Khun Chang, Khun Phaen has all the suspense, action, and page-turning excitement of a historical novel. This would of course be normal if this were a modern novel--but it is not. Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is a classical epic, and the product of first Siamese troubadours of the 16th to 19th centuries, and secondly scribes in the royal palaces of nineteenth and early twentieth century Siam. Such mixed authorship usually means that there is a disjointedness to the story. This is not the case with this translation. The setting for this epic is roughly in the period 17th and 18th centuries when the Ayudhya Kingdom dominated central Thailand, and was warring with princes in Chiangmai, Vientiane, and Burma.
In other words, Khun Chang, Khun Phaen emerges from the traditions and worlds similar to that The Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, The Old Testament, or Shakespeare. Unlike these works, though, Khun Chang, Khun Phaen even at 836 pages reads like a modern novel with an identifiable story, plot, and surprise ending. The fact that is not disjointed is, I suspect due to the skills of the editors/translators. Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit created a coherent "translation" by borrowing passages from various editions published in Thai by royal scribes between 1872 and 1918, who collected the various version narrated by the troubadours. Such "stitching together" is what gives the whole long tale its narrative coherence.
Finally to enliven the already lively story, Baker and Pasuk include numerous footnotes explaining the intricacies of Siamese court life, military practices, folk traditions, and of course the underlying story of romantic love. These in turn are supplemented by illustrations by Muangsai Janchai which help the reader breeze through otherwise vague descriptions of archaic palace, folk, and military practices. The result is an engaging, interesting and easy to read story.
Reading Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is a joy, not only for the story-line, but also the vivid descriptions of Siamese village, court, religious, and army life in the Siamese world of several hundred years ago. The King "roars like a lion," while those beseeching him prostate themselves before the dust beneath his feet. The colorful court has prostrating female sentinelles attend the King in a glittering gold-encrusted throne room. The word-images describing the royal court at Ayudhya reminded me a bit of the Wizard of Oz's own court.
Other characters are well-developed, too, especially the many-sided rake Khun Phaen and his wives, the greedy but nevertheless sympathetic Khun Chang, and the confused protagonist who married both men, the beautiful and romantic Wanthong. Even spirits, elephants, horses, and sprites populating the book are take on personalities.
James Grayson in a review in Folklore (London) noted: "The work will be of interest to the folklorist, and scholar of religious studies of any part of the world."
I think that the readership for Khun Chang, Khun Phaen should extend far beyond this limited group. Many people will find this book of interest, starting with those who simply like to read novels for entertainment on airplanes.
My one beef is that Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is not available in other formats, especially Kindle. Reading Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is ideal for airport/airplane reading, though its hefty weight may deter (836 pages of text, and 140 pages of notes and supplementary material).