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An Enriching Evening
of Dinner & Dance
Classical Performances of
Northern Thailand

Just about everyone loves to experience the magic of musical theatre and, similarly, just about everyone appreciates being dinner guests for a memorable night out. When both opportunities are combined here in Chiangmai, our visitors participate in an occasion that is uniquely Northern Thai and is as old as Central Thai itself. Northern Thai Classical Dancing may be seen at various events and venues but probably the most popular and accessible is at a Khantoke Dinner where visitors are taken back in time to dine and be entertained Northern Thai style. It is a tradition dating back to the ancient Royal Courts of Lanna-Thai and Central Thai where royalty and nobility would dine and be soothingly entertained by the gracious, liquid movements of Siamese Classical Dance. In modern times, Thai royalty and nobility continue to entertain VIP guests in this traditional style (at the APEC meeting in Bangkok, 2003, Classical Dancers performed for the visiting Presidents and Premiers including PM John Howard, President Putin and President Bush).

Northern Thai dance is always accompanied by a small orchestra, Zalor-Zor-Zeung, which can number up to 10 musicians but is more likely to have five or seven members. The musicians sit either to the rear or side of the dance area and, so that they do not detract from the glitter of the dancers, they are dressed soberly in country-style garments of hand-woven cotton (dark blue is the color associated with Chiangmai). The Pin Pia played with a bow is pressed to chest allowing the musician to control the musical tone. Consequently, the sound of the Pin Pia is described as "Music from the Heart".

The Zueng is a four-stringed instrument, two of them being thick and two thin to produce a greater sound variation. The right hand plucks the strings and tone is controlled by nine frets. The Zalor soundbox is constructed from a gourd, which has been cut to slightly larger than half, and the open top is covered with a slat of wood. It is played using a bow made from animal hair and the instrument is used to complement the sound of the Zueng when playing ordinary folk music. The Bpee Nae flares at the tip much like a clarinet, and has a metal mouthpiece. The Bpee Joom is made entirely of wood and is a form of flute.

Both types of Bpee come in a variety of sizes, producing differing pitches and they are used together instrumentally to produce a harmonic sound. The drum is an important instrument used for controlling the beat. The Glong comes in all sizes and shapes and often appears in ceremonies as well as accompanying musical pieces. The Glong Zae is a large drum similar to the bass drum used in western marching bands. The Glong Poojay is hung from the shoulder by a strap and carried, as is its smaller cousin, the Gong Zig Moung. Glong Ting Ting is a large drum that sits on a stand and is usually accompanied by the Glong Pong Phong, which adds color and feeling to the sound. These crude yet effective instruments, the Pin Pia, Zueng, Zalor, Bpee and Glong have been the backbone of Lanna music for centuries. Lanna music has a rich tradition and offers a completely different sound, rhythm and style to any you will have heard before. It is an interesting, melodious, soothing and almost hypnotic sound and each instrument in the ensemble is easily recognizable. The music, for first time listeners, may sound strange but it has an exotic, shimmering quality with layers of textures from pounding rhythms to light, mystical melodies. It is the perfect accompaniment for Northern Thai Classical Dance.

Classical dancers (trained at Chiangmai's Academy of Dramatic Arts) are the centerpiece of the evening. They perform in pairs (normally four to six but, for very special events, sometimes in hundreds). Gracious, sinuous and gorgeously attired in glistening silks, the dancers (normally female but, depending upon the performance, males are cast as the Monkey-God Hanuman) usually perform examples of the five main styles. Classical dance is properly called Fawn Thai which includes the Candle Dance (Fawn Tian), the Butterfly Dance (Fawn Marn Gumm Ber), the Scarf Dance (Fawn Ngiew), the Fingernail Dance (Fawn Leb) and the Happy Dance (Fawn Marn Mong Koi). All of the dances are fascinating to watch whether it be the intricate, slow, stylized movements of the Candle Dance (a lighted candle in the dancer's hands traces the body movements) and the Fingernail Dance (where six-inch fingernail extensions of beaten brass emphasize the hand movements) or the more lively elaboration of the Butterfly and Happy Dances. The glittering experience of synchronized movement and shimmering sound has an almost hypnotic effect on the eye and ear.

To join with other guests for a Khantoke Dinner at a Northern Thai Classical Dance and Dinner Restaurant is to enter the world of goneby days. Guests are welcomed, almost formally, by a traditionally clad girl or boy and escorted to a dining place. Perhaps small, dainty cups of tea will be served before the arrival of the main dishes and prior to the commencement of music and dance. Each pair of guests will have the attention of their personal waitress or waiter to ensure the evening's experience is complete.

A "khantoke" is a two-tiered, circular tray with the top portion being supported on short, slim pillars. It is traditionally shaped from wood and is ornately decorated in rich hues of red and gold. A khantoke can come in a variety of sizes and it is on this elaborate tray that the main dishes are presented. The dishes offer a selection of tastes and textures perhaps Gaeng Hung Lay (a mild northern pork curry with slivers of ginger), Nahm Prik Ong (a mildly spicey dipping sauce with sliced cucumber), Pudt Pugg (a vegetarian cabbage dish), Gai Tawd (a flavorsome fried chicken) and stir fried vegetables in a light sauce. The main courses are accompanied by both steamed and "sticky" rice while a light dessert will freshen the mouth before tea or coffee. It really is more than one can eat and while the subtleties of northern Thai cuisine skips across tongue and palate, the eyes and ears also feast on the movements of dance and the swaying sounds of the Zalor-Zor-Zeung orchestra. Truly an opportunity for an enriching experience of northern Thailand and its cultural heritage of classical dance and music. An evening to enjoy and to capture memories on camera!

Enjoy in northern food in Khantoke Dinner and classical and folk dance performances at Old Chiangmai Cultural Center, Wualai Road,See Maps 1 and 3A, Tel. 053-275097, 053-274540, 053-202993-5 and Khum Khantoke, Chiang Mai Business Park (behind Carrefour Superstore), See Maps 1 and 2A, Tel. 053-304121-3.

See related articles (Khantoke Dining Lanna Style):


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