Every year thousands and thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the ancient city of Suphanburi, Thailand, which is approximately slightly more than a hundred kilometres away from Bangkok. The province has a rich history dating as far as 3,500-3,800 years back but its prominence was actually established during the Ayutthaya kingdom (1650-1767) as an important border town engaged in many historically significant battles. Therefore a Thailand tour to the ancient city of Suphanburi will usually include visits to the U-Thong National Museum named after the founding king of the Ayutthaya kingdom, Don Chedi Monument dedicated to King Naresuan who defeated the Burmese, and iconic temples such as Wat Pa Lelai and Wat Kae that were both built some 500-600 years ago and played vital roles in the history of Suphanburi. Many Thai mythology and legends are also directly associated with these two temples and among the many is the Legend of the Undefeatable Warlord.
The Undefeatable Warlord is also one of Thailand’s most prominent God of Charm, Luck, Wealth, and invulnerability whose root is also traced to this ancient city. He was said to have studied and mastered the art of inner-path in both Wat Pa Lelai and Wat Kae. Furthermore, legends and poems pertaining to the Undefeatable Warlord Khun Phaen are among the most celebrated Thai literature which are hitherto widely taught in schools. Sacred objects, including statues and amulets of Khun Phaen are also highly sought after. Almost every amulet producing temple would inevitable produce Khun Phaen amulets and the most popular ones happened to originate from Wat Ban Krang which is also located in Suphanburi province.
Purpose of this Article
In this article, we seek to explore the story of Thailand’s most prominent legendary and controversial character – Khun Phaen the Undefeated Warlord – who is hitherto most revered as the God of Charm, Luck, Wealth, and Invulnerability. We endeavour to assess and evaluate all materials including historical artefacts and traces pertinent to Khun Phaen and allow our readers to draw their own conclusion. Therefore, we will breakdown this article into several chapters whereby we will briefly explore the essence between myths and historicity and provide a narration of the story of Khun Phaen; we will attempt to analyse the facts derived from information collected and determine the position of Khun Phaen between mythology and history; and we will discuss what role Khun Phaen plays in contemporary Thailand and within Thai Buddhists community around the world.
Mythology and Legends
Mythology and legends are the most intriguing things that had accompanied mankind since time immemorial. These two subjects mirror the characteristics, values, and history of specific cultures. Myths and legends are often said to be created to reflect what a particular culture deems to be moral and ethical and thereby shaping its outlook and its way of life. Despite being a Theravada Buddhist society within the Suvarnabhumi region since 250 BC, the Ramakien which is deeply rooted in Hindu Ramayana myths underlies Thai mythology and legends saved those attires, weapons, topography, and constituents of settings are transposed and given a Thai flavour. The most often cited examples include those classic Ramakien and Khon dances also known as the “Masked Pantomime” created under the supervision of Rama I and Rama II respectively.
Although the Ramakien and Khon dances are said to provide Thai legends with foundational myth whereby numerous Thai Gods and Deities derived their origin, they are nevertheless not all comprising. There is simultaneously many other mythology and legends found in Thai literature that have no connection to the above two sources especially those that are inextricably intertwined with local history. Archaeology is an important source for human outlook because any profound findings will change mankind’s entire chronicle and, therefore, it is not surprising there are many archaeologists and historians out there set to prove or disprove a particular myth such as the existence of Jesus Christ so on and so forth.
Importance of Mythology and Legends
Nonetheless, mythology and legends are taught in many schools throughout the world as they preceded philosophy, science, and even religions, thus, they are primary sources reflecting cultures and are used to impart the values, virtues, morality, and temperance amongst many other things which in turn collectively forms the foundation for studying literature of a particular culture. For example, in order to study and understand Shakespeare, one may need a certain level of understanding of Greek mythology. Similarly, without a firm understanding of Ramakien, it is difficult for one to understand the religiopolitical ideology and culture of the Thais.
Whilst most myths are products of imagination and creativity developed by numerous authors throughout the ages and which contents may hence be incoherent, however, there are some that may contain historicity. Historicity is sometimes used as a nexus to connect past and present or simply describing the actuality of characters and events of historical existence. It is also this value of historicity within myths that oftentimes add controversies to certain myths and history just as in the case with the Bible, the Christ myth theory, and of course, the main character of this article – the Undefeatable Warlord Khun Phaen.
