The Arts of Thailand

Musical instruments

Musical instruments





Most classical Thai art originated in or under the patronage of the royal courts. It is an amalgam of the finest cultural traditions of Asia, blended and stamped into unique forms instantly recognizable as Thai. Classical art encompasses Buddhist art as represented in religious architecture, decorative murals, and Buddha images. The art reflected the complex formal structure and etiquette of court culture, with its heavy Indian influences, and expressed both religious and intellectual impulses. Entertainment was considered to be of secondary value in this category of art.

Another category is popular art, which arose from age-old village realities and the rites associated with birth, death, and the seasonal cycle of crop cultivation.

When speaking of Thai art in general one is able to distinguish between these two groups. On the other hand, different as they are, they are complementary and mutually reinforce each other. Much classical or court-inspired art later evolved into simpler forms which found popular appeal. Classical drama, for example, moved into the realm of popular culture in the form of comic folk-operas.

Traditional Thai Manual Arts

During the Ayutthaya period, writers, painters, dancers, sculptors, architects, musicians and skilled craftsmen came under the royal patronage of kings and the nobility. Thai architects and artists were responsible for building and decorating palaces, monasteries, and shrines in conventionally acceptable forms and styles. Unlike their Western counterparts, they were not expected to display revolutionary originality or inventiveness. Thus art and craftsmanship were transmitted from generation to generation according to rigid discipline.

In an attempt to provide general training to Thai craftsmen, especially those who worked in the palaces, the Krom Chang Sip Mu [Organization of the Ten Crafts] was established. According to Prince Pradit Worakarn, who was given charge of the Chang Sip Mu Department during the reign of King Rama V, the original organization in fact covered at least 13 different craftsmen: drawers, paper-makers, engravers, figure-makers, modelers, plasterers, lacquerers, metal beaters, turners, molders, wood-carvers, sculptors, and carpenters.

In the Bangkok period, these were grouped into 10 divisions: drawing [which included draughtsman, painters, muralists, and manuscript illustrators], engraving [woodcarvers, engravers on metal, precious metal inlay], turning [lathe-workers, carpenters and joiners, glass mosaic workers], sculpting [paper sculptors, decorative fruit and vegetable carvers], modeling [beeswax molders and bronze casters, mask and puppet makers], figure making [dummy and prototype makers], molding [craftsmen in bronze and metal casting], plastering [bricklayers, lime plasters, stucco workers and sculptors], lacquering [masters of lacquer ware and mother- of-pearl inlay], and beating [metal beaters and finishers of metal articles].

Contemporary Thai arts and crafts, though modernized to some extent through improved technology, are still very much inspired by tradition. Ranging from delicately wrought silverware to numerous utilitarian items of everyday life, they are part of the kingdom’s rich cultural heritage.


Classical Thai painting was confined to temple and palace interiors and book illustrations. Mural painting was developed to a high degree in the belief that walls should enhance the beauty of the religious and royal objects they surrounded.

Traditional Thai painting was typically Asian in that conventional perspective was ignored and figures were large or small depending on their importance. Shadows were unknown and space was neutral rather than atmospheric.

Figures were two dimensional and landscapes were merely sketchily treated backdrops for detailed action. A technique of pictorial composition called “apportioning areas” was employed, comparable to the “bird’s eye view” of Western painting. By this method, the positions of the key scenes were assigned first and then closed off with “space transformers” that effectively isolated them from considerations of perspective by doing away with any surrounding intermediate or middle ground.

The traditional Thai painter had five primary pigments, the close equivalents of scarlet lake, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, pipe-clay white, and pot-black. With these he was able to produce as many other colors. All were tempera colors, finely ground powders that were stirred into bowls containing a glue binder, using sticks to work it to the desired strength and consistency. With these colors the traditional artists created uniquely beautiful compositions in the form of temple murals, cloth banners, and manuscript illustrations.

The earliest surviving murals are characterized by earth colors made from natural pigments. They depicted excerpts from the Jataka stories, episodes from the Buddha’s life, scenes of Buddhist heaven and hells, rows of gods, and scenes of contemporary Thai life. The murals in Bangkok’s Wat Suthat and Thon Buri’s Wat Suwannaram are particularly fine examples.

The traditional painting technique continued into the Bangkok period, when colors became richer thanks to pigments imported from China. Around the middle of the 19th century, artists began using chemical pigments and Western perspective. Spatial values were eschewed for atmospheric effects, and opulent gold leaf and bold primary colors radically altered the delicate harmony of the old subdued earth colors.

Thai painters with distinguished works generally reach scholarly professional level of artistic skill. Some of them have been recognized and awarded with the Hariphitak, Chalerm Nakeeraksa, Sanit Dispandha and Tawee Nanthakwang.

