Neolithic and Bronze Ages
The arts of Thailand have a heritage which dates to Neolithic times. Prior to the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism from India, Thailand’s art forms reflected a native animistic religion. Early artifacts from pre-Indianized Thailand include pottery, jewelry made from jade, shell and soft stone, and funerary goods. The quality of these goods is believed to reflect the status of the person buried. Neolithic pottery was often decorated with simple, geometric designs which art history scholars believe to have symbolic meaning. One of the most prolific motifs found is a swirling red-on-buff pattern from the Ban Chiang culture, which existed between 400 BCE and 200 CE. Pots have also been found with images of animals, such as buffalo and elephants, carved into the face. Prehistoric cave paintings have also been discovered, showing stylized human figures surrounded by pigs, buffalo, and deer. These early images show modern viewers the importance of such animals to those living in Neolithic Thailand.
The Bronze Age arrived in Thailand around 1500 BCE. Bronze was used to form bowls, jars, jugs, and tools, as well as pieces for ornament. Early bronze workers used the lost wax method of production as well as the heat-and-pound method. In the lost wax method, moulds are cast of wax, wherein the hot bronze is poured and left to cool. Once the metal has hardened, the wax is carefully melted away, forming a finished object. In the heat-and-pound method, ore is heated to a semi-hardened state, wherein it is hammered into form by hand. The lost wax method was the most popular for forming pots and ornaments out of soft bronze, whereas the heat-and-pound method was used for forming tools out of iron (a technology found in Thailand around 500 BCE). Both iron and bronze objects served many purposes in ancient Thailand. Most were for everyday use as tools, but some were to show status amongst society. Examples of these status-related objects are bracelets, earrings, and other ornaments made out of bronze and iron. These items are most often found in funerary sites, and may have been a sign of the person’s position not only in mortal society, but in the afterlife as well.
The technologies of the Bronze Age and later Iron Age were imported to Thailand through trade with other South and Southeast Asian countries. Other art forms also benefited from this trade, especially in the wealth of foreign materials that could be traded. Archeologists have discovered precious stones that are not native to Thailand in ancient Thai art, especially carnelian and serpentine (both found in India), true jade (found in China and other regions of East Asia), and tremolithic nephrite (a green, jade-like stone which comes from Taiwan). Though the materials may have come from afar, the way in which ornaments were produced shows that these materials were worked by local Thai craftsmen. Silk was also beginning to be imported to Thailand during the latter Bronze Age and early Iron Age, showing the value of this material as far into history as 1000 BCE.
A good, brief site about Thailand’s Neolithic art: http://www.thailandsworld.com/index.cfm?p=181
Indian Influence in Early Thai Art
Between the 1st and 6th centuries CE, trade, both commercial and cultural, escalated between Indian and Thailand. Along with new materials and technologies, the Indians brought to Thailand two new religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. Both of these belief systems would leave their mark on Thai art and architecture; however Buddhism would remain the chief religion throughout the centuries (and indeed, is the one most popular in Thailand to this day). Much of the art that is left from this period is in the form of statuary, usually found around religious sites. The new statuary arts in Thailand display greatly the influence of India, both in content and style. Instead of the animistic, primitive images and geometric designs, the figures in these statues became more realistic and fluid. Images carved into stone can be easily distinguished as dancing girls, lions, and elephants. The style of clothing, jewelry, and hairstyle worn by human figures resembled strongly that found in Indian sculpture of the same period. Many-armed figures of Hindu gods were now being created in Thailand by local craftsmen out of native laterite stone. Images of Hindu deities such as Vishnu and Shiva replaced the former idols of Thai culture. Along with a new style was the new functionality of these arts: temples and town centers were being built, showing a shift from small agriculturally-centered settlements into larger religious and trading sites. This first period in the new millennium is often called the “Indianized” period of Thai art history.
Though Hinduism made its mark on Thailand’s culture during this early period of cultural trade, Buddhism became the favoured religion in this region. Buddhism was transferred into Thailand through the movement of both Indian and Chinese devotees. Though there are no temples or monasteries from this period still extant, images of the Buddha have been discovered that show the resemblance between early Thai beliefs and Gupta-period Indian ones. Buddhas and bodhisattvas carved of sandstone and cast in bronze are dressed in Indian-style robes, with small curlicue hair and stretched earlobes. The folds of the garment, hairstyle, and facial expression all link Thai Buddhist conventions to those of India. These figures are sometimes accompanied by native mythical beasts found in earlier Thai art, such as the naga, snake-deities that were believed to control rainfall, or garuda, a mythical bird-like creature who controlled the movements of the sun. The blending of these traditional magical figures with the new Hindu and Buddhist deities created a conglomerate belief and artistic system that would continue in Thailand to the present day.
The most clearly Indian-influenced style of artwork in Thailand comes from the kingdom of Srivijaya, in southern Thailand. The royal court of Srivijaya participated in a mixture of the Hindu and Buddhist religions, similar to that of the Cham people in central Vietnam. Monarchs of the Srivijaya were related through marriage to royalty in the Hindu kingdom of Java, in Indonesia, and Srivijaya in Thailand is sometimes considered a vassal state of the Malay and Javanese royaumes. Statuary from the Srivijaya has obvious recognizable Indian characteristics, both in style and subject matter. Most of the figures that have been discovered depict the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and the Hindu god Vishnu. Both of these deities are often shown with multiple arms, an upright pose with hands in teaching and compassion gestures, and crowns and Indian-styled garments. Many of these characteristics would be modified in later ages, creating a much more elaborate style that we now recognize as Thai.
An excellent site on Srivijayan art:
Mon and Khmer Buddhist Art and Influence
In the 6th century CE a new school of art and architecture was formed under a new dynasty in Thailand. This new style was promulgated by the Mons, an ethnic group from interior Thailand. The period is usually referred to as the Dvaravati, and it last from the 6th through the 11th centuries CE. During the Dvaravati period, influence in Thailand was split between the Mons and the Khmer, from Cambodia, who had taken control of the northern half of the country. Because of this overlap, much of Dvaravati artwork bears a great resemblance to Angkorian Cambodian art and architecture.
The Mons took control of Thailand, uniting several smaller kingdoms into a central unit. Throughout their dynasty, the Mons founded several capital cities, all of which became centers for study for Theravada Buddhism. During this time, new temple compounds were being constructed in a new style. These monastic compounds are called wat in Thailand as well as Cambodia. Wats were especially important in Thailand during dynastic, heavily Buddhist eras.
The wat is a large monastic compound with many different buildings and functions. Wat that were founded and managed by nobility are called wat luang. Wats created by groups of merchants and other communities are called wat rat. The wat provided a home for Buddhist monks, men who resigned themselves to a life of meditation, study, and veneration of the Buddha. Monks were neither eligible for conscription, nor did they pay taxes, making monastic life an option for men without means, inheritance, or land. In return, the monks often served the role as keepers of records, educators, and artists. Monks lived in special cells, called kuti, on the sangkhawat (residential) sector of the wat. In the phutthawat (sacred) sector, was the bot (ordination hall), the wihan (hall for sacred images of the Buddha), the ho trai (library), the sala kan parian (study hall), usually several chedis (towering reliquaries), and small chapels used for veneration by both monks and lay people. Often, between three and five chedis would be built in a wat. The chedi is imbedded with sacred meaning, and at times will have an image of the Buddha inside of it, or in an adjacent chapel with relics. The wat became the center of both religious and social life in many Thai neighborhoods. The support of the wat was necessary in order for a Buddhist follower to accrue merit, and thus gain insight which would lead a lay person closer to enlightenment. Wats were important as signs of wealth and power as well as piety, especially for the nobility who were in constant competition for the king’s favor. There are no in-tact wats still extant from the Dvaravati period, however, the large wat at Nakhon Pathom has been built over the ancient structure, preserving the site’s holy heritage and continuing it’s life of worship by Thai Buddhists.
As in the earlier Indianized period, much of the art surviving from the Dvaravati period is religious statuary. Most of the statues discovered are images of the Buddha, whom still looks very similar to his Indian counterpart. However, in the transmission of Indian Buddhism to Thai Buddhism, the symbolic gestures made by the Buddha are changed. East gesture made by the figure has a meaning accordant to Buddhist iconography. In Thailand, one of the most significant of these gestures is the two-handed vitarka mudra. In this gesture, the Buddha is standing with both elbows bent and hands out in front of him. His forefinger and thumb touch to form a small circle. The vitarka mudra is a teaching gesture, showing the Buddha disseminating his celestial knowledge. The two-handed vitarka mudra is very rare in Indian art, however, it is commonly found in the Buddhist statuary from Thailand. Though this may seem like a small change, it is significant in showing the development of a new Buddhist iconography in Thailand.
Dvaravati statuary consisted of stand-alone statues of carved sandstone, terracotta and bronze, as well as bas relief forms carved into walls. Dvaravati forms can be distinguished by their smooth, pleat less robes, which cover one or both shoulders of the figure’s body. There is sometime the hint of a belt, and the hem of the garment should appear rounded but not heavily layered. Almost all formal statuary from the Dvaravati period has religious significance, and most is found within the ruins of temple compounds. The faces of these Buddhas are ambiguous ideals which display neither entirely male nor female qualities. The face is smoothed, with the eyes looking down, and a crown of snail-curl hair about the head. This ideal would hold throughout Thai art, with modification in the later centuries. Similar Buddhist statuary can be found in Cambodia, India, Laos, and parts of southern Vietnam.
