Puppetry has been part of Thailand’s art practices since the 15th century. The earliest writing about Thai puppetry was written by an envoy of Louis XIV of France named Bishop Tachard who visited Ayutthaya in 1685 and it is probable that the art form has existed even 300 years before the arrival of foreign ships.
There are four major categories when it comes to exploring Thailand’s puppet theatre — Central Thai’s court and popular performances, regional genres influenced by Malaysia (South) and Laos (Northeast), and contemporary puppet theatre.
Types of Thai Puppets
Hun Lakorn Lek
One of the most popular types of puppetry, hun lakorn lek, is a form created by Master Krae Sapthavanich and later revived by Master Sakorn Youngkhiewsod, or better known as Joe Louis. His puppet troupe, the Joe Louis Thai Puppet Theatre is greatly associated with this type of puppet and still performs up to this day.
Hun lakorn lek puppets are manipulated by three people, similar to the Japanese bunraku puppets. One puppeteer holds the head and right hand, another holds the left hand, and the third one holds the feet. Rods are connected to the hands that also contain a mechanism in order to make the fingers move. In this practice, the puppeteers hold the puppet higher than their heads when performing as a sign of respect, since most of the characters they portray are gods and goddesses. When watching their performances, another noticeable aspect is how the puppeteers synchronize their movements to the puppets, making dance a second skill to their puppetry.
Hun Luang and Hun Yai
Hun Luang (royal puppets) and Hun Yai (big puppets) are types of puppets that are most often seen in court performances. The last time these puppets were performed was during the royal cremation of King Rama IX last October 26, 2017. Before that, it was not seen for 150 years, the last time being King Rama IV’s funeral in 1868.
These royal puppets (hun luang) are intricately made of wood, and are placed on top of wooden poles which are connected to the waist of the puppeteers. Twenty (20) pieces of strings are attached to the limbs and are manipulated from below the puppets. Each puppet stands for about 1 meter and weighs around 3-5 kilograms varying on their costumes.
Hun krabok developed as part of the popular performance genre of puppetry. The puppets are made from either wood or papier mache and are attached to a bamboo pole that will serve as its spine. Large pieces of cloth serve as costumes and the actual body of the puppet, and attached at their hands are rods for manipulation.
Nang means ‘leather’. Nang yai is a large shadow puppet made of cow or buffalo skin. Similar to Cambodia’s sbek thom, two poles are found at both ends of the puppet and are held above the head by the puppeteer. Each character is made into one shadow piece.
This type of puppet is usually performed in large open spaces where a large light source or bonfire is present, and the shadows are projected upon big screens or walls. The puppeteers also express the characters’ actions or emotions through dance.
Deriving its name from Pattalung, a city in southern Thailand, nang talung is a smaller puppet with movable parts. This is shadow puppet is similar to the Indonesian wayang kulit.