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 khon 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. One kind is danced by women and another kind by men. The costumes are not so elaborate. A version of 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.
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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, assisted by a team of dressers who sew them into their costumes:
Read about the dying art of making Khon masks using ancient traditional methods:
Popular Thai Festivals
Thai people love festivals! All through the year there are festivals in Thailand. Many are religious, many take place on fixed days each year, and some are on different days each year that are determined by the lunar calendar, such as the Buddhist festivals.
Here are a few of the Thai festivals:
This festival is the holiest day of the year for Buddhists as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. Those three events occurred on the same month and date - his enlightenment 35 years after his birth and his death at the age of 80 years. The festival takes place at the full moon in May. Buddhists around the world visit a temple for special ceremonies, and they offer food to the monks and nuns. The highlight is an evening procession around the temple.
Khao Phansa ( or Vassa)
This is the Rains Retreat and is a three month period during the rainy
season when monks are required to remain in one place or temple - they can go out during the day, but must sleep in the same place at night. It is a time for study, meditation and the teaching of new monks. It is followed by two important Buddhist festivals, Wan Awk Pansa and Kathina. During this time, young men will often become monks for a short time in order to earn merit.
Probably one of the best known Thai Festivals, it celebrates the Thai New Year, and runs from 13-15 April. It is a time when young people pay respect to older people and to monks by sprinkling water onto their hands. Many Thais travel home to spend time with family.Giant water fights take place, so Songkran is also known as the 'Water Festival'.
Loy (or Loi) Krathong (also called the Festival of Lights)
The festival is held in November, at the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar. On every possible stretch of water small candles or decorative little rafts called krathongs, made of banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks and candles, are floated.
This is done to honour the goddess of waters in the hope of happiness, and to wash away sins.
At the bigger gatherings the thousands of these small floating candles is very spectacular.This festival is celebrated all over Thailand, but the one in Chiang Mai is the best known.
At the same time, another festival called Yi Peng is held, and people launch candlelit paper lanterns into the sky to welcome good luck.
These two festivals mean both the waters and the skies are filled with lights.
This is celebrated throughout Thailand on 5 December. It is now also a memorial day for King Bhumibol the Great who died in October 2016, as it was his birthday. The Royal Family is very revered in Thailand, and the King is much loved, so this is a very big festival. In some areas of Bangkok groups of people light candles and sing the King's anthem. This is usually followed by entertainment in the streets and fireworks. It is also known as the King's Birthday.
For anyone who loves monkeys, the town of Lopburi is the place to visit on the last Sunday of November each year. The Thai people respect monkeys highly because in the ancient Ramakien stories, a monkey called Hanuman brought an army of monkeys to win a battle that saved Siam (the ancient name of Thailand).
Macaque monkeys are the main tourist attraction of the town, and the people of Lopburi show appreciation to the monkeys by serving them a huge feast.