Thailand is a melting pot of Asian culture, and the classical dance traditions can be traced to a variety of sources, but the most direct came from the Thai conquest of the Khmer capital of Angkor in 1431. As was the custom in those times, the conquering Thai army from the kingdom of Ayuthaya took human booty, and transported the Khmer court dancers and musicians back to the Thai capital. Thus began the tradition of Thai dance drama that continues to this day. In addition to the masked dance drama of the khon, which was performed originally by men only, maidens of the royal harem were trained to perform a delicate dance drama known as lakorn nai, which means 'inner theatre', since it was performed exclusively in the royal palace. The costumes are made of silk, embroidered with gold and silver threads and decorated with imitation jewels. Ornaments and headgear identify characters, with the regal characters wearing the chada, a uniquely Thai spire-like crown. Male characters (played by women in the lakorn nai) are clothed in breeches and a form-fitting top with peaked epaulettes. Women characters are clad in ankle-length skirts and a shawl. The most popular plot of the lakorn nai dance drama is based on a Thai version of an originally Javanese epic known as Inao, which tells the story of a prince separated from his beloved, and their adventures as they seek each other.
An exquisitely painted cabinet showing a scene from the Ramakien in the Buddhaisawan Chapel, built in 1795. The chapel has been restored and is located within the compound of the National Museum in Bangkok.Another form of Thai classical dance, known as lakorn nora, comes from the South of the country. While it lacks the elevated status which the lakorn nai carries as a court entertainment, it is an important dance genre. Stylistically different as well, with costumes and dance movements which look almost Indian, the overall effect is more supernatural than elegant. Also called manora, after the most regularly performed plot, it tells the story of a kinaree (a supernatural half bird half human) princess, her travails with an evil king and her ultimate salvation by a valiant prince. Lakorn nora performances also include prayers and comedy, and are considered to hold an element of magical power. For this reason, such performances are often organized and paid for by person making a wish or fulfilling a vow. The Erawan shrine is Bangkok is the archetypical example of this ritual.
A discussion of the Thai dance tradition would not be complete without a mention of lakorn nok (literally outer theatre). While scholars may dispute whether it qualifies as 'classical', the genre nonetheless uses elements of the classical tradition, such as costumes and dance postures, and the palace itself has at times has its own troupe of lakorn nok performers. The more likely venue for these performances, however, is the temple fair in a rural area. Fantastic folk tales such as Sang Thong, which tells of a hero born in a conch shell, the son of a queen, but raised by a demoness, fill the hearts of the young and old with mystery and awe, and provide a link with their ancient cultural traditions.
From the rarefied confines of the royal chambers to the dusty compounds of isolated villages, Thailand's rich tradition of dance drama brings inspiration and joy to all who witness it. But Thailand's most venerated theatre tradition is the enactment of the ancient Indian mythological tale, the Ramayana. In Thailand it is known as the Ramakien.
The elaborate costumes worn by the performers are one of the major attractions of Thai classical dance. In addition to exquisitely embroidered garments, the dancers wear spired crowns, called chada