A good site with photographs of Dvaravati Buddhist artwork:
A brief but good site about Dvaravati/Mon artwork:
Mid-Millennium Arts: Three Schools
The post-Dvaravati period is divided into several different schools of art, each belonging to similar yet distinct cultures which evolved out of political strife caused by constant aggression. Of these, three cultures dominate the artistic scene from the 10th century onward, and one would eventually culminate in the Thai artistic style that we recognize today. These three cultures are the Khmer-related Lop Buri, the Mon-related Lan Na, and the indigenous culture of Sukhothai. All of these three cultures shared essential elements: each was a primarily Buddhist society with Hindu-related beliefs of divine kingship, and each continued to build wats and support Buddhist-centered courtly cultures.
The Lop Buri school, named for the southern town where distinctive statuary was first discovered, was active from the 10th century through the 14th century. Lop Buri artwork is found in the Chao Phraya river valley, an area which was under the control of the Khmers until the early 12th century. Thus, this school’s primary influence was Angkorian Khmer culture from Cambodia. This influence can be clearly seen, especially in the religious architecture. Wats created by Lop Buri artists has curved, bullet-shaped central prangs, similar to those found in Cambodia (Angkor Wat being the most famous example of this style). The Lop Buri style is characterized entirely by the significant, recognizable influence of Khmer motifs and styling. Lop Buri continued to be a significant force in Thai artwork until it was sacked by the Mongols in 1287. By the end of the 13th century, a new power had come into play: a native king named Intradit, succeeded by his son Ram Khamhaeng, created Sukhothai, the first ethnically Thai dynasty.
Sukhothai experienced a golden age of artistic development, including the proliferation of a unique style. Unlike the Lop Buri style, the Sukhothai school was inspired by Sri Lankan artwork. Sukhothai, as might be surmised from its name, was the first indigenous Thai kingdom, lasting from the 13th to the 15th century. Its capital was Sukhothai, a walled city situated on the Chao Phraya River in the center of today’s Thailand. Sukhothai artists abandoned the Khmer style, building tall, bell-shaped prangs and pointed spires instead of the softly curved arches common in Khmer wat architecture. Carved figures of the Buddha also became more elongated, featuring curved arms that flowed out from the body, long, graceful fingers and toes, and often a pointed crown or spire at the top of the head. The face and body of these figures, whether cast in bronze (the preferred medium of Sukhothai sculptors) or carved in stone, tended to be extremely smooth, with little texture to either the skin or garment. The earlobes were lengthened, and the face became longer and thinner, blurring further the recognizable masculinity of the figures. Coupled with the lack of any type of genitalia, the Buddha figure was transformed during the Sukhothai period into a truly ideal being with little similarity to common mortal man. Unlike previous artistic eras, Sukhothai artists portrayed the Buddha performing a variety of activities, including sleeping, sitting upright, walking, and teaching. This animated spirit which surrounds the Sukhothai style is a culmination of aesthetic perfection and technical skill. For these reasons, Sukhothai statuary is considered to be the apogee of Thai artistry.
Along with incredible works in sculpture and architecture, Sukhothai artists also excelled at ceramics and painting. The Sukhothai school is the oldest school currently known to produce a distinct motif cannon for painting as well as statuary arts. As with sculpture, much of the painting discovered has been of a religious nature, and many of the paintings known today come from wats or other religious sites. Sophisticated painted pottery and ceramic sculpture have also emerged, the first of its kind in Thailand, with the earliest examples produced in the late 13th century. Fish, dragons, human figures and other animated motifs seem to have been popular for the decoration of ceramics. Color glazes as well as paints were developed, giving ceramics a new range in color and texture. Unlike earlier pieces of pottery, Sukhothai ceramics are often rich in hue and glossy. Figurine shaping was also prevalent in Sukhothai society. Dragons, naga (snakes), and maternity figures were all popular. These figures were believed to help protect homes, families, and pregnant women from harm. Naga figures were kept near the home to help attract rain, whereas the use of jars and bottles shaped as elephants were supposed to help bring wealth and good luck. The kilns and ceramics centers actually outlived the Sukhothai dynasty, shutting down only in the late 16th century after frequent invasions by the Burmese.
The third school of art to establish itself during these middle ages was the last bastion of the Mon culture in the city of Haripunchai, which is today known as Lamphun. A society existing concurrently with the Sukhothai culture, the Lan Na school existed within a free state from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Lan Na was its own culture and kingdom in the northern section of Thailand. Much of the artistic remnants of Lan Na are at temple sites decorated with Buddhist statuary. Lan Na styling bears great resemblance to that found in Laos, due to the Mon influences in Haripunchai. Much like the art produced in Sukhothai, Lan Na statuary involves a smoothness treatment towards faces and forms, including animal figures. The Lan Na school, however, did not last long enough to form the lasting impression on Thai art that Sukhothai exacted. In 1556, Lan Na was overtaken by the Burmese, and became subject to two centuries of colonial rule.
An excellent site with several photographs of Lop Buri Buddhist artwork:
An excellent site with many examples of Sukhothai Buddhist artwork:
A good site with photos about Sukhothai art:
An excellent site with several photographs of Lan Na Buddhist statuary
A good site with photos on Lan Na Mon-influenced art:
The Golden Kingdom: Ayutthaya
The Sukhothai culture experienced a golden age from the 15th century until the 18th century. A new city was founded, and the Thai courts were moved to the new kingdom of Ayutthaya (also known as Siam). With its strategic location in a natural nook in the Lop Buri River, and its well-structured and talented leadership, Ayutthaya became one of the most influential and wealthy kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Ayutthaya dominated the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia through military force, and established its northern border as the edge of the old kingdom of Sukhothai, thence bordering the Burmese-control Lan Na kingdom in the north. Ayutthaya’s placement on the Lop Buri gave it a natural tactical advantage, and the landscape was modified, creating waterway connections to the Chao Phraya and Pasak rivers in the 15th century. This system of waterways allowed for Ayutthaya to become a major cultural and trading center in Southeast Asia, as well as a rich agricultural breadbasket. Around a growing metropolis were fields full of rice, vegetables, and mulberry bushes to support silk worms. The city of Ayutthaya itself became a monument to the power and affluence of its commerce and government. However, Ayutthaya’s fortune also created many enemies, and in 1767, the Burmese invaded the city and burned the capital to the ground, taking hostage the court, artisans, and residents and deporting them to Burma. What we know now of Ayutthaya stems from the ruins of the city, as well as items that were traded and discovered in sites in neighboring countries and as far away at China and Indonesia.
Like the three cultures in Thailand’s immediate past, Ayutthaya was a Buddhist kingdom. Buddhism was the center focus for the arts, and artists created great temples, statues, and paintings dedicated to religion. Ayutthayan art evolved from the pointed structures of Sukhothai styling, and thus, Ayutthayan wat were tall, pointed structures with sweeping eaves and towering spires. Older wats were conserved, leading to a mixture of architectural forms. Because of this, many larger temple sites include bullet-shaped Khmer wats as well as the bell-shaped wats built during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya eras. The wats were built of brick and faced with stucco that was smoothed and sometimes painted or gilded with gold leaf. Due to the sturdiness of this construction, some of the temple compounds survived the arson attacks of the Burmese; however, they now lie in ruin due to natural decay. The Buddhist statuary at these sites is still cared for by monks, who “dress” and “feed” the holy sculptures accordant to tradition. However, many of these sculptures lack heads or limbs, another testament to the aggressive demise of Ayutthaya and the ravages of time.
Ayutthayan wats were exquisitely detailed. Statuary, prangs, and chedis were extensively detailed with images of lotus blossoms, water lilies, clouds of fire, nagas, garudas (a bird-like mythical beast from the Thai folk tradition), dragons, elephants, and tigers. The spires of the chedis and prangs were originally coated in gold, so that they gleamed in the sunlight. The attention to detail in Ayutthaya conveyed the power both of Buddhism and its teachings, and of the Ayutthayan kings over fortune and fate itself. This preoccupation with grandeur in Ayutthaya influenced Buddhist sculpture in a different, and some believe negative, way. Ayutthayan Buddhist sculptures became huge, often dwarfing the viewer. One of the largest Buddhas still exists at Wat Lokaya Sutha (The temple of the Earth): it is an image of the Buddha sleeping on his side, and is 42 meters long. However, though the statues grew larger, they did not become more sophisticated in detail. The Ayutthayan Buddhas are often considered to have detached, stony expressions which seem incompatible to a message of compassion and enlightenment. Smaller statues created for home altars have also been dated back to the Ayutthaya kingdom. Like their larger temple counterparts, these smaller statues wear bland, sometimes aggravated expressions.
Unlike the simplistic decoration of the Buddha during the three schools previously, the Buddha of Ayutthaya is ornately dressed, often wearing jewelry, an impressive garment with a sash that crosses the chest, and a tall, pointed crown called a mukuta. The ornamentation is sometimes highlighted with gilding, and in some cases, the whole statue is covered in gold. This change in styling shows the attitudes and affluence of the people in Ayutthaya, and is an important change in tradition from the Sukhothai culture.
