On the larger scale of things – that scale being all things penis – finding things to do while in Bangkok on a holiday generally revolves around finding guys to do while in Bangkok on a holiday. But as many sex touri have discovered in the past, when you get up before noon there’s just not a lot of penis to be had. Unless you played your cards right and woke up with one next to you. But don’t despair. If you have a one-track mind (and being a gay man I assume you do) that doesn’t mean spending your early daytime hours facing the drudgery of the city’s typical touri haunts. Like Jim Thompson’s House Of Silk For Sale. There are better options. Even if it is not in the flesh, Bangkok still offers lots of dick to occupy its gay touri’s time. In fact, once you narrow your focus, there’s dick everywhere, and photo ops abound.
For those into quantity, there’s the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine, home to a good thousand penises of every conceivable size, shape, and color. And while Wat Pho is primarily known for its gargantuan Reclining Buddha, everyone knows that while you slumber you also often sprout wood, so there’s an enviably sized erect penis statue in the wat’s forecourt garden too. The Mahathat Amulet Market (or any amulet market, or any market catering to touri for that matter) abounds with penis that you can take home with you as a souvenir – which is much cheaper than attempting to take a bar boy’s penis back home with you. But if you are a size queen, or are picky and only do significant penis, then your only choice is a visit to the City Pillar Shrine (aka San Lak Muang) opposite the Grand Palace in the southeast corner of Sanam Luang and close to the Ministry of Defense.
As penis goes, Bangkok’s city pillar shrine leaves a lot to be desired; as phallic symbols go, however, it’s hard to beat (um, but don’t. Unless you want to experience penis at the local jail). Often overlooked by touri in their rush to visit both the Grand Palace and Wat Pho in a single outing, San Lak Muang is one of the most ancient, sacred, and magnificent city pillar shrines in Thailand. As a city shrine, it is considered to have given birth to Bangkok. And as a phallic symbol, like those that are more phallic and less symbol, Thailand’s kings have never been able to just leave the damn thing alone. King Rama 1 is responsible for its original erection. And then Rama IV had to play with it too. It got its final stroke of a royal hand back in the early 1980s, and stands proudly today as a symbol of both the city’s history and its future.
Back in 1782, the recently coronated Rama I awoke one morning after having just established Bangkok as the country’s new capital, and looking down at what had popped up overnight, thought “Hmmmmmm, as long as I’m calling this place Bangkok, what it really needs is a giant . . .” and the next thing ya know, a 15′ high wooden woody was erected. It was only later that he thought of building himself a palace, or a temple, because like most men first things come first and the thing that always comes first is your penis. Although undoubtedly not the first monarch to sprout wood, Rama I is credited as being the first to have erected a monument to the birthing of a city in Siam. And just like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all the rage today, back then all of the lessor royals and despots had to get in on the act and began erecting their own phallic monuments all over the country. At that time, custom dictated that the width of a city’s pillar should be equal to two fists of the king/ruler/leader/grand poobah who had it erected. But since size always matters, Rama I’s was, obviously, the biggest, symbolizing both the power and stability of the fledging nation and its ruler’s mighty sword.
There are two myths (well, now three) surrounding the city pillar’s erection. When a city pillar is founded, to call the spirits, the ritualistic proclamation are the words ‘In–Chan–Mun–Kong’ (In, from the north; Chan, from the south; Mun, from the east; and, Kong, from the west). According to one tale, that chant summonsed four snakes who crawled under the shrine and were killed. Soothsayers interpreted this as an ominous sign that Bangkok would only last as the capital for 150 years. Legend #2 says the same chant drew four ‘volunteers’ who responded, were captured, and then were brought to the ceremonial location and buried in a hole where their spirits would guard and protect the city. Soothsayers probably interpreted this as an ominous sign too, but kept mum ‘cuz when the king is having peopled buried alive it’s best to not attract his attention.
As a symbol of the might of the Chakri Siam Empire – as in mine is bigger than yours – Bangkok’s city pillar (as well as those erected elsewhere as a demarcation of the extent of the Empire much in the same way a dog marks its territory by peeing on fire hydrants) stood proudly as a warning against future Burmese invasions, a not so insignificant pesky problem Rama I was dealing with in those days, and the pillar included a horoscope intended to ensure prosperity and success (um, for Siam, not Burma, which was finding much success on its own thank you very much.) And then hedged his bet by including three guardian angels for his new capital’s city shrine. (Two of these guardian angels are in the Theparat Shrine for your viewing pleasure, just to the right of the main shrine as you enter from Lak Muang Road.)
