The Cultural Treasures of a Kingdom

Thailand is fortunate indeed to be blessed with a multitude of natural attractions. The kingdom offers something for everyone, from numerous islands and sunny, white-sand beaches fringed by palms and azure seas along its 2,000-km coastline to mountains rising majestically over valleys, offering cultural and sporting adventure. We also have the central plains, studded with golden-tipped temples and vistas of almost lime-green rice fields.

However, it is impossible briefly to chronicle all of Thailand's attractions. Instead, let us consider the arts and culture, aspects which have fascinated foreigners ever since making first contact with Siam over 600 years ago. These can easily be experienced by seeing our performing arts and visiting our historic sites.

Of all the traditional perfoming arts in Thailand, the most famous is the masked dance drama known as khon. In the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, as well as in early Bangkok, khon performances were limited to the royal palace and might go on for several nights.

Lakhon and likae are popular derivatives of khon, employing no masks but using similar costumes and movements to express emotions. The former is danced mostly by women, and a subdivision called lakhon chatri can be seen regularly at popular shrines, where troupes are hired to perform by supplicants. Likae, seen at many festivals and temple fairs, is a sort of burlesque, combining social satire and low comedy.

Thailand's eventful past is reflected in a variety of historic sites located in almost every part of the country -- more than enough to flill several itineraries for visitors with a special interest in archeology. The majority include museums where artefacts discovered in the area are exhibited. Three of the sites have been honored with the designation "World Heritage Site" by UNESCO: Ban Chiang, Su-khothai Historical Park and Ayut-thaya Historical Park.

Among the oldest of these is Ban Chiang in the northeastern province of Udon Thani. Here, more than 3,000 years before Christ, a mysterious culture arose, flourished and then vanished. Excavations by the national Fine Arts Department have found evidence of agriculture dating from 4,000 B.C., as well as magnificent painted pottery and what many experts believe to be the world's earliest bronze. One of the Ban Chiang excavations has been left open for visitors, showing the levels at which various objects were found.

The northeast also can boast several Khmer ruins of major archeological interest, perhaps the best known being Prasat Phanom Rung, an historical park in Buri Ram and Prasat Hin Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima, both of which were outposts of the Angkorian Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries A.D.

Well worth an extended visit is Sukhothai, the first truly independent Thai capital, founded in the early 11th century in the north-cental part of the country. Both Sukhothai and the satellite city of Si Satchanalai, 38 kilometers away, are historical parks filled with impressive ruins of temples that reveal the early flowering of a distinctive Thai style of art and architecture.

Ayutthaya, which was capital of the kingdom for more than 400 years, is now a historic park located in the central region on the Chao Phraya River, within easy reach of Bangkok by road or by boat. Here, magnificent ancient temples and palaces cover a large area, requiring several days for a really thorough exploration.

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