Painting was also a popular medium for Ayutthayan artists, though few examples are still in existence today (and none of these examples are found in the city of Ayutthaya itself). Painting followed Buddhist themes and stories, and involved figures rendered in black ink and colored ochres on a plain background. Figures are often separated into scenes by the use of a zig-zag line border which forms an angular, roof-like effect around the subject within the painting. In the early centuries of Ayutthaya, paintings of animals and floral motifs can be found, however, these figures seem to have lost their popularity, and by the 18th century, the main form found in paintings is human. The people in these paintings are most often dressed in Thai courtly clothing, with ornate headdresses and jewelry. From these depictions, we can guess that the main audience for these paintings was of a wealthy, noble class.
Other relics left behind by the Ayutthayan gentry have been discovered in the city. These findings include gold jewelry, gilded shoes, small statues, ceremonial weapons, lacquer ware, mirrors, and ornaments made of ivory and gems. Ceramics and manuscripts written on hand-made paper which date back to Ayutthaya have been discovered elsewhere in Southeast Asia. All of these findings convey a sense of culture, proud of its achievements, its wealth, and its religion. This pride would be reinstalled in a new capital, which is today the cultural center of Thailand: the city of Bangkok.
An excellent, searchable site on the temple ruins at Ayutthaya:
A good, small site with photographs on Ayutthaya:
A good site which discusses the evolution of the Buddha image in Thai statuary:
Beauty after Catastrophe: The Bangkok (Ratanakosin) Period
After the destruction of Ayutthaya, the remaining groups of people moved south along the Chao Phraya River. Many Thai had been taken prisoner by the Burmese during the sacking of Ayutthaya, including nobles, artists, dancers, and architects. A new capital was set up, first in the old city of Thon Buri, and then in the smaller village of Bangkok. The first years at each of these locations was focused on repelling further Burmese assaults. It was in Bangkok that one of Thailand’s greatest rulers, Rama I of the Chakri dynasty, established his kingdom in 1782 and commenced a flourishing age of arts and culture, known as the Ratanakosin or Bangkok period.
Rama I was industrious and practical in his desire to build a new, glorious capital at Bangkok. Due to shortages of expertise and labor, Rama I ordered that the new city be built from the bricks of the old, transported down the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok was built with a system of sturdy walls and watchtowers to help prevent a future invasion. On the interior, new architectural projects were developed, including palaces, wats, markets, and housing. These projects were patronized by each of the seven kings of the Chakri dynasty, whom were each named Rama I-VII. Due to this patronage, a new architectural style was also developed in Bangkok. It was based loosely on the architecture of Ayutthaya, but lacked any of the Khmer qualities that were present in the old capital. New buildings were built in a vertical scale, with sharp, ornamented edgings on the roofs. Eaves are layered, creating an upward effect which culminates in pointed crowns on the roofs. The prangs in Bangkok’s wats are shaped like long, thin bells, and are also layered. Chedis and prangs have steep spires which reach up into the sky. Unlike earlier periods in Thai architecture, Ratanakosin architecture stresses height and lightness. Motifs in ornamentation remained consisted between Ayutthaya and Bangkok, however, with naga, dragons, and botanical images most popular. Demonic creatures are also incorporated, especially in religious structures. Until the end of the reign of Rama III, many temples were decorated with Chinese glazed tiles. Color is widely employed in Ratanakosin architecture, as is silver leaf and gilding. It is the opulence and ornamentation of the Ratanakosin style that many people think of when they first think of Thai art.
This richness also attracted foreigners to Thailand in the 18th and 19th century. Though Thailand was never colonized by Europeans, it was influenced by European travel and trade through the colonial/mercantile periods. Especially influential were the French, and many buildings and gardens in Bangkok resemble Rococo French structures such as the Palace at Versailles. Topiary shaping became a popular gardening style in Thailand in the mid-19th century, and topiary gardens can be found at palace and religious grounds. Foreigner quarters were also built in Bangkok, and served as centers for foreign trade and currency exchange within the city as well as diversifying spots of culture.
Along with a new style of architecture, other arts also developed during the Ratanakosin period. Painting became especially popular, and paintings adorned not only temple and palace walls but also pages of manuscripts and religious scrolls. The most common topics for murals and manuscripts were still religious stories, especially the Thai version of the Ramayana, an Indian story about the Buddha, which was adapted into the Thai language by King Rama II. Paintings also depicted Thai history, including murals which told the story of the sacking of Ayutthaya and the voyage and settlement of Bangkok. Folk paintings also exist from this period, most of which are devoted to the daily life in Bangkok. These paintings depict floating markets, men making deals in the markets, boat races, large festivals, dancing girls, and nobility parading through the streets on elephants with their entourage in tow. Some of these folk paintings show foreigners visiting temples and palace gardens. Paintings remained very stylized and two-dimensional, with only the size of the figures employed to show depth of field. Much like in architecture, the color palette in the Ratanakosin period was much expanded, and new hues such as blue, purple, and peach were developed along with the natural bone black, red, and yellow ochre, and burnt sienna. Artists painted on hand-made thick paper, plaster walls and panels, and silk panels. Unfortunately, due to the climate and the natural vulnerability of the materials, many paintings have not survived. Current examples are often damaged or missing key elements.
