The Tale of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen
The tale of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen is a triangle love story that the Thai people during the Ayutthaya era composed as Khap Sepha - verse recitation by singing, accented by the clapping of woodblocks - a pair of wooden clappers - for rhythm. The Sepha singers only sing the key episodes of the story from memory - without writing them down. The story verses were eventually compiled and written down in King Rama III’s reign, in the Rattanakosin (Bangkok) era and was first published during King Rama V in 1872 by Dr. Samuel John Smith’s printing house. In 1917, a revision through a comparative study of the royal version and the popular version yielded the edited version that is widespread today and known as the Vajirayana Library edition.
The story of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen depicts two generations of people - from parent to children. Two men, Khun Chang and Khun Phaen, contest for the love of a woman, Phimphilalai. They lived in Suphanburi province. The story that depicts the second generation involves the love triangle of one man and two women. The love of one man - Phra Wai Woranat, a young government official and the son of Khun Phaen and Phimphilalai, is dramatically contested by his two wives, one of whom uses magic to enchant him.
The plot of the story is striking in its similarity to the courtship song, a type of folk song. The two-men-one-woman triangle is similar to the Klon Tap Ching Chu, while the contest between the wife and the other woman shares the same theme with the Klon Tap Ti Mak Phua of the courtship song. The theme is a favorite among the people and is found in several folk plays. Khun Chang-Khun Phaen story is packed with many different rasas (emotional flavors or essence) - love, war, laughter, and tragedy. Several characters in the story have a striking personality. Khun Phaen is a man of every Thai woman’s dream - gallant, handsome, honey-tongued, accomplished in martial arts and sorcery, and a warrior who serves as a model for his loyalty to his superior. Khun Chang is the kind of man that people dislike. He is ugly, bald, hairychested, ill-mannered, cruel and represents a treacherous man who is disloyal to his friends. Phimphilalai, or Wan Thong, typifies Thai woman who fails to determine the course of her life - the decision depends on other people.
The story of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen illustrates the way of life of Thai men in the past through the example of Khun Phaen - the way he was brought up, his education, his search for magic charms and amulets, his search for magic weapons, his service in the government, his action in the war, his war merits, and his setence to prison. Khun Phaen’s life so impresses the Thai people that they name the Buddha statue after him. For example, the Reclining Buddha statue at Wat Phlai Chumphon in Suphanburi province is named “Nen Kaeo” (Khun Phaen’s nickname is “Kaeo”) and a series of the Buddha amulets from Wat Phra Rup in Suphanburi province are called “Phra Khun Phaen Khai Pha”, while another one is called “Khun Phaen Taeng Kwa”, etc.
Khun Chang-Khun Phaen story has always been associated with the way of life of the Thai people in the central region because the story has been adopted by several types of performing arts. It began its life as a Sepha recitation during the Ayutthaya era. By the time of King Rama II’s reign, in the Rattanakosin (Bangkok) era, a Pi Phat ensemble was added to accompany the recitation. During the reigns of King Rama IV and V, the aristocracy added dance to it and several theatrical forms were created such as Sepha Ram, Lakhon Sepha and Lakhon Phan Thang. The people added folk song to it, which resulted in Phleng Song Khreuang. They also depict the story as a Li-ke performance.
Today, Khun Chang-Khun Phaen story has been produced several times into television dramas and films - for example, “Khun Phaen Phachon Phai” (The Adventure of Khun Phaen). The tale has also been told in comic books and fairy-tale books. Some episodes of the tale have been incorporated in the textbook for Thai language curriculum for the primary education by the Ministry of Education. In short, Khun Chang- Khun Phaen story is well-known throughout Thailand.