Mak yong was founded in the Pattani kingdom which is now a province of Thailand. Because it was passed down orally among villagers, mak yong's exact age is uncertain. However, the fact that it is mostly free of outside influence would make it 800 years old at the very least and almost certainly much older. Legend generally credits the dance to a rice spirit called Mak Hiang but others believe it was created by a being called Semar. Historians are unsure whether mak yong evolved as a folk tradition or a palace theatre. Either way it was patronised by all layers of society to pay respect to the spirits, give thanks for the harvest or to cure a person's biorhythm.
According to the Hikayat Patani mak yong was brought to Kelantan more than 200 years ago. From there it spread to Kedah. Mak yong was mostly performed for royalty until then but by 1920 it was more often seen among common folk. Whereas the palace theatre mirrored the elegance of royalty, peasant performers enacted the life of workers in the rice fields. Nevertheless mak yong's delicate movements, polite mannerisms and refined speech endured. In 1923, the king's youngest son Long Abdul Ghaffar wanted mak yong to retain its courtly look. He built a cultural precinct called Kampung Temenggung on palace grounds to lend his support to the arts. During this time it became conventional to have a lead female. His death in 1935 was followed by World War II. Mak yong was once again a folk tradition but it now regained much of the sophistication it had as a court theatre, especially in the costumes, make-up and music.
The traditional mak yong had continued into the 1960s and 70s but was later impeded by the Islamic revival. When PAS took control of Kelantan in 1991, they banned mak yong in the state for its "un-Islamic elements" and clothing which leaves the head and arms uncovered. Although many old performers defied the ban, mak yong could no longer be shown in public. Some thought the tradition would die out until UNESCO declared it a masterpiece of mankind's heritage. There has since been some effort to preserve mak yong outside Kelantan but interest among the younger generation is lacking.
Nowadays mak yong is seldom performed at cultural shows because priority is given to modern Malay dances like joget. It is sometimes still staged at weddings, to celebrate a state's independence or to pray for the king's long life. But these modern shortened performances are stripped of the old animist rituals and their music is simplified because the songs are played so infrequently. There are only a few troupes left who perform traditional mak yong in the villages of Kelantan and Terengganu.