Besides, Thai painters, though trained in the traditional style, have been currently influenced by Western style and technique. However, some have been able to integrate the various styles and thus create their own expression of art. Chakrapan Posayakrit, for example, while best known for his portraits is also a painter of scenes and characters based on Thai literature which manages to convey a flavor that is at once modern and traditional.

Another internationally contemporary artist is Thawan Dachanee, who has experimented extensively with his medium.


à Phra Atchana, the seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, is one of the finest examples of Sukhothai sculpture

Thai sculptors of the past concentrated almost exclusively on Buddha images, producing works that rank among the world’s greatest expressions of Buddhist art. Tsese have ranged in size from Sukhothai’s gigantic seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, which measures 11 meters from knee to knee, to tiny, fingernail-sized Buddha’s worn as amulets. Their greatest achievements were during the Sukhothai period, when the smoothness and sheen of cast metals perfectly matched the graceful elongated simplicity of the basic form. To emphasize the spiritual qualities of Buddhism, Thai sculptors eschewed anatomical details such as muscles and bone structure, realizing that these would only distract from the enigmatic serenity that was their goal.

Thai sculpture received a boost in 1933 when an Italian sculptor, Corado Feroci founded the Fine Arts School which in 1943 became Silpakorn University. Having first arrived in Thailand in 1924 to work with the Royal Fine Arts Department on the creation of monumental sculptures, Feroci is today remembered as the father of modern art in Thailand. He became a Thai citizen in 1944, changing his name to Silpa Bhirasri, and served as Dean of the Painting and Sculpture Faculty until his death in 1962.

Many of his students have been awarded with the “National Artist” status. These include, for example, Paitoon Muangsoomboon, Chit Rianpracha and Pimarn Moolpramook whose works have appeared in various places such as at the Benjasiri Gardens in Bang kok. Another artist who is well-known among the Thais and abroad is Misiem Yip-in-tsoi. She took up painting first, and then sculpture. She achieved great success in the latter field. Examples of her works, much of which depict children, can be seen i n many private collections as well as in a sculpture garden she established in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok.

Many modern Thai sculptors have experimented with the artistic possibilities of new methods borrowed from industrial technology to create works both simple and incredibly complex in meaning and effect. Others have taken objects out of their ordinary environment and turned them into arresting works of art. In one exhibition at the gallery of the National Museum, buffalo horns and hides, rice sacks, dried rice stalks, sickles and other implements were used to create the essence of being on a farm.

Lacquer ware and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay

The art of making lacquer originally came to Thailand from China, probably by way of Burma-now Myanmar, but over the centuries distinctively Thai designs and techniques were evolved. It became a notable handicraft in the northern province of Chiang Mai and is still made there in a number of households.

Lacquer ware begins with finely-woven bamboo basketry or well-seasoned wood which has been carved or shaped on a lathe into the desired shape. To this is first applied a basic coating material called samuk, consisting of the ashes of burnt rice-paddy husks or ground clay mixed with rak, or black lacquer, obtained from a tree which grows in the northern hills. When dry, this is polished with soap-stone and then another coating is applied. This process is repeated again and again for up to fifteen times, building up a rigid base of durable lacquer. At the end, a final polishing is given with a sandpaper-like leaf called bai-nod.

The object is then ready for several coats of pure black lacquer, from three to six coatings. The final layer is polished with water and powdered fired clay, giving it a glistening shine.

A design is then applied by either the method called “lai kud” or the one called “lai rot nam”. If the object is to be in colour, lai kud is used, while lai rot nam is for objects with gold designs. At the end of the process the colour or gold stands out against a background of glossy black.

The use of mother of pearl to adorn objects has a long history in Thailand. Stucco pieces embedded with bits of shell have been found at monuments dating back to the Dvaravati period (6th to 11th centuries A.D.), and same form of the art may have exi sted even before along the coastal region.

But these early efforts were crude compared with the magnificent works achieved by techniques perfected in the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods, when temple doors and windows, manuscript boxes, alms bowls, and numerous other items were splendi dly decorated by the painstaking process the Thais call khruang muk. The craft continues to thrive today in the production of exquisitely detailed furniture, mirror frames, boxes, and trays that are the pride of many owners both in Thailand and ab road.

The Thai mother-of-pearl inlay technique involves the patient cutting of the luminescent muk fai, or flame snail, indigenous to the Gulf of Thailand. The outer surface of this shell is removed with a special knife and the pearly inner shell i s cut into fairly flat pieces, each about two and a half centimeters long. Sanded flat, they are glued to wooden surfaces to form patterns or scenes and the area in between filled with lacquer.


