Temples of temptation

Monks are taking a surprisingly hands-on approach to bogus cosmetic treatments

Thailand reels over the latest scandal to hit the local media, but strangely hardly touched by the English news, part of which you are holding in your hand right now. The Bangkok Post, I mean, not the croissant!

This latest controversy is a mirror of modern Thai society, a culture of attractive people thanks to the cosmetician’s knife and cut-price Babyface Treatments.

I addressed this topic a few weeks ago when my staff member Boss went and got a nose job.

I believe I used a pseudonym for Boss in that column to protect his identity which I can’t for the life of me remember, and the looming deadline for this article does not afford me the luxury of going back into the archives to see what that name was. Besides, he was late to work twice this week so he deserves to be outed in a national newspaper as punishment.

Anyway the point of that article was to lament the national fascination with all things cosmetic. As if to bolster my argument, up pops some scurrilous monks in the northern province of Phetchabun.

Buddhist monks are not unlike Catholic priests in their behaviour. Put a virile young man in a cloth, deny him sex, and just watch what he does. The more bizarre the outfit the more outrageous the crime, if the Vatican is anything to go by.

Two weeks ago pictures started circulating on the net of a special service on offer. It showed a woman lying down as her face was smeared with a lotion made from sandalwood.

Gold leaf was applied to the face, after which the cosmetician blew on the woman’s face. The gold leaf was taken off, and ta da! Vive la difference!

Writing it like that, it could have been any of the thousands of beauty clinics dotted around every Thai shopping mall, soi or local slum, only this was a Buddhist temple. The cosmetician was a monk. The woman was a nun.

“Have a look at these,” my radio show producer said to me at 8.40pm last Monday night as I turned up to do my meticulous pre-show research before going on air at 8.45pm.

She swung her computer screen around to reveal pictures of the nun. I scanned the news story.

“Everybody’s upset about it,” she said.

“I can see why. I don’t see any change in the before and after pics. I’d be asking for my money back.”

“No that’s not the point. This all took place at a Buddhist temple.”

Silence.

I assumed that was my cue to throw up my hands and feign shock, but I was carrying a hefty bag at the time along with a secret stash of almond M&Ms to get me through the show, despite a food ban in the studio. Besides, it was now 8.42pm. I wasn’t throwing up my hands for nothin’.

This temple charged 5,000 to 10,000 baht per treatment, which is way more expensive than a basic beauty treatment at the well-known clinics. An “Active Beauty Perfect” treatment at Wuttisak, for example, costs a mere 800 baht.

(And just what the hell does that mean … “Active Beauty Perfect”??? Is there a circus monkey somewhere in the bowels of the Wuttisak head office toying with a Random Adjective Generator app?)

One would think that a temple treatment would cost remarkably less than a treatment at Wuttisak. One would only think that if one were stupid.

The cost of living has shot up for everybody, including monks. It’s not cheap to fly first class to Europe to shop for Fendi bags and Miu Miu undershirts; just ask Nen Kham, the high-flying monk from Si Sa Ket who disappeared off the face of the Earth on that very European visit not a year ago.

This facial treatment is not to ensure you come out with a bright white face clear of crow’s feet and frown lines. Oh no. This is a temple, remember. The purpose of this treatment is to ensure “your husband falls in love with you all over again and will remain under your feminine charm”.

So that explains why the nun’s face didn’t change in the before and after pic … but what’s a nun doing with a husband in the first place?

It’s kind of sad. Way up there to the north, amid the rolling mountains of Phetchabun, a little temple offers hope to middle-aged women of dubious beauty, fleecing them of up to 10 grand in order to make their husbands sleep with them, just like they did in the first few weeks of their marriage all those years ago.

And with little to no cost to the temple; a little bit of “magic cream”, some inexpensive gold leaf, copious saffron candles and sprinklings of talcum powder. What was it PT Barnum said again?

Thailand’s not happy. Monks aren’t supposed to touch women, let alone massage their faces and blow onto them.

Then there’s the issue of using temples for such purposes. As the National Office of Buddhism said, temples are places to reflect upon the teachings of the Lord Buddha. You want to reflect on your husband’s obsession with that two-bit hairdresser down the soi? Go talk to him about it, or go smash the plate-glass window in the front of the salon, like normal people do.

Wayward monks do nothing to promote the country, and the monks themselves know this. When the media converged on that Phetchabun temple this week, the monks had already grabbed their saffron knapsacks, donned their Big C flip-flops and done a karmic runner.

Don’t just blame the monks.

There is a big slab of the population that visits temples to get rich, that is, to win the lottery. Monks deliver sermons with reference to numbers. You can drip wax into a monk’s bowl full of water, then watch what numbers form. A monk can become suddenly revered because somebody won the lottery from numbers he had given out.

(“What would happen if a monk was able to truly predict the coming lottery numbers?” I asked an upper-level Government Lottery Office bureaucrat once, who also happened to be my English student. “We would have to take him into the forest,” he said earnestly, “and shoot him.”)

More worrisome is you can buy all-purpose medicines at temples promising relief from 109 diseases. This magical position is called ya mor krob jakkrawan, or “medicine that covers every disease in the universe”.

Including cancer.

I once visited a small village in the province of Chanthaburi where, amid the poverty of the area, there stood a temple that exuded affluence and decay at the same time.

It turns out that the abbot sold a special potion made out of tree roots that promised to cure cancer. Five years ago a cancer victim drank the potion and recovered. This led to a surge of cancer victims visiting, handing over desperate wads of baht and returning home.

When you have thousands of people, the odds of one going into remission is high. Tragically the rest must die. The temple is now as deserted and barren as the promises of that charlatan monk.

The same day as the Phetchabun temple controversy, we witnessed a monk being attacked by a crowd of red-shirt protesters outside the National Anti-Corruption Commission. While that story made the news everywhere, including, sadly, overseas, the unloved ladies of Phetchabun and their lotions of hope from the temple raised hardly a sculpted eyebrow in English.

Why hasn’t it resounded across the English press? Unlike acne on a nun’s face, some things are better left untreated. n

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer