by Kristie Rodgers
Watching the stylized masked “khon” performance by graceful male dancers is akin to watching the murals of Wat Phra Kaeo in motion. Sadly, interest in these dance dramas based on the Ramakien is waning, and performances of khon, and the elaborate if less formal lakhon, are becoming increasingly rare. In even greater danger of extinction are the Hun krabok marionette shows.
The most atmospheric place to watch traditional dance is at Sanam Luang during royal ceremonies such as the king’s birthday or a funeral when dozens of stages are built to provide nightlong entertainment.
Complete performances can go on for days, so abridged scenes are chosen for shows at the National Theater on the last Friday and Saturday of every month, and at the Sala Chalermkrung Theater in Bangkok.
Countless dinner shows in major cities and resorts offer dance performances from all over the country. Reliable venues in Bangkok include the Rose Garden and Silom Village, while the Mandarin Oriental’s Sala Rim Nam restaurant presents authentic khon. In Hua Hin, the Sasi Restaurant offers a fine variety show of traditional dance and martial arts.
Lakhon can also be witnessed in Bangkok, at the Lak Muang shrine near Sanam Luang, and the Erawan Shrine. Traditional puppetry can be seen at the Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok.
The most widespread dance drama is likay, commonly featuring in temple fairs, festivals, and television. Its bawdy, slapstick, and satirical elements ensure a strong following.
Manora is the ancient equivalent from southern Thailand. While nang talung, or shadow puppet, shows are still widespread in Malaysia and Indonesia, they have almost disappeared from Thailand and survive only in the provinces of Phatthalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Performances of nang talung at local festivals can continue through the night, but are shortened for visitors. Even rarer are performances of nang yai, in which enormous, flat leather puppets are manipulated by a team of expert puppeteers.