(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo of a contemporary wat mural depicting Khun Phaen and Wanthong during their exile in the forest. This episode is one of the most iconic scenes in the poem)
To close out our season on Ayutthaya, we are covering the Thai epic poem, the Tale of Khun Chang and Khun Phaen. The story is a love triangle between the two characters, Khun Chang and Khun Phaen, and the beautiful Wanthong. The poem was first told as a folk tale, meant to entertain. But in the 18th century, the epic was coopted by the Ayutthayan court, who embellished it further. Eventually, in the following century, the first standardized print versions appeared.
The story is entertainment, to be sure. But it is far more than that. In Thailand it occupies a seminal place in literary studies, being taught in schools and universities. It is also, from a historical perspective, a valuable window into the values of the past. From it we can glean a great deal about Ayutthayan-era gender norms, social hierarchies, and other foundational cultural and social mores.
Today’s episode recounts the tale, abridged only for time and for convenient narrative flow in a podcast. The version used is the abridged translation by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongphaichit. However, if you would like to seek out the poem for yourself, please note that there are several instances of sexual violence and violence against children. Some are played for drama, others for humor. I omit these scenes or tone them down for the episode, so it should be safe to listen to, but be aware that this material exists in the print version.
- Khun Chang: The ugly, bald-headed and rich noble of Suphanburi who steals away the beautiful Wanthong from her husband Khun Phaen.
- Thepthong: The mother of Khun Chang
- Khun Phaen: Born Phlai Kaeo and forced from his home in Suphanburi when his father was executed by the King. Later becomes ennobled as Khun Phaen after winning a victory over the forces of Lan Na at the city of Chiang Thong. First husband of Wanthong and father of Phlai Ngam.
- Thong Prasi: Mother of Khun Phaen, grandmother of Phlai Ngam.
- Phlai Ngam: Son of Khun Phaen and Wanthong, conceived during their exile in the forest, raised by his step father Khun Chang after Wanthong’s return to his home. Would later fight alongside his father and serve the court.
- Laothong: Second wife of Khun Phaen. Daughter of a village headman near Chiang Thong. Her role in the story is primarily as instigator of Wanthong and Khun Phaen’s separation, and later as the locus of Phaen’s desires which cause him to be imprisoned by the king.
- Wanthong: Born Phim Phililai. The most beautiful woman in all of Suphanburi and the center of the love triangle. She despised Khun Chang but out of a sense of duty and resignation to her lot in life as a woman in an era of women’s subjugation, felt she could not choose between love and loyalty. Her indecisiveness is central to the conflict, alongside the many schemes by the two men to steal her away.
- Siprajan: Mother of Wanthong and the fickle mother-in-law of Khuns Chang and Phaen. She would ultimately sell her daughter away to Khun Chang, hoping to secure Chang’s financial support for her family.