Boobs, Buddha & You: Revisited!

A Buddhist temple denizen painted on the walls of Wat Kaew in Lamphun, Thailand. Bare breasted women are commonly found as part of Siamese temple art.

About a year ago, I wrote a short blog entry about farang women in Thailand showing their boobs in public, going topless at the pool or beach, or going braless with a flimsy top, etc. If you didn’t read my initial blog, you may want to do so before delving further into this piece. (Click here: “Boobs, Buddha & You”)

In the original blog, I pointed out that Thailand is a conservative Buddhist society and women showing their boobs off in public was taboo. And there was the infamous pool sign that read:

As Thailand is a Buddhist society, women please refrain from topless sunbathing, as you will offend other guests.
-Dusit Thani, Hua Hin

This swimming pool sign is at a posh resort in Hua Hin caters to international guests. Going topless in Thailand is not appropriate in public anywhere in the Kingdom.

But Thailand can be a puzzle box of contradictions. No more greater contradiction exists than with a woman’s boobs.

A public sculpture near Surin, Thailand. A child nestles himself between the bare breasts of his mother.

Before, we go any further, let”s get something straight. When I talk about the taboo of women in Thailand going topless at the pool or showing their nipples through a blouse while out-and-about town, I am NOT talking about the antics that take place 24/7 in Pattaya, Patong Beach or any other sex industry hub. These sex industry enclaves have little to do with customs and culture of Siamese society other than being geographically within Thai national borders. There are millions of primarily White men whose only experience with Thailand is cavorting with prostitutes at one of these sex enclaves. Sorry boys, but if that’s you, then you know very little about Thailand, and even less about its people. This blog entry has nothing to do with what goes on in Thailand’s infamous sex industry locals.

Past Boob Realities of Siam

Photo from Lamphun Province from the 1930s. Bare breasted Siamese women in pubic were common back then.

In the course of Siamese history, roughly a time span of 3,000 years, it’s only been the last 100 years or so that female boobs have been covered. Go into any Thai museum that has street photography from the 1920s or 30s and you will see topless Siamese women commonly walking down the street.

Thai Silk Weavers
An old painted mural from the late 19th century depicts two topless Thai women weaving silk.
Thai topless girl
Just a century ago, going topless in Siam was totally acceptable.

In fact, Siamese men and women dressed remarkably the same. A sarong and sandals. No top. The woman may have worn a head scarf and jewelry, but that was the only difference.

That’s not to say all women went topless in public in Old Siam. But 100 years ago, a woman at the market baring her breasts was not the moral show stopper it would be today.

Boobs & Buddha: An Artful Eyeful

Details of mural paintings inside Wat Kaew in Chiang Rai. Wat Kaew is one of the most revered Wats in Thailand.

I love visiting old wats. The cultural keys to Thailand are kept there. I especially love looking at all the Buddhist artwork that wats hold and display. Painted on their walls are not only fading murals of the Buddha’s life, but of everyday Thai village life. And in these depictions of Siamese daily life, within the holiest sanctums of Thailand, are detailed depictions of topless women.

And it’s not just a few minor temples here and there that depict on there interior walls Siamese women baring their breasts. Some of the most important temples in Thailand have such depictions.

Wat Phumin, Nan, Thailand
Wat Phumin in Nan. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Sistine Chapel” of Thailand. It’s interior walls contain some of the most sensual Buddhist artwork in the Kingdom.

Wat Kaew in Chaing Rai is the town’s the most important and most visited Wat. It’s Emerald Buddha is surrounded by paintings which depict bare breasted village women. Wat Kaew in Lamphun (Notice has it’s always the oldest Wats that have best examples.) is adorned with topless mythological heroine.

The best example is Wat Phumin in Nan. It’s referred to as the “Sistine Chapel” of Thai wats. A mural painted almost 200 years ago depicts a young, bare breasted woman posing seductively with her arms raised over her head. Yes, she’s showing off her boobs right inside the Wat, only a few feet from ornate statues of Lord Buddha. And to add more to this social enigma, are street vendors just outside Wat Phumin that are hawking t-shirts and other temple souvenirs with this woman’s seductive image plastered all over them. Go figure.

The famous temple mural of Wat Phumin, Nan Province. The painting is about 200 years old and clearly depicts a sensual pose of a topless Siamese woman.

Life Inside The Siamese Puzzle Box

I found this contemporary painting framed and hanging in a Wat near Si-Sa-Ket. This is Khmer country and the Khmer themes of this painting are obvious.

My wife and son are Thai. My diet is primarily Thai. We own a Thai house in rural Siam. My friends are Thai. I was married inside a Thai Wat. I attend many Buddist religious events in rural Thailand. (I’m not at all religious, let alone Buddhist.) My business is Thai. In fact with our Thai pillow business, I often say that we don’t really sell Thai pillows, we sell Thai culture. This blog is proof that I can prattle on endlessly about traditional Thai life.

But in the end, I am often a stranger in a strange land. A white guy swimming in a sea of green curry. I describe the quizical nature of Thai life as the “Siamese Puzzle Box”. I’m trapped inside, but no longer look for a way out.

Thai women and their boobs are part of that Siamese Puzzle Box. I don’t question, but merely observe.

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