Sculpture was also key in the Ratanakosin period, however, it was not as influential in this period as it had been in the past. The statuary of Bangkok remained religious in nature, and utilized materials such as stone, bronze, ivory, and sometimes wood. The Buddha, the most popular figure for statuary, maintained the appearance developed during the Ayutthaya period, however, his clothing became much more elaborate, including gem-encrusted garments and an adamantine crown. Many of the statues from Bangkok are covered in gold leaf and gems, giving them an incredibly opulent appearance. Sculptors also experimented with new, foreign materials, carving Buddhist statuary out of stone such as Italian marble and European granite. The ability to polish these stones to a bright shine was ideal for the Ratanakosin aesthetic based in richness and beauty.
A good, searchable site of many of Bangkok’s Ratanakosin-era temples:
A good site about Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, in Bangkok:
A very good site on the Ratanakosin period of art in Bangkok:
An excellent online article about the Bangkok Royal Grand Palace:
Thailand in the 20th Century: Modern and Contemporary Art
In 1932, Thailand underwent a political revolution that diminished the powers of the monarchy. Along with new ideas of government came an influx of new ideas of art into Thailand. The Thai government asked an Italian artist, Corado Feroci, to establish a school for the arts in Bangkok. This he did to great effect, establishing the basis of what is today the University of Fine Arts. Feroci’s students were trained both in indigenous forms of art, as well as new mediums, such as oil painting, watercolor, and hard-stone sculpting (marble and granite). Because of the Western influence and foreign media and materials, much modern Thai art resembles Western art of the same period, to a great extent. However, after WWII, Thai artists began to go back to the ochre-and-gold paintings and the motifs that were common throughout the artistic history of the culture. New artists moulded fantastic Buddhas out of contemporary material such as steel and everyday newsprint, created elaborate murals which depicted both religious and everyday life in contemporary Thailand, and forged new styles of artwork by mixing media. The ingenuity of many Thai artists has gained them international acclaim, and now contemporary Thai art can be seen in American museums and galleries. By employing mixed styles and experimenting with new media and technology, Thai artists today are forging a new era of art and culture.
A very good site with biographies of many Thai modern and contemporary artists, searchable by name:
Thailand’s rich soil, fed by the waters of the Chao Phraya River, has allowed the country to develop a unique culinary culture. The staple crop in Thailand is rice. In the northern regions, glutinous or “sticky” rice is favored, whereas in the southern areas, long-grain rice is preferred. Sweetly fragranced jasmine rice is indigenous to Thailand, and is so precious that Thai farmers pray to the rice goddess, named Mae Phosop, to ensure a bountiful harvest. Rice is so important that each year the royal family of Thailand participate in the first planting in the rice paddies. The agricultural calendar of life and holidays in Thailand is based upon the planting, raising, and harvesting of rice.
The center of most Thai meals is rice, though there are many geographical differences in accompaniments. Fish is the most common source of protein in Thai diets. River and ocean fish are common, as well as shrimp. Vegetables and spices are also common, including coconut milk, lemon grass, tamarind, ginger, black pepper, Thai basil, sweet potato, eggplant (aubergine), galangal, garlic, cilantro, basil, palm sugar, turmeric, cumin, shallots, and green onions. Nuts such as peanuts and cashews are used to provide a crunchy texture to some dishes, as well as a base for spicy sauces. Beef and chicken are sometimes found in Thai cuisine, but only in small quantities due to their expense. Dishes are flavored with Thai fish sauce (nam pla), or shrimp paste (kapee), which provides saltiness to the food. Some ingredients that have been borrowed from Chinese cuisine are also found in Thai food, including soy sauce and five-spice powder. Rice noodles were also brought to Thailand through China and Vietnam, and are popular ingredients in soups and stir-fries. Hot chilies, which were introduced in Thailand by Indian and Portuguese tradesmen, are now frequently used. This is especially true in the south, where Thai curries are spiced with chilies and thickened with coconut cream. In the north, kaffir lime and black pepper are used for flavor. In both regions, however, the focus of the cuisine is the main dish: rice.
