Saturday, 1 May 2010

Of Monkey Kings and Benjarong Temples

This building is the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre - Thailand's first cinema, built in the early 1930s by HM King Rama VII. It still shows films occasionally, but nowadays is more frequently used as a theatre: every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30, a Khon (the traditional Thai masked dance-drama) show is performed there.

It's not cheap - 1000 or 1200 per ticket - but as this is one of the few remaining chances to see a Khon performance, and as far as I can find out, the only regular one, I went along yesterday evening and bought one. I went early to give myself time to explore the area around the theatre, and it's well worth a look. Mementos form various stages in Bangkok's development are clustered there, at the northernmost end of Chinatown. On the same block is the Old Siam mall, in a European colonial-style building, with a Thai 'food village' on the ground floor, and nearby is Chinaworld, originally the first of the now-ubiquitous Central department stores (worth a peek for the car-elevator up to the car park). Just up the road is one of Old Bangkok's preserved canals, with paved banks, little bridges, lined with shrines and homes, evening food vendors grilling catfish and boiling soups. Follow the canal left to Wat Rajabophit, built in 1869 under HM King Rama V. This is an incredible temple: architecture that dwarfs the visitor, compactly built in a space that seems to small to contain it (yes: it's bigger on the inside); walls of ceramic tiles in the traditional benjarong colours; a chapel with a traditionally Thai exterior and a Gothic interior; and a beautiful royal cemetery. The temple's wooden gates are all decorated with carvings of European-style soldiers.

Follow the canal the other way and you'll find Romaninart Park, formerly a prison site, and still retaining watch towers, part of the prison wall, and a museum. It's pleasantly breezy in the evenings, though not entirely peaceful, the thudding soundtrack of aerobics classes carrying over the whole of the grounds. There's also an outdoor gym.

Back to the theatre for the show, which was complied from the scenes in the Ramakian featuring Hanuman. The dancers perform highly acrobatic moves, accompanied by a live Thai orchestra and narrators who also deliver any dialogue in time with the characters' motions. Hanuman's stories are my favourite in the Ramakian - he's born from a cursed woman standing on one leg and Pra Isuan's divine weapons as blown into her mouth by a wind god; seduces a mermaid and has a "fish-tailed monkey" for a son; tricks the demon-king Thotsakan into giving him his heart in a box - on one level this is fun storytelling, on another, a chance to see a traditional Thai performance with only a few modern embellishments (flashing lights and some sound effects). The audience was tiny, which is sad; do consider going, as it's a different sort of evening out in a historically rich corner of town, and you'd be supporting the preservation of one of Thailand's most important performing arts.

If you're not too tired after the performance (as I was, with all the walking I'd done beforehand), you can wander down Triphet road to Pak Klong Talat, the all-night flower/fruit/veg market, or Saphan Phut night market, selling second-hand clothing and other fashion items.

Getting there: Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre is on the corner of Triphet and Charoen Krung, accessible by bus numbers 1, 8, 48 and 73 along Charoen Krung, or by express-boat to Sapan Phut (N6) and a short walk, or on foot from most places in Chinatown and Rattanakosin Island. Here's a map from their website.

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