Handsome pots dating back more than 5,000 years have been found at Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand, and the art of shaping and firing clay has continued to the present day. Simple earthenware vessels are still used for cooking and storage, while more sophisticated glazed pottery is also being produced by methods introduced from China 700 years ago.

Almost every region of the country has its own traditional pottery. The North, for example, makes fine low-fired pots and water jugs, lightly glazed with terra cotta and oil to make them capable of holding liquids; by northern custom, one of these pots is placed outside most temples and private homes so that thirsty strangers can stop and refresh themselves. Dark brown pottery in a wide variety of shapes, from flower pots to fanciful animals, is produced at kilns near the north-eastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima and Ratchaburi, west of Bangkok, is noted for its beautifully decorated water storage jars, yellowish-green in colour and adorned with dragons and swirling floral motifs.

According to tradition, the art of making delicate, blue-green celadon began at the end of the 13th century, when King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai brought 300 Chinese potters to his kingdom. Within a short time, the high-fired stoneware was being trade d throughout Southeast Asia, all the way to the Philippines and Indonesia.

The celadon industry declined with Sukhothai but has been revived in recent years in the northern city of Chiang Mai. The technique is still the same as in ancient times, using a clear glaze made from feldspar, limestone, ash, and a mall amount of re d clay. The wood used for firing the kilns comes from a small jungle tree that grows north of Chiang Mai, the ash of which is supposed to help impart the typical celadon colour. Several companies are now making the stoneware, which is becoming a noted T hai export once again.


From Thai Silk to Homespun Hill tribe Cloths

The gorgeously iridescent, nubby Thai silk may have originated in northeastern Thailand, where cloth weaving is a traditional folk craft. Rearing their own silkworms and spinning and dyeing the yarn, northeast village women use primitive hand looms to produce shimmering bolts of cloth for sale in faraway markets.

Though it prospered in early Bangkok, the silk industry went into a long decline starting in the latter part of the 19th century when cheaper, factory-produced fabrics from China and Japan began to flood the market. An attempt to improve production was made during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, when Japanese experts were brought in and a Department of Sericulture was established, but the effort enjoyed limited success. A few years after World War II, an American named Jim Thompson revived the industry and made the silk known to international markets. There are a number of silk companies today, many of them in or around Bangkok, but the Northeast is still the main centre of production; near the northeastern town of Pak Thong Chai, the company Jim Thompson founded has built the largest hand-weaving facility in the world. Besides plain and printed silks of various weights, a number of special weaves have become celebrated. One of these is called mudmee, a kind of ikat which is a specialty of the Northeast. Thanks to the encouragement of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, mudmee is now in wide use. Another sought-after silk is richly brocaded with gold and silver thread in traditional Thai patterns. This requires the most time and skill to make and is therefore the most expensive, used mainly on such ceremonial occasions as weddings.

Thai silk is today the best known of all the country’s handicrafts, found not only in countless local shops but also throughout the world. It is exported worldwide in plain lengths, plaids, brocades, stripes, prints, and checks and is supported by a massive manufacturing and sales infrastructure, a far cry from its humble origins.

Supple handwoven Thai cotton is also popular. Made in a variety of weights for both clothing and home furnishings, it is being exported in increasing quantities.

Fine embroidery is one of the traditional crafts of the northern hilltribes, with the Hmong and Yao people being particularly skilled at creating splendid, boldly-colored geometric designs. In long strips, these are used to edge a skirt or jacket, i n squares to enhance a vest or shoulder bag, in larger pieces to make a handsome quilt. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has long been an admirer of tribal embroidery and has helped to promote the craft, particularly on homespun cloths such as cotton and local hemp that produces a fabric resembling linen, among fashionable ladies in Bangkok and in other countries as well.


Though silverware is made in several parts of Thailand, the most famous centre is Chiang Mai, where it has been a prominent local handicraft for at least a thousand years. In ancient times, it was concentrated in a village called Wua Lai, just outside the city wall; the village has long been absorbed by the modern city but the area where it stood is still noted for its silver.

Northern silversmiths have applied their skills to a great variety of objects, from goblets to swords, but their most common products have been ceremonial bowls and boxes of assorted sizes. These are usually adorned with elaborate decorations, either figures or traditional Thai motifs.


Since ancient times, the Thai people have known how to make musical instruments or to copy the patterns of others and adapt them to their own uses. In fact, there are several kinds of musical instruments which the Thais apparently devised before they came in contact with the culture of India, which was widespread in Southeast Asia before they migrated there.

