Every year, the government sponsors the Harmony World Puppetry Festival in Kanchanaburi every November. Unfortunately it was postponed due to the King’s passing, but fortunately for me, I was able to see the festival this past February. There were dozens of puppetry performances from all over the world, but I was most excited to see Nung Yai shadow puppetry. Despite difficulty traveling to the town and finding the festival in Kanchanaburi, witnessing Nung Yai for the first time lit by fire made the journey worth it.
Nung Yai shadow puppets of Wat Ban Don, Rayong, Thailand (หนังใหญ่วัดบ้านดอน ระยอง). Rayong is a province on The Gulf coast, half-way between Bangkok and The Cambodian border. It was an important trading port, and became key to King Taksin The Great's founding of a new Siamese capital in Bangkok, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Shortly after, a ship arrived bringing shadow puppets from The South. These were put into storage at Wat Ban Don, where there was already a community of artists. They were preserved and today are on display in the temple's museum. The tradition of the Nung Yai has been kept alive through passing down the method of making, performing, and preserving this classical shadow puppet form. The training resembles that of classical Khon Dance, and the stories are similarly taken from The Ramakien, (or Ramayana), using moves, and poses derived from Khon.
The puppet festival was geared towards both Thais and foreigners. The Nung Yai puppets performed almost every night and I made it a point to come and see it every time. They featured different characters and stories each time, so I was excited to see it in action. I also loved how the company was highly skilled young people ranging form probably 7 to 17. The audience was exclusively all Thai people. We all sat on straw mats on the floor and I even had a cow sitting beside me. (See video below!) I felt that maybe the audience were the family members of the performers, or maybe they have a relationship to the form. Regardless, this was by far the best performances of the entire festival. Other shows were ruined by cheap tricks like moving LED lights and fog. If they are going to do it traditional, then do it traditional. I spoke with a theater professor friend in Bangkok later that week Pasakorn Intoo-Marin, who also has a lot of interest and knowledge in these forms. He said it is rarely performed lit with actual fire so I experienced something quite special. Here are some excerpts I took. Enjoy!