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Traditional Thai Puppet Theater: Joe Louis

Traditional Thai Puppet Theater

When googling goes wrong…

Before I head out into Thailand, I learn what I can about my target subject. It usually works a charm, but this time my googling ended with a FAIL.

You see, finding outdated(?) information about the Joe Louis Thai Puppet Theatre set my heart on a traditional puppet show with… well… why don’t I just tell you what happened…

The Joe Louis Thai puppet theatre in Suan Lum Night Bazaar…

After visiting the workplace and home of a Thai puppeteer (post still to come), I started researching live puppet shows. It didn’t take long to suss that the top billing in Bangkok went to the Joe Louis Thai Puppet Theatre.

Hun Lakorn Lek (Joe Louis), Sakorn Natasilp Troupe: In 1996, the Commission for National Culture nominated Sakorn for the title of National Artist (Performing Arts Category: Small Theatrical Puppetry). This nomination was made in the name of His Majesty the King, in whose name the honorific title of National Artist was bestowed.

This recognition enabled Sakorn and his children to raise enough money to open a small puppet theatre near their home in Nontaburi province. The theater was called the Joe Louis Theater. In May 2002, the theater was moved to its present and more central location at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Bangkok.

Right away my research fell flat. Why? For starters, because the information on TAT’s website (Thai Tourism), led me to believe that…

A visit to the theatre also includes an opportunity to witness the painstaking process of crafting a Thai traditional mask known as the Hua Khon, as taught by venerable artist Joe Louis to his students.

Before the performance starts, Joe Louis staff will take guests on a “Joe Louis Cultural Tour” featuring the “Puppet Gallery”, an exhibition on the history of Hun Lakhon Lek puppets and the theatre, puppet- making demonstration and the art of controlling the puppet.

And this video only reinforced it…

Wanting to know more (and because the theatre’s online ticket purchasing didn’t work), I contacted them via email. Nothing. Nadda. No reply. Darn. I do know better (I should have called instead).

No matter. After reading the below instructions from yet another website extolling the magnificent extras, I did what was suggested. I arrived early.

Thaizer.com: Arriving early enables visitors to go on a tour of the theatre and see how the puppets are made and witness a demonstration of how they are manipulated in the performance.

So there I was at Suan Lum Night Bazaar, all set for a fabulous traditional Thai puppet experience. Early. Yet ten minutes after getting in a line of two, I’m still behind a lady all upset about Thai double pricing.

Thai price: 400 baht
Expat price: 900 baht

Some expats resent the double pricing, but I can’t be bothered getting fussed (especially if a show/event it worth it). If I don’t want to pay double, I don’t go. Simple. For instance, I wouldn’t pay OTT to see a few fish at Siam Ocean World, but traditional puppets (for me) do have a pull.

Traditional Thai Puppet TheaterAlso, I was looking at it this way: 900 baht included an evening of Thai traditional puppetry, with a cultural tour showing how the masks are made, and how the puppets are manipulated. All with a bit of history thrown in. Nice.

Ticket finally in hand, I asked the staff where to go next. To, you know, attend the promised traditional mask making demonstration and cultural tour.

But the staff did not know what I was on about. Were they new hires? I don’t know. But I asked the same question in many ways, receiving the same answer. Nadda. Never heard of it. Not an option.

So, with time to waste, I wandered around the bazaar. And wandered, and wandered, and wandered, until it was almost time for the show. Once back in the theatre, I drifted around the ground floor, enjoying the puppets behind glass. That over with (and nothing else to do), I headed upstairs to my seat.

The light dimmed, and videos of the puppets came on. One on each side of the stage.

Darn. Compared to expectations due to my failed google abilities – a traditional Thai puppet making experience – getting videos instead was disappointing.

(see what I mean?)

But when the traditional Thai puppet dancers finally came out, I was chuffed. Immensely. The talented dancers wove in and out, three to a puppet. It was a wonderful/superb/exciting/wickedly fabulous presentation. And the performing puppeteers dancing with the traditional Thai puppets were just as promised. Amazing.

If pressed to share a preference between the puppet shows I’ve seen in my travels and these, the traditional Thai puppets would be it. No contest.

But… At the Joe Louis theatre, there are only a handful of traditional dances. The rest of the time is taken up by the story of Joe Louis’ life, as well as puppets created in the likeness of two western rock singers. And as I was there for the traditional Thai puppets, I felt that the unexpected extras took up too much time. I wanted the other puppets back.

Traditional Thai Puppet Theater And here’s another thing… perhaps minor…

When you are not being educated about Joe’s life, the disturbingly lifelike, life-sized puppet of the long dead puppeteer is left sitting on the side of the stage. In a wheelchair.

It was a bit macabre for my tastes, especially when my attention was (at times) drawn away from middle stage (where all of the action was going on), to the Joe Louis puppet moving his wheelchair around.

The show finished with a dancing, singing, Micheal Jackson puppet. And one other (who was that women?)

Note: Others in the audience raved about Micheal Jackson and what’s her name, so that section of the performance was not a loss for many (most?) And perhaps, just me. Did anyone here see the show? If so, what did you think?

Awhile later I discussed the show with a friend who had attended with (I believe) Joe Louis’s son gracing the stage. There, Joe’s son explained that he wanted to put his personal mark on the show by modernising the performance. Hence, the additional puppets: Joe Louis in a wheelchair, Micheal Jackson, and she who has not been named.

Fair enough. He’s had a lifetime of tradition and now wants to move on. And hey, maybe parts of Thailand would prefer to move on too?

Soooooooooo… I guess my next project will focus on finding traditional Thai puppets. On their own.

Only this time, I’ll do a better job of researching.

Wish me luck? Or even… help point the way?