Cooking fuel is extremely precious in Southeast Asia, so quick-cooking methods, such as stir-frying, deep-frying and steaming are preferred to longer, slower methods (baking and roasting are not common). Urban cuisine is all about transportability, so grilling is very popular in urban centers. Grilled fish on skewers, rice balls, and steamed dumplings are all popular fare for urban dwellers on-the-go. In more rural areas, meals are served at a slower pace, and are served to complement the rice. Thai meals do not come in courses, but rather, as many different dishes served at once. Along with steamed rice, a Thai supper might include a fish-stock soup, a noodle dish, stir-fried or grilled fish and vegetables, and a curry dish. Unlike East Asian countries, food in Thailand is eaten with a fork and spoon instead of chopsticks. Chopsticks are sometimes used for long-noodle soups, which have been adapted to Thai tastes from China. In certain rural areas, people eat with their fingers instead of using utensils. This is especially common in the northern countryside, where glutinous rice is formed into dumplings and dipped into condiments by the eater. In certain Thai Muslim communities, it is also common to eat with ones fingers, using the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. Thailand’s Muslims have a cuisine unto themselves, which includes long-grain rice and northern Indian-styled curries. Massaman curry is especially common in Muslim communities, and is made with spices which are not indigenous to Thailand, including coriander, cinnamon, and bay leaves. As in other Muslim cultures, strict adherence of food laws is observed.
Drinks and desserts are also very popular in Thailand, and many have been adapted from other cuisines to suit the Thai palette. Tea was introduced to Thailand through China and India. Instead of drinking simply brewed black tea, however, the Thai sweeten their tea with coconut cream and sometimes fruit extract. The tea is served cold, and is a refreshing option for Thailand’s humid tropical climate. This drink is known in English as Thai Iced Tea (Cha yen). A more popular variant of this dish includes bubbles made from tapioca. Thai Bubble Tea can be found in trendy tea salons, both in Bangkok and in cities across the United States. Coffee was introduced in Thailand by the Portuguese and French, and has been adapted in much the same way, creating Thai Iced Coffee (ka-fee yen). Thai desserts take advantage of a wonderful variety of native fruits, including starfruit, passionfruit, lychee, coconut, pineapple, durian, mango, papaya, and bananas. Often, fruit is mixed with sticky rice and coconut cream into custards, or jellied to form cool, clear desserts. Sweet buns with fruit filling are also popular, another type of dumpling adapted from Chinese cuisine. Modern desserts in Thailand also include Western favorites, such as treacle (a sweet syrup tart common in Britain), fruit crepes (adapted from the French), and ice cream (an American favorite). Dessert stands and shops are common in marketplaces in Thai cities, and are great places for a quick snack.
Celebratory foods are a large part of festivals and holidays in Thailand. Thai holidays follow three general categories: agricultural holidays and festivals that revolve around the rice-planting seasons, Buddhist religious holidays, and royal observations and festivities. In the 20th century, modern holidays such as Teacher’s Day and Labour Day have also been added to the calendar. These holidays are days of thanks for Thailand’s teachers and labourers (as cultivators of children’s moral sensibilities as well as education, teachers hold a special place of respect alongside parents in Thai society). Buddhist festivals feature somber times of prayer and meditation as well as the preparation of large vegetarian feasts.
A very good site with information, recipes and photographs:
A very good site with photographs about rice and culture in Thailand:
An excellent article about Thai food culture and eating habits:
A very good article about southern Thai regional cuisine:
A good article about northern Thai cuisine:
An excellent article about urban Thai street fare:
An excellent calendar of holidays and celebrations in Thailand:
Historically, Thailand has been a place of convergence for many different cultures. It has also been home to several different languages. In the past, people in Thailand spoke Mon, Khmer (which is still the dominant language of Cambodia), and Pali, an Indian language used primarily for religious services. Written languages in Thailand have included Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer, and even Chinese. Khmer is still spoken on the Cambodian-Thai border, and there is a present minority which has kept the Mon language alive.
The present, most common language spoken in Thailand today is Thai. The Thai language developed as a conglomerate linguistic system during the era of Sukhothai around the 13th century CE. Aspects of Khmer, Mon, and Pali can all be found in the Thai language spoken and written today. In addition to the national language of Thai, there are several ethnic languages spoken in Thailand by minority groups. In schools, English is most often taught as a foreign language.
An excellent article on written Thai:
An excellent source on Thai language, including audio materials:
Much like its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand's performance traditions reflected the exchange of cultures between the Thais and surrounding nations. Thai dance, music, and theatre all have aspects drawn from Indian, Burmese, Khmer (Cambodian), Chinese, and Malay (Indonesian) traditions. However, these inspirations have been drawn into a distinct style, which now marks the classical forms of dance, and especially dance-drama, in Thailand.