The Story Begins
The story was set out during the reign of King Ramathibodi II also known as Somdej Phra Panwasa (1473-1529) in the province of Suphan (now Suphanburi) where all the three main characters, Phlai Kaeo (later Khun Phaen), Sri (later Khun Chang), and Phim Philalai (later Nang Wanthong) were born. Phlai Kaeo was the son of Commander Khun Kraipon and Nang Thongprasri. He was handsome and clever. Sri’s father was Khun Srivichai and his mother Nang Thepthong. He was born bald and albeit coming from a rich family, Sri was crass. Nang Phim Philalai was the beautiful daughter of wealthy merchant Pansorn Yotha and Nang Sri Prachan. The trio were childhood friends.
It was a period where the Ayutthaya Kingdom was in intense war with Chiang Mai and Lan Chang. The province of Lan Chang was ceded to French Indochina in 1946 under the Washington Accord in exchange for Thailand’s admission to the United Nations and today it forms part of Laos. The story also provided a rich insight into traditions, customs, culture, beliefs, and the way of life of Thais in general and the people of Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi (then Kanburi).
Khun Kraipon Executed
One day, Somdej Phra Panwasa suddenly wanted a herd of wild buffaloes and ordered Khun Kraipon to set up a ranch. Khun Kraipon was a warrior who was versed in the art of inner-path and war but, however, lacked the skill in herding wild buffaloes. Therefore, when he tried to herd those wild buffaloes into the ranch, they became frightened and ran amok. Khun Kraipon became frustrated and angered whereby he then used spears to thrust and killed many of those buffaloes whilst the remaining surviving buffaloes fled into the forest. Somdej Phra Panwasa became very angry and ordered Khun Kraipon and family to be executed. Upon receiving the news of her husband’s execution, Nang Thongprasri quickly took Phlai Kaeo and went into hiding in Kanburi.
There is a temple called Wat Khun Krai at Tambon Bang Pla Ma, Amphoe Bang Pla Ma, Changwat Suphanburi, built to honour Khun Phaen’s father.
Phlai Kaeo Ordained in Wat Som Yai
In Kanburi, Nang Thongprasri single-handedly brought up Phlai Kaeo who could not forget his father. He practised the skills his father taught him with the ambition of becoming a great army commander like his father. Phlai Kaeo was ordained in Wat Som Yai in Kanburi province. The temple was renamed Wat Yai Dong Rang in Buddhist Year 2525. The abbot of Wat Som Yai, Luang Pu Boon, imparted to him the secrets of the inner-path and moulded in him a strong foundation in the arts of sorcery. An ancient monument indicating Phlai Kaeo’s progress is still being preserved in the temple today.
After graduating from Wat Som Yai at the age of 15, Phlai Kaew was sent to further his learning and practice at Wat Pa Lelai Woravihan in Supanburi province and later to Wat Khae, also in Supanburi province.
Tens of thousands people have visited Wat Khae and most are amused by a large tamarind tree, measuring approximately 10 meters around the base inside the temple. A huge hornet sculpture sits under the tamarind tree. Devotees can be seen doing prayers and making offerings but, ironically, not many people know the essence of the giant hornet and the tamarind tree.
Actually, Khun Phaen has used the leaves of that Tamarind tree and turned them into hornets capable of attacking enemies which inspired the temple to build the sculpture of a giant hornet under the tree. Therefore, making prayers and offerings to the hornet symbolise a plea for help to subdue and/or defeat one’s enemy.
Childhood Friends Reunited: Love, Jealousy, and Plots Unfolded
Tragedy did not just befall Phlai Kaeo’s family. Shortly after the execution of his father Khun Kraipon, Sri’s family was robbed by bandits and Sri’s father Khun Srivichai was also killed. Almost during the same time, Nang Phim Philalai’s father Pansorn Yotha too died from a deadly fever after returning from foreign cities. The three childhood friends all became fatherless at almost the same period of time.
By the time Phlai Kaeo returned to Suphanburi, the trio were already all young adults. Nang Phim Philalai has grown up to be a beautiful young lady whilst Sri was bald and fat but has entered the royal service and conferred with the title Khun Chang. Despite the fact that his family was robbed, Khun Chang was able to amass great wealth and became a rich and influential person. However, he has also become selfish and insensitive.
Khun Chang has since childhood always liked Nang Phim Philalai and that affection has turned into a crush for the grown up beauty. With the return of Phlai Kaeo who has also grown up to be handsome and attractive, could the three childhood friends maintain that innocence and sincere friendship or…
To read more, please keep a look out for our upcoming article “Thai Myth: The Legend of Undefeatable Warlord Chapter 2”.