Joe Louis Thai puppet resources…

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

18 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Cat. I have yet to make it to the theatre either in Bangkok or the new one in Pattaya but I am hoping to on my next visit to the kingdom.

    From the various youtube clips I have seen it looks like a very fun evening out.

  2. Thanks Talen. When it comes to puppetry, Thailand has everyone beat. Just my opinion… of course. But the way the dancers move together really is impressive.

  3. Catherine I really enjoyed reading your write up on your trip. It’s a show which would interest me very much. On my next trip to Pattaya I intend checking out the puppet performance there.

    I watched the video and was surprised at how the puppets became so ‘human’. Their hand and body movements were so life like. The skill and artistry in making them and manipulating the puppets must take years to learn and date back to the royal courts hundreds of years ago. Fascinating stuff.

    I still can’t work out who the other woman is. Madonna is my guess but maybe I’m missing something.

  4. Martyn, If they added the other aspects back in, it would be a truly fabulous show.

    The week or so before, I was given a tour by a puppeteer. He showed me the basics of how the puppets were created, and even gave an impromptu performance. How the hands work is a modern invention, and quite clever. I have it all on video, so you’ll be able to see it too (next week).

    It might have been Madonna, but I was so stunned at the switch that I didn’t recover until Micheal Jackson. The audience (mostly) loved it… but I’m trying to keep my personal opinions on an even keel ;-)
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Traditional Thai Puppet Theater: Joe Louis =-.

  5. darn. you got my hopes up. i too would want to xp. a more traditional puppetry.

    have you ever seen indonesian shadow puppets? very cool. participated during my teacher training w/ 5th graders along with gamalan music. i imagine thai pupperty is a derivative?

    chuffed ~ blae waa arai ka?

  6. The traditional they did have was amazing, so it’s worthwhile to attend (just be prepared for the other as well).

    Yes, I saw the Indonesian shadow puppets when I lived on Borneo. They too are interesting but the Thai traditional puppets have my heart. There is just something special about the graceful dancers manipulating those puppets. It gave me the feeling of being seated in a Thai court somewhere.

    Chuffed = Australian slang. It’s a higher level of pleased. So, sort of pleased and excited at the same time. They might have acquired it from another country, but I’ve only heard it from Australians. And once you start using it, nothing else quite fits!

    OOOOH! I’m chuffed. Darn, I’m not chuffed about that at all. Hey, is that chuffable, or what? :-D
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Traditional Thai Puppet Theater: Joe Louis =-.

  7. So how was it, overall? Still recommended despite the filler performances? At the first school I worked at, the director had some of the performers from the Joe Louis Puppet Theater come and put on a short show for the kids. It was amazing, of course, and the puppets were gorgeous. When I didn’t think I’d be returning to Thailand, I bought a souvenir book about the puppets and their history – all written in Thai. Now that I’m learning to read Thai, I can take a crack at it later down the line…

  8. Hi Cat,

    On Samui there’s a ‘cultural experience’ at Baan Boran in Chaweng that includes excellent food and a couple of Thai puppet performances, I wrote about it in my Samui blog,as the link will show.

    A very interesting experience and the puppets do seem to come to live, unfortunately our kids were scared sh*tless when the puppets came out and we had to leave the room with them. All Western kids just enjoyed it, not sure if the puppets reminded them of the Yaks at the local Wats.

  9. Hi Cat,

    Would you ne interested in exchanging links with my Samui info and weather blog?

  10. Amy, I would absolutely advise anyone to go as they really are amazingly talented. There are videos online that show a bit of what they present, but most seem to be old. I guess that’s because of their objections to any recording gadgets in the theatre.

    Camile, it looks like you went to a similar show (but without the extras). The Joe Louis theatre also has a dinner option but I didn’t go for it. But it looks like I’ll have to come out to Samui to see your puppets :-) Pity your kids got scared, but little ones do tend to see everything as being alive.

  11. Camile, thanks for asking (and welcome to WLT btw :-) I’ve added you to my Blogging Thailand page.

  12. Loved the show. I loved the traditional part most too (except for the first Phra Apaimanee story), but Michael Jackson was just good. Yes, absolutely out of context, but the puppet masters just handled him really, really skillfully and it was fun to watch.

    Btw. their not showing the “what’s her name?” lady anymore, only Jacko.

    As for the whole telling the Joe Louis story… I’d rather watch more Ramakien. Specially the episodes where they had these “cloud things” in the background, Phra Krut fighting Naga, and so on.

  13. I too absolutely loved the Naga. It was creatively done and showed what a talented cast they had. It also had me wanting more! And I SO know that there’s more… :-)

    But Michael Jackson in a traditional Thai puppet show? No thanks.

    Perhaps they could create two shows. One with a foreign flavour, and one with the traditional Thai dancers.

  14. I heard that the Theater at the Suan Lum Night Market has been torn down. Do you know anything about that? If it’s true, have they relocated?

  15. Yes, they have closed down. I think about two months back I read that some of the artists now do shows in a restaurant (?) in Phuket, because they got an offer from there.

  16. Mary Ann, I read that the theatre is closed (their last performance was months ago) but I don’t know if it’s been torn down yet. They’ve been threatening to close Suan Lum Night Market ever since I moved to Thailand, so who knows when they’ll finally get around to it.

    Their website states that they also perform at King Power (by Victory Monument). But I don’t know for sure.

  17. Come to think of it… Talen mentioned that they are also performing in Pataya. I googled and looks like they’ve already closed…

    http://twitter.com/JoeLouisPattaya

  18. Wow! Awesome post about Puppet theatre shows in Thailand. Puppetry in Asia is indeed booming. You might wanna check out Indonesia as well. And of course, the Philippines! :)

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