Secret Bangkok

Excerpts from a recently published book by two BJT contributors spotlight little-known wonders of the Thai capital.

Bangkok ranks among the world’s most popular vacation destinations, yet some of its most stunning and intriguing spots remain unknown to outsiders—and often even to the
city’s residents. Here, we feature five of them, in excerpts from 
Secret Bangkok, a recently published guidebook by a pair of BJT contributors.

Chinatown Face Threaders 

The ancient art of face-threading (known as mang-ming in Thai) is a traditional beauty treatment that survives unchanged along the pavements of Charoeng Krung Road from around 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. A sort of “cat’s cradle” of cotton thread is twisted around the fingers and the therapist then pulls the loose end with her teeth to remove facial hair and even eyebrows.

Cha-on Udomphonphoemthawi, who has been working on the sidewalk near 600 Charoeng Krung Road for more than two decades, learned the face-threading process from her mother. She claims that it’s by far the best way to trim the contours of the eyebrows and to remove even the finest “peach-fuzz” down on the cheekbones and that it’s far more effective—and less painful—than waxing or using tweezers. Powder, often a scented mixture of calcium carbonate and lime powder, is used to smooth the process and stop the thread from burning the skin. Some customers believe that this also helps to whiten the skin. 

A skilled face-threader can complete a full facial in about 20 minutes (costing around BHT100) and, while it is only slightly painful for the customers, a day’s work can be tiring for the workers; Cha-on Udomphonphoemthawi and her colleagues frequently end the day with sore fingers from the thread and tense necks from pulling with the teeth.

Jesada Technik Museum

This hangar-sized warehouse is a veritable petrolhead paradise. There are enough quirky beauties on display here to make this a truly jaw-dropping experience…even for visitors with only a passing interest in motoring history.

Thai businessman Jesada Dejsakulrit has been collecting vehicles for about 30 years and his private collection now includes more than 300 rare and classic cars and about 200 motorbikes and scooters. He clearly has a soft spot for bubble cars, and, for many, the stars of the show are the diminutive egg-shaped three-wheel 1960s BMWs and Messerschmitts. Try not to trip over the tiny red Peel, the smallest production car ever made. One of these recently fetched $175,000 at an auction in Florida.

Next to the bubble cars, there’s an entire fleet of what appear to be leather-covered cars: they are Czechoslovakian Verolex Oskars, which were made through the 1950s and were covered in brown vinyl. From the same decade, there are a couple of astoundingly well-preserved Amphicars—the sort of car-boat combos that James Bond would have appreciated. There’s even a highly unusual little car with a steering wheel and controls at both ends, for driving either forwards or backwards!

Even earlier models, dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, are mostly in serviceable (if not showroom) condition. For sheer eye candy, look out for the old Fords, Humbers, Citroens, Studebakers, and Mercedes, as well as a yellow New York cab and two stretch Checker limousines. The collection is highly eclectic with even a double-decker London bus, a helicopter, and a couple of hovercrafts thrown into the mix. Dejsakulrit once even bought a Russian “Whiskey Class” submarine but it sank while being towed to Thailand. Motoring aficionados will appreciate a retro gem in the form of a 1980s DMC DeLorean (a la Back to the Future), and a 1993 Maserati sitting unassumingly near the back corner might be one of the unsung stars of the collection. 

In a dustier (and rustier) part of the warehouse, there’s an entire collection of cycle-trishaws, bicycles, motorized cycles…and more classic Vespas and Lambrettas than you are likely to ever see anywhere else under one roof. This almost unknown museum might be the most startling private collection of vehicles in the world yet, according to staff, none of the vehicles here are for sale…and there’s not even a fee for admission.

The museum, which is open daily except for Mondays, is at 73120 Tambon Ngewrai, Nakhon Chai Sri, Nakhon Pathom (phone: 034 339 467).

Wat Pariwat

The main altar in the ordination hall at Wat Pariwat is decorated with a statue of David Beckham. It’s said that the abbot here removed a statue of Garuda (the giant bird of Buddhist mythology) to replace it with his Manchester United hero in 1998. The effigy, in Manchester United strip, crouches just inches from a bizarre mural, depicting scenes from hell in which starving figures are broiled alive while other naked “sinners” are pursued, bleeding up cactus trees by slavering dogs. 

It’s a strange sight and one that has become relatively famous among Bangkok’s “secret” spots: take a short walk less than 100 meters to the northeast, however, and you’ll find a temple complex that’s even more surreal. Still within the Wat Pariwat complex, the newest temple has been decorated with an unusual cast of stars including Donald Duck, Popeye, Batman, Captain America, Superman, Captain Hook, Wolverine, and Che Guevara. You might also recognize the yellow Pikachu Pokemon rabbit, manga character Monkey D. Luffy, Dobby the slave (from Harry Potter), and what is said to be Barack Obama taking a selfie. 

