ART IN THAILAND: PAINTING, SCULPTURE, CRAFTS, HISTORY AND REGIONAL ART AND CRAFTS

ART IN THAILAND

Traditional Thai art is primarily composed of Buddhist art, which in turn often has Hindu elements and iconography in it. Traditional Thai sculpture almost exclusively depicts images of the Buddha. Traditional Thai paintings usually consist of book illustrations, and painted ornamentation of buildings such as palaces and temples.

Thai art, architecture and design is characterized by subtlety of design and form with considerable use of symbols, amulets, mystical drawings and both public and private statuary.

Sukhothai artists in the 14th century tried to follow the canonical defining marks of a Buddha, as they are set out in ancient Pali texts: 1) Skin so smooth that dust cannot stick to it; 2) Legs like a deer; 3) Thighs like a banyan tree; 4) Shoulders as massive as an elephant's head; 5) Arms round like an elephant's trunk, and long enough to touch the knees; 6) Hands like lotuses about to bloom; 7) Fingertips turned back like petals; 8) head like an egg; 9) Hair like scorpion stingers; 10) Chin like a mango stone; 11) Nose like a parrot's beak; 12) Earlobes lengthened by the earrings of royalty; 12) Eyelashes like a cow's; 13 ) Eyebrows like drawn bows.

Ancient Thai, Khmer and Burmese temples are often decorated with nagas (snakes), garudas (birds) and nats (spirits). One motif found repeatedly in Thai art is that of an unfurling lotus bud, combined with a dying flame—symbolizing the cooling effect of the Buddhist dharma (teachings) on flames of desire. Kinnari —a princess that is human from the waist up and birdlike from the waist down—symbolizes celestial love and compassion. She is often depicted with her make counterpart–the kinnara .

Books: Art of Thailand by AB Griswold (Indian University Press, 1960); The Arts of Thailand by Steve Vab beek (Thames & Hudson, 1991) and A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam by Reginald Le May (Tokyo, 1963)

Painting in Thailand

Traditional Thai paintings is mostly religious in its subject matter and usually consists of book illustrations, and painted ornamentation of buildings such as palaces and temples. Very few old paintings remain rare due to Thailand’s tropical climate and the habit of Burmese invaders of laying waste to Thailand’s cultural treasures, particularly in 1767 when they destroyed the Thai capital of Ayutthaya and defaced its art treasures, torched libraries containing its manuscripts and looted temples.

Traditional Thai paintings showed subjects in two dimensions without perspective. The size of each element in the picture reflected its degree of importance. The primary technique of composition is that of apportioning areas: the main elements are isolated from each other by space transformers. This eliminated the intermediate ground, which would otherwise imply perspective. Perspective was introduced only as a result of Western influence in the mid-19th century. [Source: Wikipedia]

Meant to be instructional and to a degree entertaining, mural paintings in Thailand normally depicts religious themes, most often the Jataka stories—Buddha’s life story and stories of his previous incarnations, which often present visual explanations of various Buddhist principles— the Buddhist heavens and hells, and scenes of daily life. Some of the scenes are influenced by Thai folklore instead of following strict Buddhist iconography. The landscapes and details also reflect the Thai way of life, and customs and traditions, featuring scenes from festivals the people hold each year, for example. Another type of mural serves an educational purpose, recording various disciplines such as Thai dances, muay thai (kick-boxing), or the art of war. Historical episodes and scenes from literatures are also featured on many temple walls. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Mural Painting in Thai Temples

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Mural paintings enliven the walls of assembly and ordination halls not as decorations but as visual texts designed for spiritual instruction. When the majority of Thai population was illiterate before the 20th century, only Buddhist monks were able to read the ancient scriptural language of Pali. As a result, murals were used to illustrate the teachings of Buddha because they were easy to understand and remember. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

The contents, set by convention but to stylistic innovation, range from iconic to narrative. The mural at the west end of the hall, behind the main Buddha statue, is the iconic depiction of the Thai Buddhist cosmology, the Traiphum: mountains and oceans symbolising different layers of the universe and time. Illustrated below is the Realm of Desire, with hellish imagery of errant souls being tortured by demons and beasts. Above, celestials inhabit the intermediate realms of earth.

Murals on the sides and entrance walls recount the life of the Lord Buddha. The entire east wall at the entrance end depicts the moment when the Lord Buddha, meditating under a Bodhi tree, is harassed by an army of demons led by Mara, lord of the Realm of Desires, who aims to interrupt his concentration. The Buddha touches the ground with his right hand to call the earth to witness the merits he has made. (The same gesture is portrayed by most Thai Buddha statuary.) Murals may also depict any of hundreds of stories in the jatakas, tales of the Buddha’s previous incarnations, peopled by Bodhhisatvas, kings, queens, ascetics, Hindu divinities and ordinary folk tales and the Ramakian epic, grandly rendered in 178 panels at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace. Interior Statuary One of the important roles of any wat is to enshrine Buddha images for veneration.

Indeed, the ornate decoration of a viharn building is intended to create a palace-like setting appropriate for these statues. Thai Buddhists view them not as a work of art but as reminders of Buddhist doctrine or sacred objects for worship. The main statue stands on a pedestal or altar at the end flowers, often with many secondary Buddha figures. Cloisters, pavilions and shrines may also house these images.

While bronze Buddha images are prevalent, many were made of stone, terra cotta, wood and ivory. The monumental statuary of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were made of bricks or laterite blocks covered with stucco. Enshrined at Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand’s Palladium of State, the Emerald Buddha is probably made of green jasper.

Buddhist Sculpture in Thailand

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “On an international scale, Thailand had probably distinguished itself more in sculpture than in any other art form...Delicate clay and terracotta engravings found on cave walls and on votive tablets date as far back as the 6th century in Thailand . Although if you count the bronze culture endeavors of the Ban Chiang then sculpture endeavors began at least 4,000 years ago. . Historically, the most commonly sculpted materials have consisted of wood, stone, ivory, clay and metal. Depending on the material, artisans use a variety of techniques—including carving, modeling in construction and casting—to achieve their designs.” Thailand 's most famous sculptural output has been its bronze Buddha images, coveted the world over for their originality and grace.” [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

A Buddha image in Thailand typically refers to three dimensional stone, wood, clay, or metal cast images of the Buddha. While there are such figures in all regions where Buddhism is commonly practiced, the appearance, composition and position of the images vary greatly from country to country.

Buddha images first appeared in Thailand during the Mon Dvaravati period from the 6th to the 11th centuries, and the Khmer Lopburi period from the 7th to the 14th centuries. However, the making of the statues might have reached the artistic peak during the Sukhothai era (12th – 14th centuries). Later, Ayutthaya artisans sculpted crowned, jeweled Buddha images, among other styles. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Most Buddha figures display gestures called mudra. The most prevalent in Thailand is the bhumisparsa mudra (earth-touching mudra), which shows the Buddha seated in meditation with one hand touching the ground. The mudra symbolises his enlightenment under the bodhi tree when he summoned the earth goddess to bear witness to his enlightenment. Another important mudra depicts the meditation posture, a figure seated cross-legged with hands on his lap. The ‘dispelling fear’ mudra demonstrates a standing figure with the right hand raised to shoulder height, the arm bent and the palm facing outward. Sukhothai sculptors created fluid statues of a walking Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho in Bangkok is arguably Thailand’s most famous sculpture. It is an immense golden Buddha over 46 meters (140 feet) long and 15 meters high. Known as Phra Buddhasaiyat (“Giant Reclining Buddha”), it represents the Buddha before he passes into nirvana. The figure is made out of plaster placed over a brick core and is covered in gold leaf. The eyes are made of mother-of-pearl inlays. On the soles of the feet, inlaid in mother of pearl, are 108 auspicious laksanas , characteristics of a Buddha. U.S. President Barack Obama is among those who viewed this famous Buddha.

In modern times, Buddha images are often replicas of images from the Sukhothai and other early periods, often more ornately and elaborately adorned. Faces in new innovative depictions are typically more realistic and human-like. An elongated flame aureole is popular. Robes depicted in modern images often depict floral designs. The Indian Gandhara style, as well as western art have also influenced many of the modern images. Bunleua Sulilat's concrete sculpture gardens (Buddha Park and Sala Keoku) give an example of contemporary highly creative and unconventional artistic treatment of Buddhist subjects. See also Wat Rong Khun and Sanctuary of Truth Under Places.

See Buddhist Art and Sculpture for More on This

Dvaravati Period Art

During the Dvaravati period (A.D. 7th through 11th centuries), there were two factions of Buddhism practiced in the region that now encompasses present day Thailand, namely Mahayana and Theravada. The types of images constructed during this era reflects the distinction. Much of the basis for the Buddhist artwork of the Dvaravati period was influence from Buddhist art in India, including the Amaravati and Gupta styles, although there was also local and Khmer influence.

Such images include the following classical archetypes: 1) Buddha in the Tribhanga (leaning) position with somewhat Indian facial features and no aureole. The right hand is typically free, while the left is depicted grasping the Buddha's robe. 2) Buddha in the Amaravati style with loosely folded legs and a lotus shaped aureole. Such statues have a continuous eyebrow, a flat nose and thick lips. 3) Square faced cleft chin Buddha with some Khmer features. Legs are typically fully folded. The Buddha sits on a lotus base.

Khmer Period Art

Most Khmer art is linked with Hinduism or Buddhism and was greatly influenced by Indian art. Nearly all the Khmer art that remains with us to day is in the form of sculpture and most of this is stone sculpture associated with temples. The few examples of bronze sculpture that remain are regarded as great treasures. The Khmers may have produced paintings but there is little evidence of it. There are few experts on Khmer art. Most of them are in France or the United States.

An exhibition of Khmer art and sculpture from Angkor Wat and other archeological sites in Cambodia wowed observers in Paris and Washington D.C. The pieces on displayed, many of which are normally housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, included a curvaceous 7th century sculpture of the Hindu goddess Durga Mahisasuramardini; a huge 11th century bronze Vishnu head that was once part of a 20-foot-high figure; and a 12th-century sandstone head of Jayabarman IV, with a gentle smile and remarkable serene, contemplative expression.

Time art critic Robert Hughes wrote that "some of the greatest stone carving and bronze work in human history” were made by the Khmers. He said its appeal was its "scale, continuity and shear aesthetic majesty....There is very little of the eroticism of Indian sculpture: bare breasts and torsos, but no full nudes, and no copulation.” Other have used words like tranquility, spirituality and sereneness to describe the attraction of Khmer art.

In the 1,000 year history of Khmer art, not one single name of an artist or sculptor was ever recorded. The range of subjects is rather limited—images of Buddha, Nagas (the seven-headed serpent), asparsases (women that inhabited the heavens), and Hindu gods like Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha. The art is best viewed in the context that it was made, namely to decorate temples Some bas-reliefs depict historical events, episodes from Hindu literature, and scenes from everyday life. There is a creature depicted in a little picture on the Angkor Wat which some have said resembles a Stegosaurus. Others have pointed out that it looks more like a chameleon or a Mountain Horned Dragon, both found in that area.

See Cambodia

Sri Vijaya, Chiang Saen and Lopburi Images

Sri Vijaya images (8th through 13th centuries) are found in southern Thailand. Typically, they reflect the teachings of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Unlike other Thai Buddha images, Sri Vijaya images were generally made of clay, with less emphasis on durability, as their purpose was to benefit the deceased, rather than perpetuate the teachings of the Buddha. As a result of this and southern Thailand’s humid, rainy climate, not much art remains from this period.

Lopburi images date back to the 11th century. They are typically found in Northeast Thailand, and their style is essentially similar to Cambodian Buddha images. Such images typically have a cone-shaped cranial protuberance in the form of tiers of lotus petals. The hair depicted in the images is considerably more realistic than the hair of the Dvaravati images, and may be either straight or curly. The face of the Buddha typically has a small smile, while the earlobes are in unusually large proportion relative to the rest of the face, often hanging down nearly to the image's shoulders. A second Lopburi style is the Naga Protected Buddha with the heads of Naga forming a protective taper around the Buddha's head.

Chiang Saen and Lanna images were created in northern Thailand between the 10th and 13th centuries. Early images were similar to the Pala-style Buddha images of India, with lotus bud or orb shaped hair curls, round faces, narrow lips and prominent chests. Such images were usually in the subduing Mara position, cross-legged, with the soles of the Buddha's feet visible. Many later Chiang Saen and Lanna images began to be constructed from crystals and gemstones.

Art in the Sukothai Period, 1240-1438

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The Sukhothai style of Buddhist sculpture is considered by many art historians to be the most innovative and original of all. Often described as ‘pneumatic’ because of the slightly distended appearance of body and limbs, Sukhothai Buddhas are also know for their elegance and proportion. The ‘boneless’ appearance of the finger, elbow, hand and leg joints symbolizes the lack of physical tension achieved in nirvana.” [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Buddha images of the Sukhothai period are elegant, with sinuous bodies and slender, oval faces. This style emphasized the spiritual aspect of the Buddha, by omitting many small anatomical details. The effect was enhanced by the common practice of casting images in metal rather than carving them. This period saw the introduction of the "walking Buddha" pose. Sukhothai also produced a large quantity of glazed ceramics in the Sawankhalok style, which were traded throughout south-east Asia.

During the Sukhothai period, the style of the Thai Buddha images radically changed due to the influx of new ideas from Sri Lankan Buddhism. Buddha images were cast with the intention of depicting superhuman traits of the Buddha, and were designed to express compassion and serenity in posture and facial expression. The Sukhothai period witnessed the innovation of the four modern postures of the Thai Buddha (walking, standing, sitting and reclining). Images often had a flame-shaped aureole, finely curled hair, a slight smile, broad shoulders and an oval face. A common pose was the subduing Mara, with the Buddha is seated on a plain base. Notable variations within the Sukhothai period include the Kamphaengpet, the Phra Buddha Chinnarat (such as the most famous Chinnarat at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahatat Woramahawihan), and the Wat Ta Kuan groups of images. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are three categories of U Thong images from the twelfth through fifteenth century in central Thailand. The first such style was a fusion of the Dvaravati and Khmer style images. They would typically adorn a lotus bud aureole and Khmer facial features. The second style was similar to the Lopburi images. The third and most recent U Thong style had considerable influence from the Sukhothai images, but often had hair bands unique to U Thong images.

Wat Traimit Golden Buddha, which is a famous tourist attraction in Bangkok, is made in the Sukhothai style, so it may indeed date from that period. Weighing 5.5 tons, this is the biggest statue in the world made from solid gold.

Art in the Ayutthaya Period (1351-1767)

The Ayutthaya A period (1350-1488) was characterized by Khmer features replaced over time by Sukhothai influences. The Ayutthaya B period (1488-1630 ) featured a unique style of ornamentation with crowns and jewels on the Buddhas. The Ayutthaya C period (1630-1767) showcased a more baroque style.

The surviving art from this period was primarily executed in stone, characterised by juxtaposed rows of Buddha figures. In the middle period, Sukhothai influence dominated, with large bronze or brick and stucco Buddha images, as well as decorations of gold leaf in free-form designs on a lacquer background. The late period was more elaborate, with Buddha images in royal attire, set on decorative bases. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ayutthaya images had a unique hair frame and tell-tale narrow carvings above the lips and eyes. Early Ayutthaya images were carved in stone with heavy influence from the Lopburi images. Middle Ayutthaya images were similar to the Sukhothai images, and were in similar poses. During this period, the images were often cast in Bronze, and the size of the images were often large. In the late Ayutthaya period, the images typically depicted the Buddha in royal attire, and the bases of the images bore ornate design.

Modern Art in Thailand

According to the Thavibu Gallery, which specialzies in art from Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam: The contemporary art scene in Thailand is centred around its capital – Bangkok - although there are artists who prefer to live and work outside the mega polis. The numbers of artists are constantly on the rise, so an increasing variety of works are available on the art market. Many art galleries in Bangkok tend to sell work restricted to traditional rural motives. The artists creating this type of art are often influenced by traditional Buddhist beliefs and motives, and this art is popular among the general Thai public. Nevertheless, some Thai artists are breaking away from these norms by addressing more controversial issues in their works. Examples of these are the loss of traditional values and the obsession with money in today's society. Several of Bangkok’s Universities have prominent art schools. Silapakorn University stands out as the most reputable of them. Established at the beginning of the 19th century it drew inspiration from the Italian teacher and artist, Corrado Feroci. Feroci was invited to Thailand by the Thai Government in 1923. He eventually remained in Thailand taking on the Thai name Silpa Bhirasri. Professor Bhirasri is regarded as the one who paved the way for Thai modern art and constructed a framework for it by promoting westernisation and at the same time striving to preserve the traditional Thai arts.

Contemporary artists include Navin Rawanchaikul, who is inspired by taxi drivers stuck in traffic and creator of a superhero called taximan; Thawan Dichanee, a painter who blends European-style images with Buddhist images and spirituality Dreamy, Impressionist paintinsg by Deang Buasan have veeb exhibited in England.

American culture influenced modern Thai art forms both through Thai artists studying in the United States and through the popularity of Hollywood movies. Modern artists such as Kamol Tassananchalee have integrated American ideas into Thai art, just as centuries before the artists of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya applied Indian or Khmer concepts to Thai design. The modern period in Thai art began in 1932 with the breakdown of the traditional patterns of static society. A strong artistic influence in the modern period was exerted by the work of Silpa Bhirasri, an Italian-born professor. [Source: Library of Congress]

Soi Project: a Virtual Thai Full Moon Party in a British Art Gallery

The Soi Project, a group of Thai and Japanese artists, created a virtual Thai island in the UK, with simulated day and night and full-moon parties. The Nation reported: “The Soi Project has brought Thailand’s Ravi Island in Satun province—complete with its popular full-moon party and tropical fruits—to Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The the interactive installation ‘Soi Project: Island’ launched Ikon Gallery’s new art space, in Birmingham’s Eastside area. More than 300 gallery-goers enjoyed creating their own paradise by sticking fluorescent stickers depicting buildings, beach umbrellas, trees and animals onto the installation. Viewers walked over the ‘sea’ to get to the three-dimensional island, which was assembled using a composite of satellite images drawn from Google Earth. "After hours of climbing, lying on the ‘island’ and ‘moon bathing’, it was time for a fun full moon party." [Source: The Nation, June 26, 2008]

“The room shifted back and forth between pitch black, indicating night, and the brilliance of daylight. An artificial moon set the rhythm, rising then setting in a 24-minute cycle to mimic the 24 hours in a day. Once the moon disappeared, simulated light ‘dawned’ to mark the start of a new day. According to Soi co-founder Wit Pimkarnjanapong, “the idea for the island came from the romantic notions that outsiders have of England and Thailand. While the UK is known as a great island nation, Thailand’s islands are popular around the globe.” Wit founded Soi with fellow Thai Jutipong Chaowakul and Bangkok-based Japanese Jiro Endo.

