The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen

The epic tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is undoubtedly the most popular works of Thai literature and provides an insight into the national psyche, particularly as it relates to the dynamics between the sexes. (Copyright Upeka.net, 2014.. All rights reserved). It is also highlights the conflicts between individuals asserting themselves and established institutions of authority. The plot is filled with heroism, romance, sex, violence, treachery, infidelity and horror, and it presents a blend of detailed historical accounts and popular elements of the supernatural world of spirits and ghosts.

The plot is known by every Thai person, and children, and despite the x-rated and violent content learn to memorize passages in school. It is a source for songs, theater performances, movies, TV series, popular sayings, and everyday metaphors. <em>Khun Chang Khun Phaen</em> originated as a folktale before the eighteenth century, and was further developed by storytellers who recited episodes for local audiences. In 1782, the newly established royal court in Bangkok made efforts to retrieve texts which had survived the destruction of the previous court in Ayuthaya and episodes of <em>Khun Chang Khun Phaen</em> were transcribed from earlier texts, or adopted from recitations by storytellers. Recently, the work has become controversial because of its obvious male bias and violence.

At the core of the story is a love-triangle that last over a period of more than 50 years. Khun Chang, Phlai Kaeo (later referred to as Khun Phaen), and Nang Phim (later named Wanthong) are all childhood friends. Khun Phaen, the hero, is handsome and intelligent, but poor because his father had been executed and his property seized by the king. As is common in Thailand, he enters the monkhood as a novice to get educated, and soon also excelled in military skills and in various forms of supernatural, particularly love magic. His opponent, Khun Chang, the villain, makes up for his lack in looks and intelligence and by being well-connected at the royal court. When she is 15, Phim, the belle of her town, meets Phlai Kaeo when putting food in his alms bowl at the auspicious day of Songkran (Thai New Year). This is the beginning of a passionate affair, with the youthful hero violating monastic rules. In order to unite with Pim he first seduces a more mature woman of the same household, and then lives a dual life, splitting his time between the vat (Buddhist monastery) during the daytime, and her bedroom at night. His rival, Khun Chang is also smitten by Phim and competes for her using his wealth, offering her mother a dowry (sinsod) of Phim’s weight in gold. After Phlai Kaeo and Phim are married, Khun Chang manipulates the king to draft Phlai Kaeo into military service and send him into battle to a faraway location, and then claims he is dead…and that is just the beginning of the plot!

The tragic end comes many years later, when the king demands that Wanthong (formerly known as Pim) decide between the two rivals. She is, however, dumb-struck, unable to choose. As a punishment for her indecisiveness the king orders her execution, but while a plea with the king for mercy is successful, the order to spare her life arrives seconds too late. And, to this day, women involved in love triangles and unable to decide among lovers are referred to as Wanthongs.

In 2011, a new edition (almost 1400 pages in all) has finally been released, definitely a must for serious students of literature, sociology, and sex roles in Southeast Asia!
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