Sports in Thailand: Kite flying

Kite-flying has been a sport favoured by Thais since ancient times, during the period when the kite wind (southwest monsoon blowing from southwest to northeast) blows, between March and May. It has been popular with people from all walks of life, from ordinary people to high-ranking officials, and members of the royal family including the king himself. Chronicles recording the annual ceremonies mentioned that in the Second Month Ceremony there would be kite-flying in accordance with ancient royal tradition. Some said that the king flew a kite to invoke wind. Moreover, foreigners who came to establish friendly relations with Ayutthaya in the reign of King Narai the Great recorded that “The King of Siam’s kite appeared in the sky every night all through the two months in winter. The King appointed court officials to take turns holding the strings.” Another part mentioned that “kite-flying was a popular sport among the Siamese people.”

There are several purposes to kite-flying in Thailand : extraordinary-shaped kites flown for  beauty and fun; noise-making kites to invoke wind or good luck; kites used in warfare in ancient time; and kite-flying as gambling.

Kite-flying in Thailand has been in existence since the Sukhothai Period, around the 18th century of the Buddhist Era. A well known kite is Wao Ngao, or Wao Dui-Dui (Jew’s – harp kite), which makes a humming noise all the time it is flown. This type of kite is believed to invoke wind or good luck. The noise it makes is supposed to repel all evils. Wao Chula (star-shaped kite) made its appearance in the Ayutthaya Period around the 19th century B.E., especially in the reign of King Phetracha. Kites were flown not only for fun but also for use in warfare. When the ruler of Nakhon Ratchasima staged a revolt, he could not be put down, at first. So an earthen pot filled with gunpowder was tied to the string of a Wao Chula, together with a fuse. The kite was flown across the city wall and then the fuse was lit, causing the pot with gunpowder to explode, setting the city on fire. In later times, there was evidence showing that kings were partial to holding contests between the Wao Chula and Wao Pakpao (diamondshaped kite with a long tail).

In the Rattanakosin Period, kiteflying was still a form of popular entertainment and sport. King Rama V also loved to watch the contests between Wao Chula and Wao Pakpao. The King had open-air kite-flying contests held at Thung Pramen, or Thong Sanam Luang, also called Phramen Ground. The contests created a great deal of fun and the winners would be given royal trophies. King Rama V presided over the annual kiteflying contests from 1906 to the end of his reign.

The present-day annual kiteflying contests were first organized at Phramen Ground in 1953, together with the flying of other beautiful kites.

Kite-flying in each region is quite similar, except for certain local characteristics.

In the North, even though kiteflying is not a popular sport, it is thoroughly enjoyed by the local children. As for the beautiful kites that are flown, they usually feature the shapes of various animals.

In the Northeast, kite flying often takes place at the end of the rainy season, from November to January, since this is the time when the northeastern monsoon blows through Thailand. The kites popularly flown are of two kinds: plain kites such as Wao I Lum and Wao Chula Isan, and noise-making kites, which are very popular such as Wao Aek or Wao Song Hong.

Kite-flying in the South is prevalent, especially in Songkhla. There are different shapes of kites such as Wao Nok, Wao Peek-aen, Wao Nok Yung, Wao Pla Peek-aen, Wao Khwai, and Wao Kradat. In provinces south of Songkhla, Wao Wong Duean is the most popular. In this region, it is customary to attach a bow-shaped piece of wood called aek or sanu or thanu to the tip of the kite.

There are several types of kites in the Central Region: traditional kites such as Wao Chula, Wao Pakpao, Wao Dui-dui, Wao Hang, Wao I Phraet, and Wao I Lum, and the newer type of kites showing foreign influence with their animal shapes such as Wao Ngu (snake kite), Wao Pla (fish kite), Wao Nok Yung (peacock kite), and Wao Phi Suea (butterfly kite).

Among the Thai kites, the most outstanding ones are Wao Chula and Wao Pakpao. Although they are flown mostly in the Central Region, they can be called Thai national kites which utterly differ from the kites of other countries, both in shape and movement while aloft. They have beautiful shapes and are most exquisitely made, capable of being manipulated to move gracefully and agilely by using only one kite string.

Wao Chula and Wao Pakpao can be flown just like other kites. What makes them special is that they can be used in kite-flying contests. In the reign of King Rama V, contests between the two types of kites were held in the King’s presence while a military band and a Pi-phat orchestra played on. If Wao Pakpao was losing and Wao Chula was winning, the band would play a Phleng Ho (soaring in the air tune). If Wao Chula plunged to the ground, a Phleng Ode (a lamenting tune) would be played. While the two kites were engaged in fighting, Phleng Chert Ching (a lively tune accompanying the performance of cymbals) would add to the excitement. If Wao Chula was being dragged in on a pulley, Krao Ram (a rousing tune played at a large gathering of men or in march time) would be played. The King would present a lei or a gold cup to honour the kite that won the contest. In the contest between Wao Chula and Wao Pakpao, the former is considered having an edge over the latter by virtue of its shape and weapon, resulting in Wao Chula being compared to a man and Wao Pakpao to a woman. The rules of the game, then, specify that Wao Pakpao be given a 2 to 1 handicap over Wao Chula. During the match, Wao Chula would be upwind and there would be a dividing line between the two sides. The kite flyers are not allowed to cross this line into the other side’s territory. Wao Pakpao would be beaten when Wao Chula could hook and immobilize it; that is, Wao Pakpao cannot slacken its kite-string because the “champi” of Wao Chula has squeezed its tail until it breaks off, or the tail entwines around the kite, or the paper in Wao Pakpao is so torn that the kite tilts, its wing torn, its tail broken, leaving only the body, or its body torn leaving the tail attached to the kite-thread of Wao Chula, or the string is broken, or the kite itself slips through the two balancing strings of Wao Chula and rips its body, etc. However, in the event that Wao Chula cannot bring Wao Pakpao down, and the latter breaks away and is carried by the wind to fall into the Pakpao territory, the match is forfeited and Wao Chula cannot consider Wao Pakpao the loser.

As for Wao Chula, it would lose to Wao Pakpao when it becomes entangled with the latter and plunges to the ground, unable to soar up again. It does not matter whether it plunges down because it gets stuck in a tree, breaks off along with Wao Pakpao, or floats into the Pakpao territory, even though both kites are still aloft, or when the Wao Chula flyer himself causes it to swerve to the ground. When Wao Chula falls into the Pakpao territory, it is judged the loser. But if before falling the kites become disentangled in midair, then the game is over, with neither side winning or losing.

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.

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