Topless in Thailand: A History of Boobs & Buddha

Bare Breasted Chiang Rai Women wearing only a sarong
Photo: 1919. Chiang Rai women dressed only in a sarong. Topless women were common in Siam, especially rural areas until the 1930’s. (Photo attribution unknown)
This post was updated 6/17/2018

Although contemporary Thailand strongly frowns upon women baring their breasts in public, such attitudes are relatively new (from a historical perspective). A simple review of the history of Thai clothing proves there was never any friction between a woman’s boobs and Buddhism.

Topless Siamese women in public didn’t become a social issue until Europeans started showing up at the Royal Court of Siam in the mid-19th Century.

West meets East back in the 1850’s.  A clash of clothing histories. The clothing for a snowy, cold Europe along with their pre-Victorian prudishness meets the clothing for a hot, steamy tropical land.

This post will take a peek at Siamese boobs and Buddhism from a historical perspective. I’ll leave the moral judgments to you.

Boobs, Buddha & You-My Prior Post

About a year ago, I wrote a short blog entry about farang (White) 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 post, 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

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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.

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

A Disclaimer

This post has nothing to do with the debauchery and cavorting found in Thailand’s sex enclaves such as Pattaya, Patong Beach or Soi Cowboy in Bangkok.

The sexual antics of these red light districts has zero to do with Thai culture. If you believe that “bar girl” culture is representative of Thai women-shame on you!

Past Boob Realities of Siam

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Photo from Lamphun Province from the 1930s. Bare breasted Siamese women in pubic is rooted in Siamese culture and history..

In the course of Siamese history, roughly a time span of 3,000 years, it’s only been the last 125 years or so that female boobs have been covered. Go into any museum or history book that has photography from the 19th Century and you will commonly see topless Siamese women in public.

In fact, Siamese men and women dressed remarkably the same until around 1900. A sarong or chong kraben (a sarong wrapped and tied to resemble pants) was worn by both sexes. Women at times wore a loose fitting shoulder wrap that sometimes covered her breasts. Sometimes not. It was no big deal.

Topless Siamese Women wearing only a chong kraben.
Photo 1899. Traditional dress for a woman in Siam during the 19th Century was only a chong kraben and an optional shoulder wrap. (Photo attribution unknown)
Topless Siamese Kon Dancer
Photo: 1903. Topless Siamese Kon Dancer. Women often went topless in public at the turn of the 19th Century in Siam. (Photo Attribution unknown)

That’s not to say all women went topless in public in Old Siam. But 125 years ago, a woman at the market baring her breasts was not the moral show stopper it would be today.

Things started changing around the mid-19th Century. That’s when White colonialists from England, Holland, and France starting showing up in the Siamese Kingdom.

These Europeans would be entertained at the Royal Siamese Court and shown around early Bangkok. Most Thai women went topless back then, including the consorts of the Royal Court.

A Karen Hill Tribe Princess topless in traditional dress
Photo: 1895. A Karen Hill Tribe princess wearing traditional dress. (Photo attribution unknown)

The expressions on these White, puritanical faces must have been priceless when they were confronted with a half-naked Thai woman in public. These men came from horridly repressed cultures about sex. (“Blow out the candles”! Even during sex the naked body shouldn’t be viewed.)

Such displeasure and discomfort did not escape the notice of the Siamese rulers. They wanted Europeans to respect them. They had to make deals with these colonialists and didn’t want their culture to be judged immoral.

And so beginning in the mid-19th Century, the Siamese Royal Court began to encourage women to cover their breasts, at least in public. It took decades to accomplish this fashion change as women in rural Thailand persisted in going topless in public even as late as the 1920’s-1930’s.

Boobs & Buddha: An Artful Eyeful

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Details of mural paintings inside Wat Kaew in Chiang Rai. Wat Kaew is one of the most revered Wats in Thailand. This mural depicts how women dressed in the mid-19th century and prior.

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.

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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.

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 visited Wat. It’s Emerald Buddha is surrounded by paintings which depict bare breasted village women.

The best example of topless art 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.

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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.

From Topless to Top Plus

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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.

And so we see that again politics and fashion intertwine. Thailand has a long history of woman bearing their breasts in public and a very short history of covering up.

The great boob cover-up had its start in the politics of the mid-19th century. And the cover-up gained momentum into the 20th Century until we arrive at contemporary Thai society today.

But curiously enough, modern Thailand has now outdone the Europeans and even the U.S. (a very conservative “boob” country) in a woman showing her breasts in public. Go figure.

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