Thailand’s Khon Dance: a Proud UNESCO Cultural Heritage

Khon is a now a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage with Thailand’s most famous cultural dance, representing a significant point in the country’s history. This was its maiden accolade from the global body with regards to heritage prowess.

The nation’s cultural ministry celebrated the occasion the following week with a sequence of Khon-themed activities. The festivities encompassed live performances, exhibitions, animation films, children’s books and the inception of a digital database to imprint the traditional artwork onto the timeless reaches of the interwebs.

First things first: What is Khon exactly?

Khon is a classic Thai dance that traces its roots back to the 15th century and is an expressional and speechless form of storytelling. It is heavily inspired by the tales of the Ramakien and borrows a leaf from the Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayan. It comes off akin to a Shakespeare play with masked dancers unveiling the plot in pantomime fashion aided by a background narrator. The choreography is a blend of various aspects of tradition including movements from martial arts, pole and sword fighting, and dance. The last attribute is evident in the narration which coins similarities to the nation’s grand shadow puppet tradition that incorporates singing, gestures and the use of musical instruments.

Originally exclusive to royalty, this Khon performance was from the reign of Rama V (1868 – 1910). Image from rajiveanand.com

The most memorable characters include the hero or heroine of the tale, the ogre and the monkey-esque humanoid. All the different figures have their own unique patterns and mannerisms which comes off in their dramatic individual choreography. Early depictions of the performance featured exclusively male dancers wearing face-concealing masks. However, there have been various adaptions to reach more audiences although the core pillars have still remained. Ancient piphat orchestras still provide sounds alongside the narrators who are the voices of the characters. Women now participate and masks have been replaced with makeup which is used to accentuate the natural beauty, personalities, and colors of the actors. The costumes now take on a royal mold, incorporating top-notch embroidery and woven in the mesmerizing and expansive ways of local traditional designs.

Thailand writes a new chapter in its history books

Culture minister Vitra Rojpojchanarat lay the plaudits for the award squarely at the feet of Her Majesty, Queen Sirikit, whose intervention he says played a huge role in UNESCO taking notice. By executing a raft of changes and a revamping of the ornaments, costumes, lights, sounds, stage, and format to inject a touch of royalty, the Queen steered the customary masked dance into a new endearing age and, more importantly, into the radar of the global educational and scientific research organization.

Breaking down the award further, was Thammasat University’s Anucha Teerakanond who said the body has a trio of cultural heritage lists in place. She explains that there is one list for good practice and another containing a compilation of those in need of immediate protection by countries and communities. The last one, in which Thai Khon now finds itself, is the real deal amassing the names of intangible cultural practices from around the world.

In June 2016, Thailand had applied and passed the requirements pertaining to the Convention of the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which was the prerequisite for their achievement. Now, the ministry has in its sights the task of ensuring that the southern ancient dance of “Nora” and the native massage, “nuad Thai”, follow in the footsteps of the newly crowned dance.

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Best places to watch Khon in Phuket

Cast in the northwestern area of Phuket Town within the stretch on Bypass Road, Siam Niramit provides residence to one of largest theaters on the island. It features dozens of performances each night with Khon folklore at the heart of most of the entertainment. Served alongside are various Thai mythology, history, and traditions that coalesce into a colorful show.

For similarly unique Khon experiences straight from the horse’s mouth, also look to Kathu District and in particular to Phuket FantaSea. This winsome theater is fashioned in endearing Las Vegas like fashion and houses 3,000 people as well as Khon shows and other endearing attractions also including acrobatics, magical illusions, pyrotechnics, stunts, and aerial performances. Another lovely Khon location also found with the aforementioned district is the Palazzo theater that also doubles up as a restaurant and is an assembly of ancient structures and vivid colors that combines decadent dining with livid historical entertainment.

Related article: 6 Cultural Attractions In Phuket You Should Not Miss

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