Classical Thai dance-drama is a mixture of a Thai form of shamanistic dance and the adaptation of Khmer courtly dance from Cambodia. In 1431, the people of the capital city of Ayutthaya conquered the Khmer capital in Angkor, and brought back court artists, dancers, and musicians as spoils of war. The courtly style of dance was merged with indigenous Thai forms, as well as with the storytelling traditions of Hinduism (brought into Thailand from both India and Indonesia), and Hinayana Buddhism (brought through India, China, and Burma). The Ayutthaya period is considered the pinnacle period of Thai cultural development, starting in the mid-fifteenth century and ending at the Burmese razing of the city of Ayutthaya in 1767. The spirit and culture of Ayutthaya has since been modified, and can be seen in the cultural developments, especially in Thailand's new capital city, Bangkok.
Classical Thai dance-drama follows a complex set of rules on motions for different roles. The motions that can be made by the dancer are dictated by his or her role in the dance. There are four standard classifications of roles: heroes, heroines, demons or ogres, and monkeys. For each type of character, there are various sub-classifications. Men can play any type of hero, monkey, or demon, but women are restricted to the heroine category. However, the character defines the type of movements that are allowed to be made. Heroes, for example, take wide steps with their knees fully bent, and hold their torsos erect as they move their necks, faces, arms and hands. Monkeys move much faster than heroes, and can do somersaults and scratching motions, much like monkeys do in the wild. Each type of character also has a costume specific to that classification. Thai dance-drama costumes are elaborate and colourful. The character may wear a pointed crown, up-curved epaulettes on the shoulders, and much jingling jewelry. Monkey and demons characters also wear masks. Demons are marked by their terrifying masks as well as the club, which is carried and used to point and gesture. All dancers perform in bare feet, as it was forbidden to wear shoes in the presence of the king during the palace days of the tradition’s development. Training to perform all of these roles is extremely difficult, and children begin to train to be professional dancers as early as four years of age.
Much like classical dance in other Southeast Asian countries, Thai classical dance-drama is performed with a full orchestral accompaniment, as well as with a written component, sung by a narrator. The music focuses on rhythm, with a multitude of percussion instruments playing together. The orchestra is called a pipad in Thai.
One theatrical tradition which exists in Thailand is the nang yai, or shadow theatre. In nang yai, carved moveable figures on large poles are manipulated in front of a screen, which produced their shadow. Accompanied by the pipad, or percussion-weighed orchestra, the figures are used to tell stories from Thai history, as well as from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Two narrators sing out the story whilst the shadow figures act out each scene. In Thailand, the most popular story for the shadow theatre is the Ramakien, a Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, which was developed by King Rama I in the late eighteenth century.
One very famous performance tradition which is also based on the Ramakien story is the khon, or masked pantomime theatre. Much like classical dance-drama, khon performances include the pipad orchestra, a singing narrator, as well as a large compliment of actors, dancers, and chorus members. In khon, the actors, masked as different characters in the story, silently act out the narrator's plot. Also similar to the classical dance-drama, khon roles are divided into the four categories (heroes, heroines, demons/ogres, and monkeys). The khon performance tradition is truly a conglomeration of the aspects of classical dance-drama, music, and shadow theatre, which is then expanded into a magnificently ornate spectacle. Unlike classical dance-drama, however, the objective of khon is to create almost painterly tableaux, or motionless scenes, which correspond with the narration of the Ramakien. The classical moves are held in place by the actors to form a picture for each scene. Khon performances are still very popular, and can be seen in modern Thailand and in theatres across the world.
Various folk performance traditions also exist in Thailand. Thailand has a long and well-developed history of folk opera, called likay. Likay tell popular story, such as romances and comedies. Likay is still a widely popular folk art, and has even been adapted for television in Thailand. Folk dance-drama is called lakhon, a word that means dance, but it often modified to describe what kind of story will be performed. For example, lakhon nora uses the plot of the Thai folk-tale, Manora, as its theme. Along with the classical courtly traditions, these arts have been extraordinarily affected by the influences of India, Khmer culture in Cambodia, and Malay culture in Malaysia and Indonesia. Unlike the courtly traditions, the folk traditions use smaller bands of dancers and actors, and tell folk stories instead of strictly religious ones. These lakhon dance traditions employ a mixture of techniques, from pantomime and slow, deliberate dancing, to clowning and acrobatics to entertain. Like their aristocratic cousin, the dancers in folk traditions perform in elaborate and colorful costumes to the music of a percussion-centered orchestra. Lakhon performances can be seen throughout Thailand, and are performed outdoors in open-air arenas, as well as in temple complexes and on festival stages. It is much rarer to see a lakhon performance outside of Thailand.
For more information and photographs, please visit these websites on Thai dance, music, and theatre:
On Thai classical dance:
Very good source for details on Thai classical dance:
On Thai dance and traditional music:
Very good site on Khon dance-drama:
A good site on the nang yai (shadow theatre):
On the Ramakien dance-drama, along with good photos: