Sri Thanonchai is known throughout Thailand but also in other Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Laos, this character is called Siengmieng (also Chieng Mieng), in Cambodia Thanon-Chai, although his Khmer name is Ah Thonchuy Prach.
In Myanmar, this figure is referred to as Saga Dausa. The Lao tales are similar to the Thai ones whereas the Cambodian versions differ somewhat from the commonly told Thai stories. There are also mural paintings of Sri Thanonchai tales at Wat Phrathum Wanaram in Bangkok, Thailand.
He can be compared to the folkloric German figure of Till Eulenspiegel, who was also reputed to be a great deceiver. Most of the Sri Thanonchai stories are set in central Thailand and this is most likely where the tales of Sri Thanonchai originated from.
According to the tales, Sri Thanonchai was born near Ayutthaya as the son of a peasant. His mother bore him relatively late in her life. As the story goes, it was only after she implored the god Indra that she fell pregnant and bore her first son, Sri Thanonchai.
However, a short while after the trickster’s birth, the mother gave birth to another son and as is so often the case the elder son Sri Thanonchai became very jealous of his younger brother.
Generally though, Sri Thanonchai was very witty, clever and delighted in playing tricks on people, some of which were often quite outrageous.
Nevertheless, he was eventually appointed to the royal court where he before long he began to annoy and vex other courtiers with his incessant tricks and deceptions. Despite these often risky transgression he had an uncanny ability to be able to save his hide from any severe punishment.
Finally, following his return to the house of his parents, it seems his karma finally caught up with him and soon after Sri Thanonchai was said to have died of a broken heart following the loss in a bet against a court official.
Testifying to his longevity as a folkloric character, there have been several movie versions portraying Sri Thanonchai’s vexing exploits and eventual demise. The most recent version, titled Sri Thanonchai 555+, was released in 2014.
The most famous tale of Sri Thanonchai is one in which the trickster outwits the King. Summing up, the story relates how the trickster persuades the King to go into a pond. Both the Thai and Laos versions of this popular tale are almost identical. Although several Laos version of his other exploits vary quite considerably from the popular Thai versions.
The story of Sri Thanonchai was for centuries passed down through oral storytelling traditions, but were later written down more definitively in verse and prose.
The longevity and continued popularity of the tales of Sri Thanonchai’s exploits highlight the intellectual and creative power involved in the art of telling jokes and their ability to stand the test of time.
Such humorous tales, told in entertaining and insightful ways, often employing a deft understanding of linguistic and psychological nuances of an audience, remind us that people of all cultures revel in the joys of a well told story.
That these tales remain popular to this day goes to show that their universal themes still resonate with people, who continue to identify with the universal themes, characters and situations of these ancient folk tales.
Sirinya Pakditawan is half-Thai and holds a PhD from Hamburg University. She enjoys writing about Thai culture, read her blog at: sirinyas-thailand.de