It’s always nerve-wracking visiting a place for the first time, all the more so when the bus all the guide books recommend doesn’t seem to exist and you end up travelling by minibus with 12 Thai people, at least one of whom is throwing up into a plastic bag, at the mercy of a driver who drives so fast and takes so many risks you suspect he is intent on hastening the advent of all our next lives. Tash had the good sense to close her eyes for most of the trip. Roo and I tried to concentrate on our books, glancing up from time to time, only to be sorry we did.
Still, the hellish journey delivered my most integrated moment ever in Thailand when, after we’d pulled over to dispose of a bag of vomit, I was the one to produce a tiny jar of yah dohm, a strong-smelling ointment like Tiger balm, which the Thai people inhale to prevent motion sickness. The gesture met with approving smiles and the yah dohm was comandeered for the remainder of the journey, returned only as we pulled into Nakhon Si Thammarat — second stop on my scouting mission for locations for the next Jayne Keeney novel.
Nakhon Si Thammarat (‘Majestic City of the Unworldly King’) proved a fascinating destination. There is much to write about but I’ll confine this post to the cultural practice for which it is most famous: nang talung or shadow puppetry. We visited the Shadow Puppet Museum at the home of master/ajarn Suchart Subsin, the museum in one of several wooden buildings in the family compound. It was both charming and interesting, too, learning how the puppets evolved. They actually shrank in size during World War II, as did the screen, because the puppeteer couldn’t risk attracting the attention of bomber jets. The WWII era also saw the Westernisation of the puppets, the women wearing high heels, the men in jeans.
According to Ajarn Suchart’s daughter-in-law Goong Nang (‘Miss Shrimp’), shadow puppets came to Thailand from India 1,200 years ago, originally as a vehicle for telling the story of the Ramayana. But the stories and the puppets evolved over time to take on truly Thai characteristics, reflecting and referring to contemporary life. In what is truly a vibrant cultural form, the puppet show we watched — performed by Ajarn Suchart’s son — incorporated a mobile phone, pistol, motorbike, Thai Airways plane and parachutes into a story featuring traditional characters of the hermit, prince, princess and fools/jokers.
The show was highly entertaining and laugh out loud funny in parts. The puppeteer indulged us with a bit of dialogue in English — such as the princess saying to the king, ‘I love you Daddy. Give me money for shopping?’ For Tash, the funniest part was the joker trying to get his motorbike going by whipping it like a horse (see photo at the top of this post).
I was particularly taken by a hermit-cum-joker character I saw later amongst the puppets in the showroom. In the Ramayana, the hermit is a revered teacher, an ascetic whom neither drinks alcohol nor eats animal flesh. In the Thai version, there is a whiskey-swilling, fish-eating hermit, a joker ‘who can still teach us good things,’ as Goong Nang put it.
I feel sure there is a place for such a character in my new novel.
This is written on our last night in Thailand (for now). We are back in Krabi town for the evening, heading to Singapore tomorrow, armed with notes and photos…
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