“Phimai: The Musical” is an Epic Thai Love Story

A love story full of drama, infatuation, lies, and tragedy—the key elements of any true love story. This was an annual cultural performance celebrating the Phimai Festival, a cornerstone celebration in the town of Phimai in Eastern Thailand, and told us the story of the trials and tribulations that King Jayavarman VII endured to find his soulmate many centuries ago.

The stage was set perfectly. Laid out before the crumbling, majestic, 1,000-year-old ruins of the Khmer-style Phimai Historic Park, the play took place under soft, pink, blue and yellow lights and a clear night’s sky.

phimai historic park show

“Phimai: The Musical” is staged before the Khmer-style Phimai Historic Park. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

It opened with dozens of beautiful women, wearing gold headpieces and dressed in bright pink and orange silks, fighting to be the winner of the king’s affection. (Actually, most of the performance reminded me of Cinderella, in which the sisters struggle to cram their enormous feet into Cinderella’s petite glass slipper.) The audience roared when the handsome king announced he wasn’t attracted to any of these gorgeous maidens, and that he would consult the local fortune-teller for advice on where and how to find the love of his life.

(I’ll point out here that I’ve figured out this story through our translator and a bit of research, but the performance was in Thai so some of my details could be wrong. My apologies.)

phimai the musical

Long live the king! (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

So the king found a fortune teller, who gave him news that was both surprising and, to some, dated and a bit disturbing. The king was in his early 40s, yet was told his soulmate was still growing in the belly of a rural farm girl. While this admittedly shocked some of us, let’s not forget the cultural and era differences, and embrace it for what it is. True love knows no number.

The king had no choice but to travel afar through mountains and jungle to find the mother of his unborn wife. He searched everywhere in the land before coming across the woman who he was told to find: a pregnant, rural farm girl with a halo shining above her head. A short time passed and the woman gave birth to a perfect baby girl, the future queen. When the chosen one turned 12, the king told her what he had planned and what their future would hold.

(Stay with me, folks. I know what you’re thinking—but don’t focus on the age.)

phimai thailand performance

The queen grows from infant to mature woman in startling quick time. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

In true love-story fashion, the gorgeous girl falls madly in love with the king and cannot wait to become his bride—but, as you know, in every love story there is a villain, and in this particular story it was another king! The queen-to-be had put a few locks of her shiny jet-black hair into a box and set it down the winding river, in hopes her fiancé would find it; but somewhere along the way, another king found it and was mesmerized by the bodacious, floral scent. It sent him into a frenzy of elation and he set out to capture the girl and make her his wife.

He found her and stole her away, but her true love, King Jayavarman VII, came to the rescue—and upon his arrival, an epic battle ensued. Jayavarman VII was injured, and his rival was killed. Realizing the trauma and chaos that her beauty created, our once-rural queen cut off all her beautiful hair and put a magical ring onto her index finger, changing her into a male monk.

She then spent years in a monastery while her king, now recovered, searched for his beloved soulmate. On the monastery walls she hung a picture of herself from long ago, from when she was a breathtaking woman. She told the other monks, “If someone comes looking for me, sees this picture and starts to cry, please come find me at once!”

One day, to her delight, the king arrived and saw the picture! She was ecstatic as she moved the ring from her index finger to her pinky finger, changing her back into the angelic lady she once was. They married and lived happily ever after.

Is there any other way?

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