent years, including Japan's Emperor Akihito, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei and King Carl Gustaf of Sweden.
The last time the wooden barges, some with figureheads of bird-like garudas and river serpents, were rowed down the river was in 2003 when 21 Pacific Rim leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, attended a regional summit in Bangkok.
"They glide across the water in eager unison, a vast surge of mythical creatures alight in a galaxy of gemstones," the Nation newspaper said in a colour supplement on the event.
Security was tight along the river as the procession slid past the golden-tiered Grand Palace, a navy hall hosting the dignitaries and finished at the Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn.
Rain had threatened to mar the ceremony, but the skies cleared before an array of smaller barges, manned by navy oarsmen clad in colourful traditional felt or silk costumes led the fleet, their chants echoing across the river.
Finally, the centrepiece of the display sailed into view, the 45-metre Suphanahongsa, the main royal barge built in 1911 from a single teak tree, with the head of a mythical swan, the steed of the Hindu god Brahma, straining forward at the prow.
The ceremony ended with hundreds of paper lanterns released into the night sky and thousands of candle-lit baskets, or "kratongs", set afloat on the river.
King Bhumibol (pronounced "Pumipon"), now 78, ascended the throne in 1946 at the age of 18 at a time when the world was emerging from the ravages of World War Two.
The ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, the bespectacled, jazz-loving monarch is revered by Thais for his tireless campaigning for the poor and for steering the nation of 63 million people through many trials.
The quiet-spoken Bhumibol, whose name means "Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power", is a constitutional monarch seen to be above politics.
But he has used his influence in three major interventions to end bloodshed or break political deadlocks since the 1970s.
The latest occurred in April when he summoned top judges to his seaside palace and told them to resolve a political crisis stemming from an inconclusive general election.
The festivities, which end on Tuesday with a state banquet for the king's guests, gave Thais a welcome break from the political bickering, but analysts say the crisis is likely to worsen in the months ahead.
"All Thais come together with one heart today," Suthee said as the last barge floated by.
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