The inside of the temple is as spectacular as the outside. In fact, everywhere you look there’s something enthralling in this temple, and in every instant, the high-relief sculptures are intricately designed. On one outer wall, a whole workforce of what seem to be punk liberators are releasing a chained giant (there’s a Mohican wielding a blowtorch, a skinhead with a chainsaw…). The most beautiful pieces might be the regal and realistic “animal gods”—a human-sized shark god, a monitor lizard god, a lion god, etc.—all surrounded by their “animal disciples.” 

Two particularly bemusing questions are presented by this star-studded cast: Why is Pinocchio wearing a skirt? And why is Mickey Mouse revealing a large pair of breasts? These questions have never been answered by artist Surin Phanumas who spent 10 years sculpting the plaster figures and decorating them with shards of Benjarong porcelain. The total cost of the renovation of the entire temple complex was estimated at almost $10 million but the abbot claims it helps to attract younger worshippers.

Wat Pariwat, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., is at 734 Rama III Road, Khwaeng Bang Phong Phang, Khet Yan Nawa.

Madame Breast-slapper

One of the quirkiest beauty treatments in Bangkok must be “slapping,” a procedure mastered by Khemmikka Na Songkhla (better known as Khunying Tobnom—Madame Breast-slapper), a former model who learned the technique from her grandmother. “Slapping” is just as it sounds—the beautician hits the body with her hands to tone facial muscles and get rid of wrinkles, change face shape, or increase breast size. 

A visit to Tobnom’s treatment rooms is like stepping into another (rather bizarre) world. The reception area is bursting with Jujok idols (she hopes to get into the Guinness World Records book for the largest collection), and there are photographs of clients and images of Ganesha. The air is filled with the shrill sounds of Thai pop music. But it’s Tobnom herself who makes the place feel other-worldly: there is just something about her that makes wearing a plastic parrot on her head seem natural.

“I started off by slapping breasts to make them bigger and firmer,” explains Tobnom, who has been slapping for more than 30 years and claims to have increased her own breast size by four inches. “I learned it from my grandmother, who adapted it from traditional Thai medicine.”

The authors of this book had a session with Tobnom, who delivered slaps with the back of her hands to the rhythm of a song (she’d sung in a music video, which played on repeat while she worked). There were slight changes to the shape of our faces and breasts, but these didn’t last more than an hour.

According to The Independent newspaper, the technique, where fat is shifted around the body through strategically placed slaps, comes with a government stamp of approval. In 2003, one of Tobnom’s clients blamed breast-slapping for the onset of her breast cancer, so the Institute of Thai and Alternative Medicine conducted a study into the technique. Over three months, 40 women between the ages of 20 and 60 underwent regular vigorous breast massages—and after three months, their breasts were “measurably larger,” according to The Independent, and none of them developed breast cancer during that time. The study, which is not available to the public, is held in a private library at the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine, and in Tobnom’s home.

Tobnom’s treatment rooms are at 90 Soi Ram Intra 65, Tha Raeng, Bang Khen. Sessions are by appointment only (call 086 535 5999 or 0945 655 888) and cost 30,000 baht for face-slapping, 18,000 baht for breast-slapping.

Wat Khanikaphon 

“Temple Built with Earnings from Prostitution” seems an unlikely name for a religious place,  but on a busy corner in Chinatown, there it stands: Wat Khanikaphon, a small temple at 416 Phlap Phla Chai Road whose name acknowledges the profession of the women who paid for its construction. 

The temple (open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) was built in 1833 by Khun Yai Faeng, a devout Buddhist who owned a popular brothel in the historic Sampheng neighborhood. Along with the women who worked for her, Grandmother Faeng, as she was affectionately known, saved money to build the temple. After it was completed, the temple remained nameless—something quite common in those days—and people referred to it simply as Wat Mai Yai Faeng (Grandmother Faeng’s New Temple). 

Decades after it was built, renovations were carried out. By this time, Grandmother Faeng had passed away and her descendants asked Siamese monarch Rama V to name the temple. He chose Wat Khanikaphon, meaning, “Temple Built with Earnings from Prostitution.”

People still pay their respects to Grandmother Faeng. There is a gold-colored bust of the old woman in a small shrine behind the temple, where her shoulders are draped in lace and strings of plastic pearls have been placed around her neck. There is another statue of her in the viharn. She sits at the back, facing a collection of Buddha images, and is surrounded by offerings of flowers, draped with pink “pearl” necklaces and encircled by an assortment of make-up. 

The above excerpts from Secret Bangkok are published with permission from Jonglez Editions.