June 26 is a national observance in Thailand commemorating the birth of the man often called “the Shakespeare of Siam”, Sunthorn Phu. The kingdom’s best-known royal poet, he began his career during the reign of King Rama II. When that king died, Sunthorn Phu resigned from the role and became a monk. Twenty years later, in the reign of King Rama III, he returned to court as a royal scribe, where he remained for the rest of his life. Phu was renowned for composing verse, and his epic poetry is popular in Thailand to the present day. His works include Nirat Phukaothong, a collection of poems recounting his journey to the Golden Mountain; Nirat Suphan, his journey to Suphanburi Province; and the Phra Aphai Mani saga.
Known as the People’s Poet of Thailand, UNESCO officially recognized him in 1986 on the bicentennial of his birth, Critics have likened him to Shakespeare and Chaucer in the range, quality, and national importance of his works. A festival is held each year on June 26 at Sunthorn Phu Memorial Park in Klaeng District, Rayong Province, the birthplace of his father. The festival features recitals, plays, and puppet shows of his works. A statue of the poet stands nearby. At the Thai Human Imagery Museum in Bangkok are displayed wax figures of Sunthorn and the characters of his masterpiece, Phra Abhai Mani, named after its main character. More statues of Sunthorn Phu’s characters can be found on the eastern seaboard island of Ko Samet, the town of Cha-Am in Phetchaburi Province and elsewhere throughout Thailand.
Phra Sunthorn Vohara, known as Sunthorn Phu, was born on June 26, 1786, during the reign of King Rama I which is why he is often referred to as a poet of the Rattanakosin period. His family’s house was behind the royal palace, near the present day Bangkok Noi train station. His father was from Klaeng District in Rayong Province. At the time the poet was born, Bangkok had been established as the Siamese capital just four years earlier.
His father and mother divorced during his childhood. His father became a monk at Bangrum temple while his mother became a wet nurse for the royal family. Phu had an opportunity to work in the palace with his mother, where he fell in love with a lady in the palace named Jun, who was related to the royal family. The couple were arrested and punished as their relationship violated the traditional social order, but they were pardoned on the king’s death.
Phu later returned to Rayong to visit his father, and wrote a poem about the journey called Nirat Muang Grang which became one of his most famous poems. He wrote the poem for his fiancée, Jun. After he returned to the palace in Bangkok he married Jun, and they had a son named Pat. It was at this time that King Rama II appointed him court poet. However, the couple were not married long, divorcing after Phu had an affair with another woman. This was the first of many marriages ending in divorce, although he later professed that the wife he had loved the most was Jun. Phu became an alcoholic, and, around 1821, was jailed after a fight.
He began the 30,000-line epic poem, Phra Aphai Mani (พระอภัยมณี) in prison, and published it in installments over the next twenty years. The epic tale follows the title character, Prince Aphai Mani, a Byronic hero, in his romantic adventures throughout ancient Siam. The main protagonists are Prince Aphai Mani, a mermaid, and a female yak or ogress.
The story tells of two princes from a kingdom within ancient Siam who are ordered by their father to go away and prepare for royal duties. When they return, the king is furious to see that the only skill one prince, Sisuwan (ศรีสุวรรณ), has managed to learn is sword-fighting whilst the other prince, Aphai Mani (พระอภัยมณี), has learned how to play the flute. Chastened by the king, Aphai Mani sets off on an adventure that sees him travel through a fantasy land filled with giants, magical beasts, beautiful women and mermaids. In the story, the prince is exiled to an undersea kingdom ruled by a female giant named Nang Phisua Samut (นางผีเสื้อสมุทร, “Butterfly of the Sea”). The giant transforms herself into a beautiful woman to trick Aphai Mani into falling in love with her. When the prince finally discovers the deception he manages to escape from the kingdom with the aid of a mermaid. Assisted by a hermit, the young couple hide from the giant on the island of Ko Kaew Phitsadan (‘Magic Crystal Island’) which was the former name of Ko Samet. The prince then falls in love with the mermaid and so the story goes on with more adventures and romantic encounters along the way as Aphai Mani falls in and out of love on his travels.
King Rama II was so pleased with Phu’s poetry that he awarded him the title of “Khun”. During the reign of King Rama III, however, Phu made the grave mistake of publicly correcting one of the king’s poems, and was stripped of his title as punishment. After this disgrace, he initially entered the Buddhist priesthood, but later became a merchant.
King Rama IV’s daughter read his unfinished work Phra Aphai Mani, and asked the poet to complete it. King Rama IV appointed Phu Director of Royal Scribes, and awarded him the title of “Phra”. He died in 1855.
Sunthorn Phu is fondly remembered in Thailand today for his ability to bring poetry and literature to the masses. Unlike his contemporaries, he wrote in a way which the wider public could understand using the language of the common man. His predecessors wrote in convoluted prose aimed at royalty and highly educated people, but the style of Sunthorn Phu and his stories about love, romance and broken-hearts brought him a much wider audience for his work.
In 1986, the 200th anniversary of his birth, Suthorn was honored as a great world poet by UNESCO: “His Phra Aphai Mani poems describe a fantastical world, where people of all races and religions live and interact together in harmony.” Thailand released a 2-baht commemorative stamp on the occasion, depicting the statue at Sunthorn Phu Memorial Park in Rayong (Scott #1144).
His literary works have been adapted in various media such as comics, films and songs. Thai cinema’s first and only cel-animated cartoon feature film, The Adventure of Sudsakorn (1979), was based on a character from Phra Aphai Mani. It was directed by Payut Ngaokrachang. A live-action version of the tale was made in 2006, titled Legend of Sudsakorn.
Yet, as with many things well known to Thai people, Sunthorn Phu is virtually unknown outside of Thailand. Superficially, this is because there are very few translations of his work. Amazon.com has one listing for Sunthorn’ Phu, an academic treatise in German; there is not a single work by the poet himself. Why, if he is Thailand’s Shakespeare, is this the case?
There are numerous reasons. One is the deplorable lack of translations of Thai literature in general. Not enough Thais are fluent in other languages, and not enough foreigners are fluent in Thai. And in any case, Thai is difficult to translate faithfully. Consider the Thai proverb, “Maew mai yoo, noo raroeng.” Literally this translates to “Cat not stay, mouse celebrate.” Taken out of its cultural context, this could be a statement of fact about a particular cat and mouse, a meaningless non sequitur, a general claim about master/slave relationships, or any number of other things.
Another reason is the sheer size of Sunthorn’s oeuvre. Extant works include nine nirats (travelling poems), five stories, two collections of proverbs, a play, two sebhas (song recitals), and four lullabies. Phra Abhai Mani comprises 94 books, adding up to 30,000 verse lines.
There is also a fairly rigid distinction between royal literature and popular literature in Thailand. Though Sunthorn Phu spent much of his life under royal patronage, he was of humble origins and his themes appealed to a more popular taste. “Unlike so many other poets,” writes Prince Prem Purachatra, “he wrote from his heart and not from his head. Not being a learned man, he confined himself to simple forms of verse and simple language.” His Phra Abhai Mani single-handedly ended court domination of Thai Literature, so the court has had an interest in dismissing it. One Prince called Sunthorn Phu’s poetry “market verse”.
Historically, the royalty has authorized or conducted translations and dominated literary criticism. Only Purachatra, who wrote a significantly abbreviated English prose version of Phra Abhai Mani, wanted to popularize Sunthorn Phu through translation. Indeed, even within Thailand, his popularity was assured not by the royalty, but by a foreign printer, who in 1870 became rich by printing the poet’s masterpiece in serial form and selling it to Siamese people. As long as this effective royal monopoly is maintained, the People’s Poet may continue to be overlooked.
Lastly, there is the issue of Phu’s personality and morals. Most Westerners read Thai authors for some insight into Buddhism and its message of curtailing one’s desires, and Thailand is probably pleased to present this image of Thai culture. This image is only partly correct. Sunthorn Phu provides a corrective. Although he was nominally a monk for 18 years, he came from a broken family, had a poet’s unstable temperament, and was, according to one critic, “a drunk, a vagrant, and a womanizer.” He also did a lot of jail time.
In Thailand it is practically customary for straightforward statements of fact to be contradicted for the sake of saving — somebody’s, or the nation’s — face. Thus many critics deny the poet’s less palatable traits, and they differ as to whether Sunthorn Phu got along with Rama III. Apparently, the poet had publicly criticized Rama III’s writings when the latter was still a prince. Once crowned, Rama III removed Sunthorn from the court.
Few critics dispute, however, that Sunthorn’s first imprisonment came as a result of his illicit love for Chun, a woman of the royal palace. Once freed, he married her and had a son, but he began to drink excessively. This led to quarrels with his wife, and ultimately she abandoned him. He was only 21 years of age when he recorded this struggle in his Nirat Phra Bat.
During a later bout of intoxication, he attacked one of his uncles and was again thrown into jail. Here he first conceived and began to write Phra Abhai Mani, a work Purachatra calls “one of the greatest imaginative works ever written.” Sunthorn sold portions of the work from jail, but its progress was interrupted over the years by works commissioned by the royalty, like the famous Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a collaboration between Sunthorn Phu and Rama II.
Like any court artist, Sunthorn’s fortune depended in large measure on his relationship with the reigning king. Rama II adored him, Rama III disliked him, and Rama IV made him a Poet Laureate. A contemporary of romantic poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, Sunthorn Phu was of a similarly romantic bent. His works are full of magic and mythical creatures, and sentimental Thai girls fondly quote his love poetry:
“We may be drunk,
But we are also intoxicated by love.
I cannot resist my heart.
And though we are drunk,
Tomorrow the sun will shine,
And that drunkenness will have passed.
But when night falls, the intoxication of love will return.”
Like the European romantics, he could be seen as writing in reaction to a time of upheaval — in Sunthorn Phu’s case, the upheaval of colonialism. One of the settings of Phra Abhai Mani is an island populated by shipwrecked men from all over the world, including Europe; and among the poem’s characters are a Western prince and princess. Apparently, like many Thais at that time, Sunthorn didn’t care much for farangs (foreigners). The Western prince is humiliated in war and dies from shame. On the other hand, Abhai Mani takes up the study of English and Chinese, and ultimately marries the Western princess.
Colonialism brought industrialization, so machines also figure widely in the story. A number of fanciful inventions appear, anticipating ocean liners, gramophones, machine guns, airplanes, and air conditioners. This has led to a comparison between Sunthorn and the early science fiction writer Jules Verne, although Verne was only five years old when Phra Abhai Mani was composed.
Though Sunthorn Phu was a romantic, his romanticism was distinctively Buddhist. He shares the romantics’ reverence for nature, but has a Buddhist faith in self-reliance. “Put not your trust in any mortal,” says the Hermit of Phra Abhai Mani, “for their wiles are immeasurable. Even the most torturous creepers round the hoariest tree are not as crooked as a man’s heart.” Phra Abhai Mani also acts as an argument against unchecked romantic desire. War breaks out, as it does in The Iliad, for love of a woman. Unlike the Trojan War, this war is brought to an end not by total victory, but by the intervention of the Hermit, who preaches self-control and compassion for all living things. Abhai Mani himself retires from life. It is a very Buddhist conclusion.
That Sunthorn Phu and his writings can stand alongside such seminal Western authors and texts makes the scarcity of his works in translation all the more scandalous. If he is as great as Thai people say he is, it is high time they shared him with the world. If the princes won’t do it, somebody else should.
Scott #2109 was released on January 10, 2004, to mark that year’s National Children’s Day (วันเด็กแห่งชาติ — Wan Dek Haeng Chat), held each year on the second Saturday in January. The 3-baht photogravure stamp, printed on granite paper by Thai British Security Printing Public Company Limited and perforated 14½ x 14, pictures several characters from Sunthorn Phu’s Phra Abhai Mani.
“Oh, how everything was against me then. Even termites made their way to my bedroom. They ate the mat and destroyed all my books. It was distressing to think of those books And the yellow robes I used to wear Had holes in them like my weeping eyes.” —Sunthorn Phu