Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels and nonfiction written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Trans-Pacific with XiamenAir

Image of happy smiling XiamenAir employees from the company website.

Whenever I have to book a long flight, I wrestle with balancing cost against convenience. It doesn’t take much online savvy to know that shorter, direct flights on well-known carriers are generally the most expensive, while the 24-hour-plus routings through cities you’d never want to visit on airlines you’ve never heard of entice you with irresistible price tags.

Such was the case on my trip to Thailand earlier this year. There are a number of ways to fly into Bangkok; it’s a huge hub and many airlines use it. After much comparison of flight lengths, layover times, routings, and prices (not forgetting to include extras like booking charges and baggage fees), I found return flights on XiamenAir for an incredible $700 Cdn. The flight lengths were comparable with other airlines’. The two downsides were a 6 hr 45 min-layover on the outward journey and routing through Xiamen, China. The arrival time in Bangkok was convenient for our schedule and arrival back home also worked well. With some misgivings, I booked.

Happily, my experience on XiamenAir was no worse than on any of the other airlines I’ve taken on long flights. Check-in was fine, although they weighed the largest of our carry-on bags, which is unusual (usually they just check the dimensions). They allow two free checked bags. On the plane, there was reasonable legroom, the seats were decently comfortable. Everything was about as clean as I’d expect. They gave us a blanket and pillow, slippers and headsets for free, which is more than a lot of airlines do nowadays. We also received two free meals and a couple of snacks. The food was average airline food—but we did get a little box of chocolates for flying on Valentine’s Day, which was a nice touch. Inflight entertainment choices in English were not as extensive as on some airlines, but I had enough to keep me amused, and the choices in Mandarin were excellent!

Once we arrived in Xiamen, the challenge began. We had that long layover and there were vague promises of a free hotel room. When we checked in at YVR, we specifically asked about this and the rep assured us that this would be possible. She told us that once we arrived in Xiamen, we would have to check in for the second flight (Xiamen to Bangkok) and the check-in people would have info about the hotel. However, as we wandered from corner to corner of the Xiamen airport, it became clear that this was easier said than done. First, we couldn’t find the place to check in. We were given conflicting directions from the various people we asked. To be honest, part of the problem was that (a) their English was rudimentary, (b) our Mandarin is nonexistent, and (c) we were trying to check into a flight that didn’t depart for 6 hours. It wasn’t even listed on the departures board yet.

Once we finally located the check-in counter, we were told that we couldn’t check in until two hours before the flight and that info about the hotel was not available there, but we could ask at the International Transit Lounge. So then we started hunting around for that. (Do not—as we did—confuse the transfer area with the transit area; the former refers to the place where you connect with—transfer to—other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.) By the time we found the lounge, we had wasted so much time that we were afraid that if we left the airport for the hotel, we would not make it back in time for the flight—especially since we still had to check in—so we opted for the lounge instead.

This lounge is nothing to get excited about. There are a few beds to lie down, but they are popular, so your chances of getting one are small. There are cushioned chairs and we pushed a couple together to make a short bed. There is water, coffee, and tea, a few room-temperature soft drinks. Packaged snacks (nuts and bolts kind of thing). No entertainment. Airport wi-fi. Remember, this is China, so you may find some of your favourite websites blocked. We couldn’t access Google and our sent emails wouldn’t go. At least it’s quiet and there are plugs to charge your electronics.

Our return flights were similar to the outgoing ones. Economy class was clean and comfy, food was okay, entertainment ample, service friendly. The layover in Xiamen was short this time, only 1.5 hours, and because you must get a transit visa (free) on arrival, go through customs and security, and exit the arrival area, then go through the whole process in reverse one more time (find the check-in counter, check in, go through customs and security, and find your gate), we had only just enough time to make our connection. The only easy part was being able to check our bag all the way through from Bangkok to Vancouver, so we didn’t have to pick it up in Xiamen. Kudos to the airline which supplied each Canadian in the line-up with a personalized document to show to passport control officials. This paper made it clear that the baffled foreigner in possession was merely in transit and did, in fact, have a seat waiting in a departing plane.

I chatted with another passenger who had arrived in Xiamen from a different country and had a 20-hour(!!!) layover. He had been offered that mythical free hotel room and had taken advantage of the time to rest and tour the city a bit.

If you’re heading to Asia and you’re a confident traveler who can handle trying to navigate through a confusing bureaucracy and a foreign airport with little assistance (some airport personal may speak a little English, if you’re lucky), I suggest you check out XiamenAir’s prices and make your own comparisons on other features. Flying through an unfamiliar city with an obscure carrier may take you out of your comfort zone, but may turn out to be worth the trouble.

Have you had an experience good or bad with a less-known airline? Share your wisdom in a comment.

 

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.