Bangkok’s most famous phallic shrine has been moved to a new location, just down the street from its old site
Thai vendors still put them at the bottom of their plastic money baskets to reap a greater cash harvest. Some men wear belts strung with them under their trousers as a kind of supernatural Viagra. Magazines devoted to amulets advertise miniature ones carved from ivory and inscribed with Khmer incantations. Buddhist monks will even bless them for you. And tucked away in a small park off Wireless Road is the remnants of Bangkok’s most notorious fertility shrine, where the phallic symbol of Hindu yore remains a potent image.
Until it closed at the end of 2016 the Swissôtel Nai Lert Park was home to this shrine devoted to the fertility goddess Tubtim. The walkway leading to it was studded with wooden phalluses in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and shades—some of them stood two-metres tall, and one even had the hindquarters of a pig (which is a Chinese symbol of fertility). Many of these offerings were placed there by both men and women whose wishes were supposedly fulfilled by the goddess. Married couples came to ask the spirit-in-residence for a child. Single women prayed for a husband who would be prosperous and faithful, whereas men entreated her to help them rise above impotence.
Within walking distance of the newer and smaller shrine is Khlong Saen Saeb. Until the mid-1970s, this canal was one of the area’s commercial bloodlines where floating brothels once trawled for customers, to and fro from different piers. When the hotel was constructed in the late 1980s, they renovated the decades-old spirit house, right beside the canal, under a sacred ficus tree garlanded with sashes. One woman who prayed for a child there became pregnant, which—for fertile imaginations—gave birth to the shrine’s legacy.
The ficus, or bodhi tree (held sacred by many Thais because it’s the tree the Buddha sat under to attain enlightenment), is still there. As with many Thai ghosts—especially the female ones—Tubtim’s spirit was said to reside in the tree. That’s why there were offerings such as women’s clothes hanging from the branches. Around the trunk of the tree devotees left gifts such as make-up and dolls of classical dancers.
The new location for the Tubtim Fertility Shrine is, appropriately enough, on the grounds of the Nai Lert Park Heritage Home, a miniature park and museum, with two ritzy restaurants—Ma Maison and the Lady L Garden Bistro, located in the traditional teak houses, fully renovated over three years to their original splendour. The museum is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays with guided tours at 11am, 2pm, and 4pm.
During daylight hours you can drop by to see the fertility shrine any time. The new design is more tasteful and less chaotic and obscene than the old shrine. Some Thai women still come to pray for children, though one suspects that the site now spawns more selfies than fetuses. And the original sign from the old hotel altar is still there to set the scene with the historic backstory.
The renovated spirit house is buttressed by an ancient Khmer design which reveals how the shrine is rooted in the Hindu faith, as does the formal name used in Thai for these talismans: shiwa leung (literally, ‘Shiva’s penis’). Which means they’re offshoots of Shiva’s lingam. Centrepieces and objects of reverence at many Indian and Khmer temples, the lingam (Sanskrit for ‘symbol’, ‘the image of a god’, ‘phallus’ or ‘the mark of a disease’) represents the invisible omnipotence of God as well as the thrust of primal energy which started the world, and the human race, with a big almighty bang.
One of the most prominent Hindu scholars of the late 20th century, the American-born Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, defined the lingam in his book Dancing with Shiva as “the most prevalent icon of Shiva, found in virtually all Shiva temples. It is a rounded, elliptical, aniconic image, usually set on a circular base, or peetham. The lingam is the simplest and most ancient symbol of Shiva, especially of Parasiva, God beyond all forms and qualities”.
Smaller versions of these phallic totem poles are known as palad khik. One of my regular motorcycle taxi drivers keeps one attached to his keychain for good luck. The palad khik are the ones advertised in Thai magazines devoted to amulets; the more elaborate talismans sell for thousands of baht. But the market beside the Tha Tien Pier in Bangkok, close to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, has a whopping selection of them, most costing only a handful of spare change.
Fertility goddesses, however, demand bigger tributes, like the ones at the newly renovated shrine in Bangkok, or the poles wrapped with colourful sashes in the Princess Cave on Krabi’s tourist hotspot Railay Beach, where there’s a spirit house dedicated to the ghost of a drowned Indian princess whose ship sank off the coast. She later became something of an oceanic fertility goddess—local fishermen began to leave offerings so she would help them reel in a big catch. The phallic symbols left for these female spirits are also meant to provide them with sexual gratification.
For anyone who thinks this all sounds a little too overly mystical, the original Tubtim shrine in Bangkok also inspired the strangest and most inexplicable experience I’ve ever had in Thailand, when I first went there in 2004 with my then-girlfriend. But for the rest of that sexy and twisted tale, you’ll have to read the full chapter in my book Bizarre Thailand.
Words and photos by Jim Algie