Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Intorachit, son of Totsakan, with his troop marching for war with Pra Ram © Surat Jongda

Khon: Thai Mask Play

Khon is a Thai dance drama presenting a Ramayana epic. Each dancer wears a head mask to depict a particular character of the play. Ramayana is the war between Pra Ram (the exile prince of Ayothaya) and Totsakan (the demon king of Longka who abducted Sida, the wife of the prince). Pra Ram, with the help of the monkey troops led by Hanuman, wins the war and returns to Ayothaya with Sida. This lengthy play is divided into a number of episodes, each of which depicts a different battle scene. These episodes are of two types. First is the war play which comprises

  1. Totsakan planning for war;
  2. demon troupe review dance led by a general who is one of Totsakan’s relatives;
  3. Pra Ram preparing for war;
  4. monkey troupe review dance led by Pra Ram or his younger brother, Pra Lak; and
  5. the battle scene where the demon general is defeated.

The second type is a stratagem play that includes

  1. Totsakan planning a stratagem to win over Pra Ram without a war and
  2. one of Totsakan’s sons or relatives who has a special magic power being sent out to destroy Pra Ram in vain.

Three distinctive elements of khon are the dance, costume, and mask.

The dancer uses hand gestures to exemplify the chanting and singing text because he wears a mask. The dancer has to perform many set pieces that each depicts a particular emotion. The dancers move from right to left or vice-versa rather than front and back because khon derived from puppet theater where puppeteers dance alongside the screen. Khon dance style is divided into four types: male, female, demon, and monkey. (

Khon costumes are theatrical adaptations of ancient royal at tire with elaborate embroidery and ornaments. Each costume has a special color depicting the skin color of a character. The male costume is tightly sewn to the dancer’s body, which takes about one hour to complete. The dancer has to train him- or herself to wear the costume for up to six or eight hours straight.

A khon mask covers the dancer’s face and head. Facial expression, color, and crown design of each mask also depict a particular character. Today, a dancer who portrays human character does not wear the mask. However, he keeps his facial expression as if he is wearing a mask. To wear the mask, the dancer has to hold it firmly with his teeth, which also means he must use a special breathing technique. He can see, but with limitations, through two small eye holes of the mask, and the wearer has to endure the heat inside the mask, which lacks ventilation.

Khon had traditionally been a form of entertainment provided to the public by the royal family and noblemen. The dancers were once all soldiers. In fact, their basic military training also included the khon dance. Today, khon is an indispensable performance at many royal functions to present the splendor of the court. Khon is staged at the royal cremation ceremony performing Ramayana to glorify the dead king who is revered as Rama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe. Ordinary people follow this tradition by staging a khon play to honor the dead prior to cremating the body. Khon is also the main program for state visits and as a tourist attraction. Khon is regularly performed by national theater artists. Thirteen drama colleges provide BA programs in Khon. Many public schools encourage students to perform khon as a way of taking pride in their national heritage as well as being the supporters of khon into the future. However, the aesthetic quality of khon is declining due to the lack of appropriate support.

Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, realizing the situation, funds an elaborate khon performance every year so that the public can appreciate the aesthetic elements of khon and can take pride in the highest quality of Thai arts and culture. Young craftsmen are trained to make the delicate costumes and masks with traditional techniques. And grandiose sets and props with modern lighting design and special techniques are deliberately employed. Young dancers from all over the country are invited to audition. Thus, many young talents are found, and they have an opportunity to learn from great teachers.

The khon performance comprises all aspects of Thai arts and culture. It is considered one of the best representatives of Thai identity—the pride and prestige of Thailand.