There are many Thai art forms today that date back many centuries. Some of these traditional art forms have adapted and changed over the years, but some are little changed.
The most famous traditional Thai dance is called Khon, a dance drama that tells a story. Khon stories are based on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian story Ramayana. It is a huge story told in verse of the triumph of good over evil. Khon was once performed only in the Royal palace, and the story might continue over several nights. It was so strenuous that only men performed it, though today both men and women perform, and knon is no longer only performed at the Royal court.
There are over 100 characters, and the intricate movements can take almost ten years to learn. The gestures and poses are stiff and formal. There are set costumes, and set positions and gestures to show each emotion, and are stiff and formal. A narrator tells the story from the side of the stage, although most Thai people know the stories well. All the characters wear elaborate costumes with gold and jewels and some wear ornate papier mache masks as well.
Lakhon is a version of Khon, but without masks. The gestures and poses are similar. It is mostly danced by women. The costumes are not so elaborate. Lakhon can be seen in restaurants for tourists, but also at temples.
More commonly seen is traditional dance called fawn Thai, performed by women. In ancient times of Siam, these dances were only performed for the Royal court. There are five forms of this style of dance, usually performed by four to six pairs of dancers, but on special occasions by hundreds. The movements are varied, and are different in each region of Thailand, but are generally slow with short steps. The dancers sway the upper part of their bodies or shoulders. The way the dancers move together is more important than telling a story.
In different forms of the dance, dancers have different decoration or accessories. In one style, fawn tian, the dancers hold lighted candles in each hand; in fawn leb, the dancers wear long brass extensions to their fingers, in others they use scarves of different lengths or strings of flowers.
Watch performers getting ready for a Khon performance:
Mask making is as ancient an art form as the Khon dances for which they are made. Each elaborate Khon mask depicts a specific demon character, that character will always wear that mask, wherever and whenever the performance is held.
A Khon mask starts as a clay model. Once the clay is dry, it is covered with layers of saa paper (handmade from mulberry leaves) and put in the sun to dry.
The dried papier mache is cut in half and removed from the clay model, then sewn together. Papier mache is pasted over the stitches, and once again dried in the sun. The mask is scraped smooth before another layer of papier mache is put on. Sap of the lak tree is heated and then painted onto more delicate parts of the mask, and then a final layer of papier mache is applied and dried. The face is painted, and perhaps gold leaf and coloured glass added. Some masks even have real gemstones rather than coloured glass. Depending on the character, fangs made of pearl shell may be attached as a final touch.
Watch a group of young people preparing for a Khon performance, including being sewn into their costumes: