The culture and arts of Thailand—as well as Southeast Asia as a whole—have been influenced by India and to a lesser extent China as well as by ancient civilization in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps the two greatest influences on Thai culture are Buddhism and The Ramakien (the Thai version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana). Many elements from the Indian-Hindu tradition hold a high place in the Thai arts. Garuda, for example, features prominently in painting and sculpture. Known as Raja Krut in Thai, it is the mystical man-bird and mount of the Hindu god Vishnu. It has been said that Thai architecture is Thailand’s most developed art form.

The performing arts, books and art was once confined to the royal palaces but in the last century has expanded beyond that and is now enjoyed by a wider audience in a less controlled form, which incorporates Western elements. The Thai people accepted Westernization in all areas, including the arts, on their own terms as a pragmatic necessity and not as something imposed by foreigners. For example, modern techniques in set and costume designs, makeup, lighting, sound systems, and theater construction were combined with traditional drama such as the khon. Thai monarchs beginning with King Mongkut initiated and led this modernization. King Bhumibol not only continued this movement but also widened its scope in an effort to make regional art forms an integral part of the Thai national identity. [Source: Library of Congress]

According a Thai government e-brochure: “A Buddhist temple or wat serves to build a strong spiritual foundation for the Thai people, and they are showcases of Thai art and culture, as well as the country’s glorious history, as the temple structure and works of art reflect the long history of the country and the teachings of Buddhism in the murals and sculptures found in abundance in temples, particularly the impressive Buddha images and the endless variety of carvings and decorations.[Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

“Apart from architecture and sculpture, the height of Thai culture is also reflected in literature, music, and the performing arts. Thai literary works are a treasure trove of wisdom, entertaining stories, clever word play, food for thought, Buddhist principles, and historical facts. The Thai performing arts, meanwhile, reflect the intricate nature of the Thais, with graceful gestures and elegant movements. The performance styles differ region by region, owing to the differences in culture and lifestyle.

Early History of Art and Culture in Thailand (Sukothai Period, 1240-1438)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “According to the traditional rendering of Thai or Siamese history, the first independent Tai Kingdom was Sukhothai (1240–1438). During this period the Tais created their own art style, which was eclectic at the beginning, combining elements from the Mons, Khmers, and the Srivijaya maritime empire in the south, and from Sri Lanka, from where they adopted, through the Mon, the core of their culture, Theravada Buddhism. (read more about Tai, Thai and Siamese). [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“In fact, several Tai principalities and kingdoms evolved; parallel to this evolution, Lanna in the north was the one most closely connected with Sukhothai, which had served as a Khmer outpost in the 12th century. Through dynastic connections and intermarriage with the older ruling Mon and Khmer elite, the Tai of Sukhothai gained political power and independence, which ended when it became a vassal of another Tai kingdom, Auytthaya, in 1350. Sukhothai was finally incorporated into it in 1438.

“The supposedly earliest literary evidence of Thai culture and history in general, is the c. 1293 AD stone inscription attributed in the 19th century to King Ramkhamkhaen, the third sovereign of Sukhothai and architect of its power. The authenticity of the inscription is, however, now questioned. Whether the document is authentic or not does not concern us, since the information given by it, as far as theatre and dance are concerned, mainly contains different terms for musical instruments and forms of merrymaking.

“A more important text for theatre and dance research, and originally a Sukhothai period text, is the famous Indian-influenced Theravada Buddhist cosmology The Three Worlds or Traiphum. It is attributed to the 14th century King Lithai of Sukhothai and it gives a detailed description of the 31 levels of the Theravada Buddhist cosmos. It mentions dance in several connections. It has deeply influenced the temple architecture, imagery and dance of the region.

History of Art and Culture in Thailand in the Ayutthaya Period (1351-1767)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “Sukhothai is traditionally regarded as the cradle of Tai culture. What was to become the Thai or Siamese culture of the Bangkok or Rattanakosin period was, however, formulated in the kingdom of Ayutthaya during its rule of over four centuries from 1351 to 1767. Ayutthaya annexed Sukhothai, displaced the Khmer dominions in the regions of present-day Thailand and even conquered the Khmer capital of Angkor for the first time in 1352 and later in 1431 and subjected the Khmers to vassalage. During the Ayutthaya period the Khmer influence was adapted to form an important part of Thai heritage in all fields of culture. Warring with its neighbours, Malays, the Khmer and the kingdoms of Lanna and Burma, Ayutthaya further expanded its territories. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Ayutthaya’s population was ethnically diverse. The eclectic belief system combined animistic beliefs, different forms of Buddhism dominated by Theravada, and Chinese elements, as well as Brahman practices and the concept of the god-king adapted, to a great extent, from the Khmer. Auytthaya’s concept of a “god-king”, which naturally had political ends to bolster and mystify the kingship in an increasingly complicated political system, amalgamated several ideologies. It combined the Hindu-Brahman concept of devaraja or god-king with that of chakravatin or a descendant of God Shiva, and a further Buddhist flavour was given with the ideology of dharmaraja or righteous ruler, which associated the king with a bodhisattva or a Buddha-to-be.

“Ayutthaya’s military power, her exports of rice and her role as an important trade centre with active contacts with China, Japan and the Southern Silk Road made Ayutthaya a wealthy and powerful empire in the 15th century, when King Trailok (1448–1488) established his administrative reforms. They gave shape to Siamese society and its administration, which was to remain more or less unchanged until the mid-19th century.

“In 1758 Ayutthaya was attacked by its archenemies, the Burmese, who finally sacked the city in 1767 and destroyed nearly all its palaces, temples and libraries, taking tens of thousands of prisoners of war with them back to Burma. Among the captives were also dancers and other artists, who gave new impetus to Burmese culture just like the Khmer dancers and artists had probably done for the culture of Ayutthaya three centuries earlier. The capital of Ayutthaya, now in ruins, is situated some 80 kilometers north of the present capital, Bangkok.

Early Chakri Kings and the Theatrical Arts

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “King Rama I (1782–1809), to whom the present Thai Ramakien is attributed, founded the still reigning Chakri dynasty and established the present capital in Bangkok. The most important task for the early Chakri rulers was to re-establish the former glory of Ayutthaya in the new capital. Thus, by royal order, canals were dug to create a replica of Ayutthaya’s city plan in Bangkok, copies of Ayutthaya’s destroyed palaces and temples were built, surviving sculptures were brought from the old capital, and lost literature was recreated. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“King Rama I ordered the manuscripts of three literary works to be rewritten. They were the Tripitaka or the Buddhist cannon, a codification of law and the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic. “The first served to revive the religious order, the second enforced the rule of law and the last served to uphold the monarchic power”. From the inauguration of Bangkok as the new capital, the Ramakien could be found in Siamese culture in a fully integrated manner, linking all forms of the arts and artistic expression from books to dramatic presentations and from classical dance to mural paintings.

“King Rama I started the building of Bangkok and its Grand Palace and the adjoining Wat Phra Kaew or the Royal Chapel. Dance masters and other artists were gathered in Bangkok to revive what was left of the artistic traditions of Ayutthaya. The all-female dance-drama lakhon nai was restricted to court use only, while the more popular lakhon nok dance-drama was allowed to be performed publicly. The rule of King Rama II (1809–1824) is regarded as the golden age of Thai theatrical arts. The king wrote his own versions of the Ramakien and the originally East Javanese story cycle Prince Panji, which was renamed Inao. Classical dance was revived and dance manuals were written and painted, while khon mask-theatre and lakhon nai court dance-drama were standardised.

“The rule of the King Rama III (1824–1851) is regarded as a less fruitful time for the theatrical arts. He was deeply religious and he abolished the tradition of court dance-dramas. Many former court dancers were forced to leave the court and earn their livelihood by performing publicly. Thus the echoes of the court dance and dance-drama reached the ordinary audiences as well. Some of the court dancers moved to the court of Cambodia in Phnom Penh to work either as dance masters or as performers.

“The first reformist ruler was King Mongkut or Rama IV (1851–1886), “The Architect and Champion of Thai Independence”, who reformed government administration according to Western models. He was also interested in Western science and established the empirical world-view among the educated classes. He revived the khon mask theatre and the court dance-drama lakhon nai again. His son King Chulalongkorn or Rama V (1868–1910) was the first Thai ruler to visit Europe. He has been called “The Great Reformer” for having abolished slavery, outlawing opium, and reforming the administration. Thai rule extended beyond the present borders of the country, and Thai culture again made its impact on Laos and Cambodia.

“The first Western theatre house was built in Bangkok and Western stage realism made its way, to a certain degree, into Thai theatre. Western-style theatre and even opera became popular among the Bangkok urban audience. King Chulalongkorn himself was very interested in theatre and even wrote plays. Among them is Lilith Nitra, which tells about the aboriginal people of South Thailand. Its leading actor was a real “negrito” from the south. Classical performances were shortened, while exotic topics were popular. Plays were written about Chinese and Burmese themes; A Thousand and One Nights and even a Thai version of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly were staged.

Thai Ramakien

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “The “Ramakien” (“Rama’s Story), also known as the “Ramakirti” (Rama’s Glory), is a localised version of the originally Indian epic, the Ramayana. It describes the life of Prince Rama (Phra Ram in Thai), Crown Prince of Ayodhya and also an avatara of the god Vishnu. His consort Princess Sita (Nang Sida) is abducted by the demon king Ravana (Tosakanth, also Tosakan, Tosachat, Thotsakan) to his island kingdom of Lanka (Longka). The lengthy story recounts the ultimately successful efforts of Prince Rama and his half-brother Lakshmana (Phra Lak), assisted by the white monkey Hanuman and the brave monkey army, to rescue Princess Sita from Lanka. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The Rama stories, of which the Ramakien is only one of the numerous versions, are usually connected with Hinduism but are sometimes also interpreted in the Jain, Buddhist and even Islamic context. Rama’s story was already known in the regions of present-day central Thailand by the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second millennium AD, when the Khmers ruled parts of the area. The importance of the story is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the capital of Ayutthaya was named after Rama’s city Ayodhya, located in northeast India. Little is, however, known about the manifestations of the Rama tradition during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods.

A number of versions of the epic were lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. When the new Chakri dynasty was established in Bangkok, one of the first activities of the first two kings was to have the text rewritten in its now approved classic form. The importance of the epic was further underlined by the fact that the kings were later renamed after the epic hero, as King Rama I and King Rama II. However, the origins of the Thai version and its sources are not known.

By order of King Rama I (1782–1809) Ramakien was compiled to form what is still today the longest composition in Thai verse. Three versions currently exist. The first one of one prepared under the supervision (and partly written by) King Rama I. In 1815, by order of King Rama II (1809–1824) Ramakien was written in a form suitable for khon and lakhon performances, and later, by order of King Rama IV (1851–1868) several scenes of the epic were rewritten.

The famous Thai author S.P. Somtow said the “Ramakien” is "the sort of “Iliad” and “Odyssey” of Siamese mythology... The basic plot of the Ramakien is really that of the Trojan War, a war over a woman in which the gods end up taking sides. But where Homer seems to dwell on the humanity of his characters, the Ramakien's characters seemed much more than human, with their superpowers and their gaudy colors—Rama, the hero, with his green skin, and so on."

Hindu Ramayana Versus the Thai Ramakian

The main differences between the Hindu Ramayana and the Thai Ramakian is an extended role for the monkey god Hanuman and the addition of a happy ending in the Thai version. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The “Ramayana” came to Thailand with the Khmers 900 years ago. First appearing on stone reliefs on Prasat Hin Phimal and other Angkor temples in the Northeast. Oral and written versions may have also been available; eventually, though, the Thais developed their own version of the epic, first written down during the reign of Rama I (1762-1809). This version contained 60,000 stanza, about 25 percent longer than the Sanskrit original. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

“Although the main themes remains the same, the Thais embroidered the “Ramayana” by providing much more biographic detail on the arch-villain Ravana (Dasakantha, called Thotsakan or ‘10-necked’ in the “Ramakian” ) and his wife Montho. Hanuman the monkey-god differed substantially in the Thai version insofar as he very flirtatious with females (in the Hindu version he follows a strict vow of chastity). One of the classic “Ramikian” reliefs at Bangkok’s Wat Pho depicts Hanuman clasping a maidens bare breast as if it were an apple.”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “It is easy to recognise several specifically Thai qualities in the Ramakien. Phra Ram is, of course, presented as an avatara or incarnation of Vishnu, but at the same time he is subordinate to Shiva. The emphasis lies in the second of the three parts of the story, that is, in the section describing the abduction of Sita and the Great War. Thus the story is localised in several ways. For example, the Buddhist connotation can be recognised, although Phra Ram is not regarded as the Buddha or any of his previous incarnations. The epic was, however, compiled by Buddhist kings and the epilogue, written by King Rama II, stresses the connection between the Ramakien and the Buddhist teachings.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

One important aspect of the Ramakien is its role in the dynastic cult, which is firmly rooted in the ancient conception of the devaraja or god-king of the Khmer tradition. The King is regarded as the incarnation of Phra Ram, and thus the Ramakien is also the narration of the “Ten Kingly Virtues” of the righteous ruler. J.M.Cadet has written with good reason: “For so successfully indeed has Rama I transmuted the epic…that the majority of Thai know nothing of its Indian origin, looking upon the Ramakien less as a work of art than a history of their royal house.”

“The importance of the Ramakien for the dynastic cult is emphasised by the fact that the whole epic was painted by order of Rama I in the galleries of the Wat Phra Kaew or the Royal Chapel in the old Grand Palace of the early Bangkok period. It is the very centre of the dynastic cult enshrining the Emerald Buddha, the palladium of the ruling dynasty. Thus an ancient, probably Khmer-derived, but later Buddhacised god-king cult and the Ramakien tradition were officially amalgamated, which led to the creation of several theatrical traditions regarded as the classical forms still today.

Japanese Culture and Western Culture in Thailand

In recent decades middle class Thai society has become more modernized, globalized and liberal. Many people live in air-conditioned apartments, have jobs tied to the global economy and smoke Western cigarettes and drink Western wines. For a while British-made Dunhill cigarettes were the most sought after brand of smokes among the movers and shakers in Thailand.

In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese culture invaded Thai culture much like American culture invaded other countries. Thai children fell in love with manga (Japanese comic books) and television cartoons. Japanese salesmen hopped on buses to remote villages and Thai entertainers to promote products in demonstrations reminiscent of the old Wild West medicine shows. A popular soap opera recounted a World War II romance between a Japanese soldier and a Thai girl. One of the biggest hit songs in Thailand in 1990 was called the "Samurai Have Arrived."

Manga has been popular in Thailand since the 1950s. Doraemon—a Japanese cartoon—is arguably better known than Mickey Mouse. As the Japanese-Foreign-Ministry-appointed anime cultural ambassador, person dressed in a Doraemin costume appeared at centers for underprivileged children to help cheer them up. At one time Thailand was described as "Buddha with a Walkman."

Some Thai teens have been accused of “Japanism,” being too into Japanese pop music, fashion and pop culture. They are known for their outlandishness clothing make-up and hairstyles and are particularly obsessed with the pop singer Hide from X-Japan. Thai newspapers features about Thai junior high school students who skip classes to shop for the latest Japanese pop single or fashion accessory.

Culture moves both ways. The annual Thai Food Festival held in Yoyogi park in Tokyo draws large crowds. And in any case these days Korean culture is arguably more popular than Japanese culture anyway.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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