Thai art and literature are deeply rooted in Thailand’s Buddhist heritage, with neighbouring influences from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia evident. Despite outside factors having helped shaped Thai art and literature, these two essential aspects of Thai culture have until recent decades remained uniquely Thai. Although the country is not noted for its literary achievements, it certainly does hold its own for unique and commendable art and architectural form.
Thai art guide
Religious sculptures dating back as far as the 5th century show amazing realism, with the temples at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya featuring dozens of portrayals of the Buddha. It was at Thailand’s temples where art first flourished and developed, almost always dedicated to religious expression. In addition to decorating temples with sculpture, painting was increasingly used to depict episodes from the Buddha’s life on temple walls, and many murals remain to this day which provide a valuable insight into ancient Southeast Asian customs.
During the Sukhothai period (1248-1348) religious sculptures did not pay attention to anatomical detail, but by the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) these images became more elaborate. During these two eras, artistic development was largely confined to religious and royal spheres, with large amounts of money and great attention given to religious art.
Sukhothai was considered the Golden Age of Thai art and development and it was indeed one of the region’s earliest civilised and wealthy kingdoms. But artistic periods stretch back much earlier to include the Lanna Kingdom (where Chiang Mai is today) and even the Dvaravati era dating from the ninth century. Many fine pieces from these periods are preserved in the National Museum in Bangkok.
Perspective was not introduced until as late as the mid-19th century, when the arrival of Western influences such as impressionism began to change the shape of Thai art. Although contemporary Thai art has seen a move away from religious and royal images to images of every kind, there is still a strong focus on these two traditional spheres. A new generation of Thai artists and the introduction of modern educational institutions have helped to radicalise Thai art, and Thai artists are now breaking into all fields of the international art world.
Thai literature guide
Some of the earliest literature in Thailand consisted of religious scriptures passed or interpreted from India, written using Sanskrit language, which were then kept at temples for religious use. Chaa-tok tales, stories of the Buddha’s life, also derived from India, were used to teach people about religious morality and are still commonly told today.
Perhaps the most prominent Thai literary works include the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic which was derived from India’s Ramayana Hindu scriptures. Unlike the chaa-tok, these writings were modified from the originals. The three versions that are still available have had an enormous impact on the arts in Thailand and remain a firm component of Thai culture even today. Still taught in schools, the Ramakien is commonly performed with puppets and episodes from the Ramakien frequently appear in paintings on temple walls – perhaps most famously at Wat Pho in Bangkok.
Other historical works include the Phra Aphaimani, an 18th century classic written by Sunthorn Phu which depicts a prince in exile who successfully completes epic feats of love and war before returning home.
Nowadays, modern Thai literature has moved away from religious preoccupations and classical genres of poetry to become accessible to all, with many works now being published in English, too. Writers in Thailand, like artists, now come from a broader social base and are susceptible to wider outside influences, meaning the subject of both art and literary works in Thailand are now boundless. They have periodically won the SEA-Write award among Southeast Asian writers, but the translated works have failed to make an impression on the deeper intellectual expectations of Western critics.
Thai people display a natural talent for artistic expression, perhaps a legacy of their fine traditions in handicrafts, wood carving and filigree work that adorned royal residences during the wealthy Ayutthaya period. Today the country is subject to modern influences from abroad which have enhanced but not diluted the independent expressions of musicians, film makers, architects, artisans and perfomers.
With an audience of 65 million, the entertainment industry in Thailand flourishes and makes superstars out of actors and singers, almost all in Thai language. If you take the trouble to explore some popular bands you’ll discover excellently produced and performed pop music. The movies are equally engaging and display a surprising maturity in production. Most are mindless entertainment, like Tony Jaa’s internationally released martial arts epic Ong Bak, but some are profoundly charming gems like Faen Chan. The same, however, cannot be said of the usual TV productions – which are dominated by dumb over-drammatised soap operas.
As for modern artists, you’ll find galleries everywhere you look, particularly in slower cities like Chiang Mai. All sorts of home decor, wall hanging and contemporary installations are on display. Whole areas of Patong are given over to artists – in the ‘Montmatre mould’.