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.