BANGKOK, Thailand -- Any taxi can take you to one of Bangkok's glitzy new shopping malls, but you'll have to poke around and tread carefully down a crumbling, fetid old alley in a working-class district to find a true artifact of genuine Thai culture.
The neighbourhood used to be a thriving community of makers of Khon masks, the keystones of ornate, glittering costumes used in the stylized classical Thai dance form known as Khon. A street sign for tourists boasts of its glorious past, but most workshops in the Saphan Mai (Wooden Bridge) area were shuttered years ago.
Come to a small, tin-roofed house some weekend, however, and you'll find 56-year-old Prateep Rodpai, one of Thailand's last traditional Khon mask makers.
The Khon tradition was imported from India around the 10th century. It evolved from a Hindu religious ceremony into a morality play in Siamese royal courts and has since enjoyed royal favour. The cultural equivalent of Japan's kabuki, Khon used to be performed at important social functions such as funerals.
A typical Khon performance recounts an episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana, called the Ramakien in Thailand. Dancers dressed in glittering costumes perform carefully modulated acrobatic moves to classical Thai music.
The exquisitely painted Khon masks are essential to conveying the characters and moods of a Khon performance. But in a case of trickle-down culture, the masks are also used as decorative objects, displayed in many homes and even Thai restaurants abroad, and as objects of worship.
Prateep can usually be found most weekends at his Bangkok abode working on his masks as he waits for customers to pick up their orders.
"I am the last one to still be doing this here," said Prateep, noting the food vendor whose stall is a few metres away had been a cutter of glass ornaments when he was a boy. The ornaments are a crucial element that give Khon masks their sparkle.
Though he followed most craftsmen to nearby provinces some years ago, moving his workshop to Ang Thong about 110 kilometres north of Bangkok, he still keeps a tiny space here, borrowing an old neighbour's room for storage.
"Some customers refuse to go all the way to Ang Thong to pick up the masks," he explains.
One recent rainy Saturday, Prateep sold three masks, all of them representing characters from the Ramakien. Two were for a Khon troupe and the other for a shaman to use in his ritual.
Some customers come from as far away as the United States. Prateep said many Thai restaurants abroad display his masks.
"Each culture has its distinct motif, and the Khon mask is probably most representative of Thai culture," he said. "Masks do not have to be worn to retain their cultural significance."
In their Bangkok workspace, Prateep and wife Pinthip are putting the final touches to some masks, painting a spot here, gluing some ornaments there. The whole process is an intricate one, with the masks requiring three days to dry in the sun. He can work on two to three masks a day if inclement weather doesn't back up the production line.
Prateep's uncle, the late Sakorn Yang-keawsot, a Khon performer more famous as a puppeteer, taught him the rudiments of Khon mask-making. Prateep still uses the formula passed down from his uncle for his clay -- a mixture of rice powder, some paper starch, a pinch of calcium talc and plenty of cement. He keeps the proportions a closely guarded secret.
Chalermchai Chimchanvej, who rents Khon costumes to media productions and manages a troupe that performs at private functions, has been Prateep's customer for many years. "I come back for the quality. It's much more difficult now to find masks with good value."
"We were lucky that factory-made Khon masks are impractical and not permeable," Prateep says. "Only the handmade masks are breathable, so dancers prefer ours. That leaves us with some room to survive."
Fortunately for Khon, it can still count on Queen Sirikit, wife of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as a major patron.
It was the 78-year-old queen who footed most of the bills for this year's epic performance of Nang Loi, an episode from the Ramakien.
All seven performances of Nang Loi, sponsored by the Queen, were sold out in a matter of days. It was so well-received the organizer decided to put on nine additional performances this November.
Pramate said in days gone by, aristocratic families would sponsor their own Khon troupes as a status symbol. But "since we're living in a capitalist society, art is (now) often seen in terms of profit and loss," he added.
The situation may be critical, but it's not hopeless.
Eight students between the ages of nine and 13 recently braved the morning rain to arrive at Bangpakok Primary School at 4 a.m. It was not so much the notorious Bangkok traffic jams that forced them to wake up so early -- the Mother's Day performance was scheduled at 11 -- but the need for preparation.
Getting properly dressed for a Khon performance can take up to 45 minutes per student. There are 16 steps to fit a boy with his costume and the clothes must be sewn on the spot, as there are no buttons or zippers. Funding from the Bangkok city government pays for the students' costumes and masks, which can cost as much as 20,000 baht (about $640).
"The renewed interest in Khon gives us a lifeline," says Prateep. "Without Khon performances, I won't have a livelihood. But without Khon masks, there'd be no Khon. That's the dilemma."
-- The Associated Press
IF YOU GO
-- KHON PERFORMANCES: For tickets, dates and other details on the November Khon performances, visit http://bit.ly/dbtdPE. Tickets range in price from $7 to $34 (200 to 1,000 baht). The venue is accessible by subway (MRT); the stop is the Thailand Cultural Centre.
-- KHON MASK MAKER: You can reach Prateep Rodpai's workshop at Pracha Chuen Road 18 by taxi, but tourists should have their concierge arrange any visit in advance by phone (if calling from within Thailand) 081-318-2084.