Visually, the exhibition resembles a theatre, albeit one where audiences can play beneath the light of the full moon. They can also play with different interpretations of the work: Is Britain a neo-colonialist country that wants control over more ‘islands’? Is a drug-fuelled ‘full moon’ party the only image of Thailand that tourists have? Whatever the interpretation, stickers on the ‘islands’ delivered various messages with themes that ran from environmental issues and political topics to personal desires of owning a dream island. After hours of climbing, lying on the ‘island’ and ‘moon bathing’, it was time for a fun full moon party.

Filing out through the gallery’s back door and past the tiny soi (alley), in a few minutes partygoers found themselves at a night-long party in a loftcum-nightclub. The fusion of Thai with English-style good vibes took the form of DJs playing British reggae, cold Singha beer, Thai tunes by Jiro and beach sand beneath our feet. Once back at the gallery, Soi offered tropical fruits to the British crowd. The fruit stalls were set up in front of the gallery and instead of giving the fruits to the audience for free, the organisers invited them to make paper fruits to exchange with the real ones from Thailand.

Arts, Culture and Crafts from Central Thailand

Cultural activities of people in the central region are diverse, as the flat and fertile region has sustained the development of the Thai state from the Sukhothai Kingdom to present-day Rattanakosin era, with easy access to foreign trade. The inhabitants of the Chao Phraya Basin have thus been influenced by various different cultures from Asian and European countries. The perfect blend of these influences with the Thai culture results in the fascinating identity of the central region. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Thais in the central plains are primarily rice farmers who live along rivers and canals. They lead simple lives tilling the land and tending paddy fields. Their simple entertainment forms relate to the rice cycle or religious functions, as relief from hard work or to celebrate occasions such as the completion of a successful harvest. The events are joyful and entertaining, with rousing songs and joyous dances for everyone to enjoy, such as the Sickle Dance, or it may be a night of singing duets, when men and women sing humorous dialogues, to the accompaniment provided by folk instruments such as drums, cymbals, and sticks.

The art and culture of the central region have been continuously developed, adapted, and blended with cultural traits from other regions, as well as attributes from abroad. In the process, several performing art forms of the central region have become standard stage performances of Thailand, such as ram wong, a simple and yet graceful dance to rousing music and song, in which everyone can participate.

Moreover, there are classical performing art forms requiring high-level ability and dedicated training, such as the traditional music ensembles, the classical puppet theater, lakhon (stage play), and khon (classical masked dance), formerly presented as entertainment in the royal court. Khon performances always feature episodes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana, which is clear evidence off Indian influence.

Arts, Culture and Crafts from Northern Thailand

The North inherited the Lan Na culture, as is evident in the art forms, architecture, performing arts, and lifestyle of the people, emphasizing gentleness and slow movements. The northern region is also home to numerous hill tribes, mainly Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, and Lisu, each with its distinct language and culture. These hill people also have many of their own traditions and beliefs, reflected in their garments, occupations, and handicrafts. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

The northern dances are based on the fon style of the Lan Na Kingdom, highlighting the gentle and graceful movements of female dancers, normally in large groups, all clad in beautiful local garments, dancing to the rhythms of folk instruments. On the male side, their famous victory drum dance highlights their strength and boosts the morale of the people. It is performed by strong Thai men, who pound on the big drums with sticks and even various parts of their bodies, including their shoulders, elbows, kneecaps, and head.

Another identifying feature of the North is the ancient Lan Na architectural motif known as ruean kalae, the horn-like woodcarving crossed over the gable of the house, showing the aesthetic sense of the Northerners, as well as the skill in woodcarving inherited by modern-day craftsmen.

Historically, the major portion of the North used to be known as the Kingdom of Lanna. The region is inhabited by many peoples: the Yuan (Cochin-Chinese), Lu, and Shan, who have their own culture, beliefs, and lifestyle that survive even today. In addition, there are many other minorities and tribes inhabiting the northern border areas, namely the Hmong (Meo), Yao, Museo (Lahu), Lisu, Akha, Karen, Lawa, Tin, and Khamuk. The mainstay of these peoples consists of deforestation, collecting forest produce, and slash-and-burn agriculture, which cause considerable damage to the abundant teak forests and watershed areas.

The unique identity of this cultural tradition is evident in the everyday lifestyle of the people, particularly their local folk crafts, widely recognized as the charming heritage of northern families, such as textiles, silverwork, ornaments, wood carvings, and basketry. They represent the wisdom passing from ancestor to descendant, a priceless treasure deserving of conservation.

Arts, Culture and Crafts from Northeast Thailand

Northeasterners are known as sincere and witty people. They constantly face drought and floods, and survive through faith and pragmatism. Their culture is a mixture of Thai, Lao, and Khmer traditions. The Isan Thais are known for their silkweaving skills, particularly mudmee silk, and for khit, a raised embroidered border textile made famous around the world. In addition, fine architecture with influences from the ancient Khmer Empire can be found at archeological sites in various provinces in the Northeast. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

The performing art of the Northeasterners is lively and funfilled, such as the soeng, using various implements from the daily lives of the sticky-rice eaters as part of the show, such as soeng kratip (a dance with steamed rice containers), soeng sawing (fish traps), or soeng yae khai mot daeng (sticks for digging out eggs from ant nests). Along with being very entertaining, the dances provide insight into the traditional lifestyle of the people of Isan. A well-known Isan performance is mo lam, with male and female experts reciting stories to the tune of folk instruments played in ensembles, especially the reed pipe instrument, kaen; the one-string instrument, phin; and the wooden xylophone with the bars tied together in a row, pong lang. The pong lang is widely used in folk song recitation, folk dances, and other performances.

Isan, however, was an important cradle of civilization several thousand years ago. Archeological evidence points to the existence of ancient communities with a long history and unique cultural progress, ranging from the prehistoric era to the ancient Khmer kingdom, continuing on till the present day. The region therefore is a repository of diverse races including the Tai, Lao, Khorat Tai, Khmer Tai, and Phu Tai, scattered around the region. The varied mixture of racial groups, coupled with an inherited ancient civilization, gives rise to unique handicrafts and architecture.

The local handicrafts, which originated from the accumulation of experience and imagination of their ancestors, passed on to generations of descendants, constitute the important heritage that indicates the flourishing culture of Isan amidst the deterioration of natural conditions. Not so long ago, Isan was a hotbed of national security risks, born in part of the economic hardship and grinding poverty of the people, who had been long neglected and even badly treated by the central administration and local authorities.

Arts, Culture and Crafts from Southern Thailand

The peninsula of southern Thailand is bounded on both sides by two great seas and is linked to the Malay Peninsula. The region is thus influenced by Chinese and Malay cultures, as evidenced in the forms of architecture. The people lead their lives amid rich biodiversity, close to the sea. Their traditions and culture are therefore diverse and unique. People of the South have a reputation for being quick decision-makers, rapid in their movements, and fast talkers. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

The performing arts of the South follow Buddhist and Muslim lines, the most popular performances being nora and nang talung, the shadow puppets, presented to the music of drums and flutes. Nora dancers are strenuously trained to synchronize gestures and movements harmoniously and in accordance with the changing rhythms. The nora dance is a classic art form of the South, with complicated gestures that require high flexibility from the dancers. The nora dance is also related to the stage performances in the central region.

In the small shadow puppet play, or nang talung, the figures are carved from ox hide, painted and decorated, and held up by actors behind a white cloth screen who are lit from behind, casting shadows on the screen. In the performance, each figure is moved by one master, and there are several narrators. The show reflects various events and happenings, some based on literature, and others on current events, the cultural, social, and political topics of the day. The figures and the performances represent the wisdom and excellence in art and culture acquired by the Southerners from their ancestors.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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