Bangkok is the best place to catch authentic performances of classical Thai dance, though more easily digestible tourist-oriented shows are staged in some of the big tourist centres as well as in Bangkok. The country’s two main Thai boxing stadia are also in the capital, but you’ll come across local matches in the provinces too.
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Drama and dance
Drama pretty much equals dance in classical Thai theatre, and many of the traditional dance-dramas are based on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, an adventure tale of good versus evil that is taught in all schools. Not understanding the plots can be a major disadvantage, so try reading an abridged version beforehand (see M.L. Manich Jumsai and The Ramayana/Ramakien) and check out the wonderfully imaginative murals at Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. There are three broad categories of traditional Thai dance-drama – khon, lakhon and likay – described below in descending order of refinement.
The most spectacular form of traditional Thai theatre is khon, a stylized drama performed in masks and elaborate costumes by a troupe of highly trained classical dancers. There’s little room for individual interpretation in these dances, as all the movements follow a strict choreography that’s been passed down through generations: each graceful, angular gesture depicts a precise event, action or emotion which will be familiar to educated khon audiences. The dancers don’t speak, and the story is chanted and sung by a chorus who stand at the side of the stage, accompanied by a classical phipat orchestra.
A typical khon performance features several of the best-known Ramakien episodes, in which the main characters are recognized by their masks, headdresses and heavily brocaded costumes. Gods and humans don’t wear masks, but the hero Rama and heroine Sita always wear tall gilded headdresses and often appear as a trio with Rama’s brother Lakshaman. Monkey masks are wide-mouthed: monkey army chief Hanuman always wears white, and his two right-hand men – Nilanol, the god of fire, and Nilapat, the god of death – wear red and black respectively. In contrast, the demons have grim mouths, clamped shut or snarling; Totsagan, king of the demons, wears a green face in battle and a gold one during peace, but always sports a two-tier headdress carved with two rows of faces.
Khon is performed with English subtitles at Bangkok’s Sala Chalermkrung and is also featured within the various cultural shows staged by tourist restaurants in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. Even if you don’t see a show, you’re bound to come across finely crafted real and replica khon masks both in museums and in souvenir shops all over the country.
Serious and refined, lakhon is derived from khon but is used to dramatize a greater range of stories, including Buddhist Jataka tales, local folk dramas and of course the Ramakien.
The form you’re most likely to come across is lakhon chatri, which is performed at shrines like Bangkok’s Erawan and at a city’s lak muang as entertainment for the spirits and a token of gratitude from worshippers. Usually female, the lakhon chatri dancers perform as an ensemble, executing sequences that, like khon movements, all have minute and particular symbolism. They also wear ornate costumes, but no masks, and dance to the music of a phipat orchestra. Unfortunately, as resident shrine troupes tend to repeat the same dances a dozen times a day, it’s rarely the sublime display it’s cracked up to be. Bangkok’s National Theatre stages the more elegantly executed lakhon nai, a dance form that used to be performed at the Thai court and often re-tells the Ramakien.
Likay is a much more popular and dynamic derivative of khon – more light-hearted, with lots of comic interludes, bawdy jokes and panto-style over-the-top acting and singing. Some likay troupes perform Ramakien excerpts, but a lot of them adapt pot-boiler romances or write their own and most will ham things up with improvisations and up-to-the-minute topical satire. Costumes might be traditional as in khon and lakhon, modern and Western as in films, or a mixture of both.
Likay troupes travel around the country doing shows on makeshift outdoor stages wherever they think they’ll get an audience, most commonly at temple fairs. Performances are often free and generally last for about five hours, with the audience strolling in and out of the show, cheering and joking with the cast throughout. Televised likay dramas get huge audiences and always follow romantic soap-opera-style plot-lines. Short likay dramas are also a staple of Bangkok’s National Theatre, but for more radical and internationally minded likay, look out for performances by Makhampom (wmakhampom.net), a famous, long-established troupe with bases in Bangkok and Chiang Dao that pushes likay in new directions to promote social causes and involve minority communities.
