Joe Louis Puppet Theater: A new home for Bangkok's masters of puppets

Joe Louis Puppet Theater: A new home for Bangkok's masters of puppets

Despite getting booted from the old Suan Lum Night Bazaar, the famed tourist attraction is set to rise again

Bangkok's Joe Louis Puppet Theater, also known as “Nattayasala Hun Lakorn Lek,” was once one of the city's top attractions.

Founded in 2002 by the late master of puppets Sakorn Yangkhieosod, whose English name was Joe Louis, it showcased the remarkable Thai traditional art of puppetry.

Sadly, the curtain dropped permanently for the show in 2010, when its contract with the now demolished Suan Lum Night Bazaar expired.  

Many thought that was the end of the historic Bangkok attraction. But now it's been confirmed that the Joe Louis puppets will dance again at Asiatique, a new waterfront dining, shopping and entertainment complex on Charoen Krung Road.

According to officials, the new theater will open in June. 

Before the troupe left Suan Lum Night Bazaar, we headed backstage to check out one of the skilled puppeteers' last performances. For an idea of what to expect when the Joe Louis Puppet Theater re-opens in its new location in June, check out some of the images below. 

This wax effigy of Sakorn depicts the first puppet he created, The Hermit. Sakorn grew up learning about the art of Hun Lakhon Lek, or drama with puppets, which is based on the Thai classical masked dance Khon. He made his first puppet in 1942, when he was 20.

Lakhon puppets, like the ones used in the Joe Louis Puppet Theater, are handcrafted. Puppetry in Thailand began in 1901, developed by the Khon dancer and puppeteer Krae Saptawanit. Sakorn's parents were members of Krae's puppetry troupe.

A signature movement of classical Thai dance and drama is the gesture of bending the fingers back towards the wrist. This graceful gesture’s flexibility requires years of practice and training.

Puppeteers control the Thai puppets using levers for the joints and sticks connected to the hands.

Faces are painted on, and a lot of the clothing and the faces of the puppets have precious gold leaf intricately woven or mixed in with the paint. Gold thread is used for the costume.

Many of the performances with traditional Thai puppets center around the epic Ramayana, or Ramakien in Thai.

As a young man, Joe Louis would craft puppets under his mosquito net, often late into the night. The Joe Louis Theater reenacts some of Sakhon's life in its shows.

The original puppet show in Thailand was similar to other countries’, in that puppeteers had assigned characters and the performance took place in a booth with a curtain. Joe Louis formed his first puppet troupe in 1985, but it wasn't until 1999 that he and his kids were able to raise enough money to open a small theater in Nonthaburi.

The location proved to be too remote to attract visitors, so in 2002 they moved the theater to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, where they performed until the contract ended in 2010. Now, they've found a new home at Bangkok's Asiatique entertainment complex.  

After World War II, puppetry’s popularity waned, but Sakorn kept the art alive by teaching his children and grandchildren the art of making and performing with puppets. He died in 2007, but his children and grandchildren carry on his legacy. 

The puppeteers controlling one puppet must dance in synchrony.

A scene depicting how Sakhon’s house burned down in the 1980s, taking with it all his handcrafted puppets but one.

In 2006 and 2008, The Joe Louis Puppet Theater won first place in the World Festival of Puppet Art in Prague.

The puppets currently in the Joe Louis Puppet Theater collection include characters from the Ramayana, such as Rama, Sita, and here, Hanuman.

The faith and dedication of Sakhon made him a guardian of traditional Thai art, and he was awarded the prestigious National Artist title by HM the King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In a dance, two artists from the theater demonstrate the mutual dependence of the puppeteer and the puppet.

Puppets used in the Joe Louis show are based on the Chinese cylindrical puppet, which is made of bamboo. The parts are movable, so three puppeteers controlling a single puppet can change the puppet’s expression and movement, for example making the puppet wai in the traditional Thai greeting, nod its head or clap.

The puppeteers study Thai classical dancing to be able to move with the puppets.

A nod to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, at the end of the show.

The Joe Louis Puppet Theater will re-open at Bangkok's Asiatique, a new riverside outdoor shopping and entertainment complex, in June. Address: 2194 Charoen Krung Road, Wat Prayakrai District, Bangkor Laem, Bangkok.  +66 (0)81 701 3651.