Ever since the US used Thailand as a base to fight its ill-fated wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the country and particularly its capital have been associated with its infamous sex industry. In the last couple of decades successive governments have tried to undo this image with the introduction of moral mores and legal limitations on hedonistic activities, often citing western influences, while continuing to turn a blind eye to wide-spread prostitution. This has done little to shake the clichéd view of a country that has so much more to offer than tepid go-go bars.
Two Bangkok institutions are presenting a more nuanced view of sex in Thailand. While Kamavijitra, a private collection of erotic art dating back to the early 20th century, documents sexual attitudes and aesthetics of the kingdom, the Patpong Museum offers an excellent visual introduction to the origins and development of the capital’s post World War II demi-monde. Both establishments throw a light on the never-ending social tussle between freedom and suppression and between culture and exploitation, between notions of what is Thai and what is foreign.
“Forty years ago, my father traveled abroad for our family business and visited museums that featured sexual culture. He thought about the future, a time when Thais would be more open about sexuality and would be able to look back at the rich sexual traditions of Siam. He started collecting erotic art from around Thailand,” explains 41-year old Watjanasin Charuwattanakitti, Kamavijitra’s curator.
But in 1980, the time wasn’t right for a Bangkok sex museum.
“We were living in the shadow of Phibunsongkhram, a nationalist dictator who outlawed polygamy and made prostitution illegal. Phibun, influenced by western morality, suppressed many aspects of Thai culture and told people not to talk about sex in public. Prior to his rule, women would routinely go topless, but new cultural mandates made us very conservative in the 1950s.”
Watjanasin studied finance in the US. “When I came back from the US, I learned how to curate exhibitions at Silpakorn University and did workshops at Museum Siam about how to set up a museum. Then I told my father that we should present his collection to the public.”
Kamavijitra opened in an apartment block the family owns off Sukhumvit Road in 2008. A couple of floors have been converted for an eclectic collection of statues and paintings from around the country.
“A lot of erotic art in Thailand originates in Buddhist temples. Artists copied and enlarged on some of the themes they saw, but they found it difficult to sell their work because of the taboo around sex. My father traveled to villages, often with monks, to find the art works exhibited today – from paintings on wood and animal skin to his collection of Palad Khik – sacred wooden phalli worn around the waist as lucky charms.”
98% of the visitors to Kamavijitra are foreigners. “Thais don’t like museums where there is a lot to read and full of old items. Most of the people who come for the tours are from China, Hong Kong, Singapore or from Australia, the US and Europe.”
But Watjanasin is seeing changes in Thai society when it comes to sex and continues to curate new works of art discussing current issues, “Generation Z is very conservative, but Thais below 35 have a different attitude. The current pro-democracy demonstrations discuss LGBT and women’s rights very openly. Young Thais are proud of themselves and that liberates them sexually as well.”
Watjanasin recently opened The Green Lantern (a reference to the way brothels were advertised before World War II), a café on Sukhumvit Road where he organizes exhibitions.
“Sex is not bad, we should talk about it in public,” he says, confident that the young will leave some of Thailand’s top down conservatism behind.
Austrian Michael Messner has made Thailand his home since 2001. Messner ran several bars in Patpong, Bangkok’s best-known red-light district, which is inextricably linked to the US military presence in Southeast Asia.
“I understood that Patpong had a rich history, that there was a worthwhile story to be told here. I had an idea to open a red-light museum, not as a hobby, but as an enterprise.”
Messner set out to collect artefacts and documents illustrating the area’s history, but it took him years to make his dream a reality.
“When I felt ready, I raised money to rent a property in Patpong. One day I walked in with cardboard boxes full of photos, looking at all these white walls. I was pretty scared, but when we opened in October 2019, the feedback was great and now we are listed as the second most popular museum in Bangkok on Tripadvisor, trumped only by the Jim Thompson House.”
Jim Thompson, an American architect who revitalized Thailand’s silk industry in the 1950s, first arrived, by parachute, as an OSS (precursor of the CIA) agent to sabotage Japanese activities during World War II. Thompson set up the first CIA station in Bangkok and helped open the doors for American businesses to move in. Two sons of the Patpongpanit family, descendants of Chinese immigrants from Hainan, studied in the US and understood that Thailand’s future would include international trade, new technologies and business opportunities. They welcomed foreign investors to set up shop on land that had been bequeathed to the family by the crown – the first Shell Oil office and the American Chamber of Commerce were based in Patpong. Air America, the CIA’s secret airline also opened shop here. The first CIA safehouse in the city was above the Madrid Bar, a CIA hangout from the 60s onwards.
The Patpong Museum tells the fascinating story of how a few blocks along Silom Road in downtown Bangkok became an economic powerhouse and a microcosm of the social and economic changes Thailand experienced after World War II. A series of rooms tells of the area’s most important developments in chronological order and there are interactive features – both low and high tech, including vivid illustrations of the US presence, the Vietnam War and the pop culture it spawned, hilarious trivia on celebrities from Jean-Claude Van Damme to David Bowie who frequented the area’s bars and yes, photographs and videos of what’s going on in the bars around the museum.
The museum is popular with both Thais and foreigners. “In the past decades, Patpong was predominantly frequented by single white men. Nowadays it’s western couples in their 20s and 30s who come, not to have sex, but to look at the area. And they are interested in the museum, as are young Thais, especially students.”
Both museums do a great and yet idiosyncratic job at conveying the message that it’s time to talk about sex in Thailand.