If art imitates life as well as life imitates art, then Kuhn Chang Kuhn Phaen—one of the best-loved works of classical Thai literature—whole-heartedly reflects this sentiment. Originating from folklore legends, and partly based on a true story, this epic is a mélange of heroism, romance, adventure, and tragedy. It’s also spiced up with farce, horror, magic, and eroticism. Unlike Ramayana, which depicts the fantastical world of gods and demons, Kuhn Chang Kuhn Phaen voices a story of ordinary Siamese folks and their lives during the early Ayutthaya Period.
It’s believed that this multi-generational saga was based on true events that took place around 1,500 AD, during King Ramathibodi II’s reign. An Ayutthayan memoir mentions Kuhn Phaen’s name in an account of a military campaign against Chiang Mai, modelled after wars and battles in the Ayutthaya and Lan Xang chronicles. However, Kuhn Chang Kuhn Phaen is more likely to be a blend of oral history, local tales, and true stories embellished by storytellers. It first developed in oral form for Khub Sepha, a genre of Thai poetic storytelling that had its origin in the performances of troubadours who recite the verses by singing, accented by the clapping of ghrub, a pair of wooden clappers, for rhythm and emphasis. Some old episodes were unrecorded and lost, while new ones were written, compiled, and incorporated in the 19th century. Among its many contributors are King Rama II, King Rama III, and their entourage of poets, who composed notably beautiful passages of key scenes.
The first half of the story involves three main protagonists—Chang, Phaen, and Pimphilalai (or Pim)—from Suphanburi. The main plot revolves around their love triangle and its tragic outcome. The second half repeats the theme, with one man and two women—Phra Wai (Phaen’s and Pim’s son), and Srimala and Soifah (his two wives).
The story unfolds through Chang and Phaen’s childhood and adulthood, as both are in love with Pim. After his monkhood, Kuhn Phaen—Kuhn was a junior feudal title royally bestowed for male commoners—successfully woos and marries Pim but then he has to go to war. Kuhn Chang seizes the opportunity to take Pim by lying that Kuhn Phaen died in battle. But Kuhn Phaen returns and they all end up in the ensuing squabbles. Decades after, the tragedy culminates when Pim is condemned to death by the king for failing to choose between the two men. Phra Wai asks for her pardon, but arrives at the scene too late.
These well-drawn characters reveal universal human traits. Kuhn Chang is bald, ugly, paunchy, crass, and unscrupulous but wealthy. He uses all kinds of schemes to trick Pim into marrying him and also tries to kill his step-son, Phra Wai. Although often seen as a scoundrel, he actually loves and cares about Pim very much. Meanwhile, Kuhn Phaen, a Thai version of Casanova, is suave, brave, clever, silver-tongued, and philandering but poor. After ordained as a novice, he is trained in martial arts, mantras, and formulas for supernatural power which he uses for his advantages. The sorcery helps him through challenging situations and in charming women. In a famous passage, he acquires a Kumar Thong, or “golden child”, a powerful spirit from the still-born foetus of his own son (with Buakhlii, one of his wives)!
Both men serve in the court of Somdej Phra Punwasa, modelled after King Ramathibodi II. But nothing is ever fair in love and war for these two. They keep outsmarting each other as well as competing for Pimphilalai’s love. However, they treat her poorly, like their property.
Pimphilalai, the leading lady, is pretty, kind-hearted, and strong-willed but sharp-tongued. Due to her sickness when Kuhn Phaen was at war, a monk recommends her a new name—Wanthong. Caught in this bizarre web of debauchery and deceits, Wanthong is hardly a damsel in distress, but a victim of the male chauvinistic society. Feminists would criticize her as an indecisive and compromising heroine, while men view her one-sidedly as an unfaithful two-timer. Under social pressures, she can’t seem to win. Failing to determine the course of her life, she boldly accepts her fate, destined by men around her, from her two husbands to her son, and, ultimately, her monarch.
Although these plots deal with immoral conduct and tawdry affairs, the story is taught in school for students can learn about human nature and culture. These archetypical characters become metaphorical for popular colloquial sayings and expressions. Besides being a literary gem, Kuhn Chang Kuhn Phaen is full of sociological and anthropological details about Siamese customs, beliefs, and rituals. It teaches us about how we lived through birth rites, marriages, ceremonies, costumes, feasts, funerals, house building, entertainment, travels, arms, court cases, superstitions, animism, the supernatural, and black magic.
Like many classics, this tale keeps inspiring other artistic creations, such as theatrical performances, paintings, novels, songs, cartoons, films, a long-running TV series, and even shrines and amulets. In 1917 Hem Vejakorn, a Thai artist and illustrator, produced a set of drawings from celebrated scenes. No matter whether art or life came first, these distinctive personalities and touching stories become immortalized in various art forms.