Nang, or shadow plays, are said to have been the earliest dramas performed in Thailand, but now are rarely seen except in the far south, where the Malaysian influence ensures an appreciative audience for nang thalung. Crafted from buffalo hide, the two-dimensional nang thalung puppets play out scenes from popular dramas against a backlit screen, while the storyline is told through songs, chants and musical interludes. An even rarer nang form is the nang yai, which uses enormous cut-outs of whole scenes rather than just individual characters, so the play becomes something like an animated film.
All sizeable towns have a cinema or two – Bangkok has over fifty – and tickets generally start at around B80. The website wmovieseer.com lists the weekly schedule for many cinemas around the country. In some rural areas, villagers still have to make do with the travelling cinema, or nang klarng plaeng, which sets up a mobile screen in wat compounds or other public spaces, and often entertains the whole village in one sitting. However makeshift the cinema, the king’s anthem is always played before every screening, during which the audience is expected to stand up.
Fast-paced Chinese blockbusters have long dominated the programmes at Thai cinemas, serving up a low-grade cocktail of sex, spooks, violence and comedy. Not understanding the dialogue is rarely a drawback, as the storylines tend to be simple and the visuals more entertaining than the words. In the cities, Western films are also popular, and new releases often get subtitled rather than dubbed. They are also quickly available as pirated DVDs sold at street stalls in the main cities and resorts.
In recent years Thailand’s own film industry has been enjoying a boom, and in the larger cities and resorts you may be lucky enough to come across one of the bigger Thai hits showing with English subtitles.
Thai boxing (muay thai) enjoys a following similar to football or baseball in the West: every province has a stadium and whenever the sport is shown on TV you can be sure that large noisy crowds will gather round the sets in streetside restaurants. The best place to see Thai boxing is at one of Bangkok’s two main stadia, which between them hold bouts every night of the week (see Cinemas), but many tourist resorts also stage regular matches.
There’s a strong spiritual and ritualistic dimension to muay thai, adding grace to an otherwise brutal sport. Each boxer enters the ring to the wailing music of a three-piece phipat orchestra, wearing the statutory red or blue shorts and, on his head, a sacred rope headband or mongkhon. Tied around his biceps are phra jiat, pieces of cloth that are often decorated with cabalistic symbols and may contain Buddhist tablets. The fighter then bows, first in the direction of his birthplace and then to the north, south, east and west, honouring both his teachers and the spirit of the ring. Next he performs a slow dance, claiming the audience’s attention and demonstrating his prowess as a performer.
Any part of the body except the head may be used as an offensive weapon in muay thai, and all parts except the groin are fair targets. Kicks to the head are the blows that cause most knockouts. As the action hots up, so the orchestra speeds up its tempo and the betting in the audience becomes more frenetic. It can be a gruesome business, but it was far bloodier before modern boxing gloves were made compulsory in the 1930s, when the Queensbury Rules were adapted for muay – combatants used to wrap their fists with hemp impregnated with a face-lacerating dosage of ground glass.
A number of muay thai gyms and camps offer training courses for foreigners, including several in Bangkok, as well as Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Yao Noi – see the relevant accounts for details.
Whether in Bangkok or upcountry, you’re quite likely to come across some form of takraw game being played in a public park, a school, a wat compound or just in a backstreet alley. Played with a very light rattan ball (or one made of plastic to look like rattan), the basic aim of the game is to keep the ball off the ground. To do this you can use any part of your body except your hands, so a well-played takraw game looks extremely balletic, with players leaping and arching to get a good strike.
There are at least five versions of competitive takraw, based on the same principles. The version featured in the Southeast Asian Games and most frequently in school tournaments is played over a volleyball net and involves two teams of three; the other most popular competitive version has a team ranged round a basketball-type hoop trying to score as many goals as possible within a limited time period before the next team replaces them and tries to outscore them.
Other takraw games introduce more complex rules (like kicking the ball backwards with your heels through a ring made with your arms behind your back) and many assign points according to the skill displayed by individual players rather than per goal or dropped ball.