Later, when the Thai people were establishing their kingdoms and had come into contact with Indian culture, particularly with Indian instruments which the Mon and Khmer cultures had absorbed first, they assimilated this musical culture into their own.

From this contact, the Thais created several new kinds of musical instruments such as the phin, sang, pichanai, krachap pi, chakhe, and thon, which are mentioned in the Tribhumikatha, one of the first books written in Thai, and on a ston e inscription from the time of King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai period. Some songs of the Sukhothai period are still sung at present, such as Phleng Thep Thong.

During the Ayutthaya period the instrumental ensemble was composed of four to eight musicians. Songs became much longer and singing technique was improved. Many Ayutthaya songs were composed in a form of musical suite called Phleng Rua, which was a series of songs. Poets contributed lyrics in the form of short stories, mostly from the Ramakian. Many Ayutthaya songs are still employed in Thai plays today.

In the beginning of the Bangkok period, after a long period of war, there was a remarkable revival of Thai arts, especially music and drama. The size of the instrumental ensemble was enlarged to 12 musicians and several masterpieces of Thai literature were produced as theatrical performances accompanied by music. Beautiful lyrics written by contemporary poets were fitted into melodies of the Ayutthaya period.

All Thai musicians in the past received their training from their teachers, through constant playing and singing in their presence. With nothing else to rely upon except their own memory, it was only through much hard work that they gained their technical experience and practical knowledge in playing and singing.

Later when Thailand began to have contact with Western European nations and the United States, the Thais adopted such Western instruments as the bass drum, the violin, and the organ.

To save the national music from extinction, modern Thai musicians are trying to devise a system in which this traditional music can be rendered into Western notation and later edited. According to a book written by Sir Hubert Perry, entitled “Evolution of the Art of Music”.

“The Thai scale system is…extraordinary. It is not now pentatonic, though supposed to be derived originally from the Javanese system. The scale consists of seven notes which should by right be exactly equidistant from one another; that is, each st ep is a little less than a semitone and three-quarters. So that they have neither a perfect fourth nor a true fifth in their system, and both their thirds and sixths are between major and minor; and not a single note between a starting note and its octav e agrees with any of the notes of the European scale…Their sense of the right relations of the notes of the scale are so highly developed that their musicians can tell by ear directly a note which is not true to their singular theory. Moreover, with th is scale, they have developed a kind of musical art in the highest degree complicated and extensive.”

In all, there are about 50 types of Thai musical instruments, including many local versions of flutes, stringed instruments, and gongs used for all kinds of occasions: festivals, folk theater, marriages, funerals, and social evenings after harvesting.

The best known Thai musician for both the revival and conservation of the Thai music are Montree Tramote and Khunying Phaitoon Kittivan. Both of them were also awarded the status of “National Artists” in Thai music.

Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is an accomplished performer of several Thai classical musical instruments. She has become an active leader for the movement to revive interest in the rich cultural value of Thai music among the youn ger generations.

The Western classical music tradition was introduced to Thailand before the turn of the century. Its development was nurtured by Phra Chen Duriyang, who had studied the stringed instruments and piano with his German father. Phra Chen established Thailand’s first orchestra in the Royal Entertainment Department and taught many young Thai musicians. By the late 1920’s, other small orchestras had been established as part of the branches of the Thai armed services, and in 1934 Phra Chen’s orchestra was transferred to and became the nucleus of the Fine Arts Department. Thai musicians have shown marked improvement in style and technique over the years and they have taught a new generation of musicians. Following a drive spearheaded by the musicians, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra was established in July 1982 and gave its first public concert in November of that year.

Popular Western music, introduced in the 1950’s, was also widely accepted by the Thai people and today there are a large number of modern groups, some producing music that combines elements of both pop and traditional Thai.

Music plays an important part in the life of the Thai royal family. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an internationally-recognized jazz musician with numerous original compositions to his credit, one of which was featured in a Broadway show in the 1950’s.

The crowning success for His Majesty’s music came in 1964 when NQ Tonkunstler Orchestra played a selection of his compositions at the Vienna Concert Hall. These were also broadcast throughout Austria where they enjoyed resounding success. Two days later, the world’s renowned Institute of Music and Arts of the City of Vienna conferred its Honorary Membership upon His Majesty the King in recognition of his outstanding musical achievements. He became the 23rd Honorary Member of the Institute since its establishment in 1817, and the first Asian composer to receive this honor.

Up to now, the music world has recognized His Majesty the King as one of the great living composers. His works will surely keep his place among those of the great masters of music and will not only delight the present day audience but it will also do so for generations to come.

The Music Association of Thailand, whose objectives are to promote Thai music and safeguard the welfare of musicians, is under the royal patronage.


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