|Some fifty years ago, the author was walking through The American University Association main campus area in Bangkok following a Thai language class when, lo and behold, there was a Thai modern art exhibition featuring the work of Khun Kamol Tassananchalee. I was struck with one particular Kamol painting which was the first piece of art I ever purchased. Several years ago, I learned from a Thai art dealer that I chose wisely as Kamol became the most famous modern artist of Thailand. In that same exhibition, there was the Kamol painting shown below entitled Sanam Luang representing traditional kite flying at the royal field.
Kite flying was a popular event during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868). His successor, King Rama V, created a royal gold trophy for a competition that was held at the Royal Dusit Palace in Bangkok. Two kites were flown in combat and the overall champion walked away with the royal trophy. Kite flying competition continued but became more informal as the author would see kite contests in the late sixties at Sanam Luang about the time Khun Kamol would have created his painting above. In a bygone era, the royal kite contests were quite an event with proper governmental dress required.
In central Thailand, the five-pointed chula kite and the diamond shaped pak pao kite are the two combatants. A vintage photo of a chula kite is shown below.
A more modern image of the two kites in competition is shown below. Glass bits are glued to the kite strings such that the objective is to cut the opponents string and cause the kite to plummet to the ground. You must admit cutthroat kite competition does not sound very Zen for a country of predominantly Buddhists, but times were a bit tough in the old military era of Siam. In fact, kites were utilized by the Thai army in their conflicts with the Burmese in the Ayutthaya period from 1238-1767 to bomb enemy positions. During that era, both kites and, to a much greater extent, elephants were key elements in the primitive warfare of the time.
Some seven years ago the sport was re-vitalized to connect a bit with the history of Thailand. There was a recent competition in southern Thailand where many of the participants chose to wear traditional costumes.
The Thailand International Kite Festival attracted contestants from fifteen countries which represented a showcase, grand slam event in the kite world.
Although kite flying may not be under review for future Olympic consideration, you would expect that relative to the Thai sport of elephant polo it probably draws more participants, albeit to the chagrin of the author. Further, who knows how it might stack up with the established Winter Olympic sport of curling. In fact, I know far more elephant polo players than curlers. Nonetheless, it is an interesting throwback from today’s modern urban world to the days of Sanam Luang kite competition in the heart of Bangkok only fifty years ago.