Fast forward 71 years later, Rama IV, aka King Mongkut, was running things in Bangkok and laughed at the idea of Burma ever amounting to anything more than the provincial back-water country it still is today. European colonialism, on the other hand, was a concern. Even though the ruler of neither Spain nor Great Britain had a city pillar to call their own. So he decided his town needed a new horoscope, a new deity, and a new phallic shrine, although considering the result one assumes he wasn’t quite the man of stature his forefather was. Or was just a more honest one. In any case, on December 5, 1853 (an auspicious date then as it would be again 74 years later when the current king of Thailand was born) IV had the city pillar shrine rebuilt, moving it from the southwestern corner of Sanam Luang to the southeastern corner where it remains today. He also had the image of Phra Sayamthevathirat created and designated it as the supreme deity of the Kingdom of Siam.
Both pillars are now sheltered in white, prang-shaped shrine, at the center of the shrine stands the original pillar dedicated by King Rama I and just to the side of the original, a second pillar (a little more ornate, but still smaller nonetheless) which was erected by Rama IV. There’s also two more smaller golden pillars full of ribbons on the side, ‘cuz you can never have enough phallic symbols, and these two tend to be highly revered by women as shrines for getting pregnant, although spending a little more time at home with the hubby and a little less at shrines praying would probably do the same trick. There are also six, massive elephant tusks on display, just in case you wanted to see what real ivory looks like and tried your best to not notice that you can still buy fresh elephant tusk at just about any street side amulet market in town.
Intended to be the spiritual center for Thai citizens, San Lak Muang is held in high esteem by locals who honor its history by visiting to pray for stability in life, to be free of bad luck, to live a longer life filled with happiness and good fortune, and to have success in career and achievement. So it’s a lot like meeting a rich farang. Although dealing with the shrine is a lot easier. There is a small, heavy Buddha statue inside which the hopeful lift twice; on the first go you make your wish, on the second you wish again (yes, Buddhist gods too can be deaf at times) and if on both attempts you manage to lift the Buddha into the air, your wish will come true. And that rich farang will soon appear. If not, there’s two giant phallic symbols right in front of you and that’s pretty damn lucky too.
Of course when you are praying to giant penises, nothing can be left to chance and there is a specific ritual involved. First (and amazingly available for purchase right there at the shrine) you need 3 incense sticks, 1 candle, gold leaf, 2 lotus flowers, 2 flower garlands and 1 piece of three-colored satin fabric. The incense, candles, and lotus are offered to the principal Buddha image, and he gets your dollop of gold leaf too. The fabric gets wrapped around one of the smaller stand-in pillars, one garland goes to Rama I’s best buddy, and the other is offered to the five sacred deities that protect Bangkok from harm. For those with a more religious bent, instead of secular rewards, your offerings bring the Seven Noble Treasures: faith, morality, great learning, charity, wisdom, moral shame, and moral fear. Everyone else gets the farang.
Between the main shrine with the city pillars, and the second containing the protective deities, there are lots of floral tributes on display from the faithful. You’d think that’s a lot of wishing going on, but Buddhists – at least the Thai version – know it ain’t healthy to dis the gods so when their wishes have been granted, they return to the shrine to make offerings of thanks too. And since penis and gods alike generally like dancing girls, one of those ways of saying mahalo is to pay for a performance by the traditional lakhon dance troupe on hand in the nearby open-air sala. If you are lucky as a visitor, you’ll get to watch a performance during your outing. If not, you can watch another form of traditional Thai dancing later that night for the cost of a drink.
The shrine’s Thai classical dance performances are given many times daily from 08:30 until 15:30 hrs. (16:00 for Sunday). And the shrine itself is open from 05:30 to 19:300 daily. Entrance is free, but as a significant religious site please remember to dress accordingly (shoulders and knees should be covered). If time got away from you, even if you can’t get inside, the shrine is beautifully lit at night. And then you can find your own penis to make an offering to at Sanam Luang.
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