The cult section of the literary world

Bizarro Bangkok: A Traditional Thai Carnival

By Tracy Vanity

I’ve had a thing for pickled punks ever since “R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman.”  There’s a scene where Joe Coleman talks about how he acquired one for his “Odditorium” from a Coney Island carnie. The story is cute and Coleman’s charming delivery of this anecdote coupled with his smiling pickled punk made me want one too.

I’ve yet to acquire a pickled punk, but being that I live in Thailand, I’m sure I could find one pretty cheap. Finding one however is like looking for the right mate. The best way is to live your life and wait for the pickled punk to come to you.

Recently I visited what was billed as a “Traditional Thai Carnival” at the Golden Mount Temple here in Bangkok.  The temple commands a stunning view from atop a small hill in the middle of the Thai capital’s old quarter. But it was the rumor of a Thai freak show — including authentic mermaid — that had me rushing to the carnival with my boyfriend Todd leading the way, since I suck with directions. However mild and polite their cultural reputation, Thais are obsessed with the grisly. They have an deep appetite for gore. Most fervently believe in ghosts, black magic and a majority of the films made are horror. So I knew I’d see a genuine pickled punk. I could feel him waiting for me …

The place was packed with people.  Since the temple is on a hill, we had to wait in line as soon as we arrived to get up the hill to where the freak show tent was.

After much sweating and squeezing through people while breathing in foul-smelling vapors wafting from all the boiled pig skin and chicken-knuckle food stalls, we finally arrived. We were welcomed by a charismatic carnival barker dressed in the colorful rural style seducing passers-by with promise of unsettling delights inside the tent.

Todd and I were the only farang (“foreigners”) at this authentic Thai carnival, so we knew it wasn’t another tourist trap.  There were two separate tents to visit.  The entrance fee for each tent was a heady 20 baht ($0.66006)!

Fortunately no one cared about my camera, allowing me to offer you this exclusive look inside a traditional Thai freak show.

As soon as you pay your 20 baht, you see a table of curiosities:

A “makaliporn.” Not clear what it’s supposed to do but I believe it’s some sort of mangrove charm.

A mysterious prickly brush that came from a boar. What could it signify?

Pickled pig fetus and albino snake. The sign reads “Pig with four ears.”

And the moment we’ve all been waiting for…not just one but THREE pickled punks!

This pickled punk had ears under his chin and a “mouth like a pin hole”.

Under the description was a warning to Buddhists that they could become this little guy in a next life if they scream at their parents in this one.

The second pickled punk was a real two-headed baby but the third one …

Oh, the ole’ dual fetus sew-job! I love carnival gags. The sign reads “Two heads on one body.” It sure is. After looking at the oddities on the table, I turned around and noticed an apathetic carnie about to slide back the curtain from one of three exhibitions of living atrocity!

What astounding horrors could exist behind that bright colored fabric?

Curtain No. 1: A disembodied head!

Curtain No. 2: A man with a shiv through his bicep that doesn’t seem to give a shit!

Curtain No. 3: A disembodied head…again!

The crowd stares in awe at the freaks.

Unsurprisingly the scenes painted onto the outside of the tent inflate one’s expectations. Nowhere could I find a hot Thai woman’s head in this tent — but maybe she was on a noodle break.

“Still alive!”

Freak show tent No. 2 promised a hot Final Fantasy mermaid and “giant lizard.”

The only thing that could top that were the Thai conjoined twins:

Aside from seeing the inebriated characters that frequent tourist traps here, this was my only freak show experience. It was fun not knowing what to expect and see some old school carnival gags with a Thai twist.

Have you been to any freak shows? I’d love to read about your experiences. Post links to some of your favorite freak/sideshow pics if you have not been to one but wish you had.

14 responses

  1. Wow- really cool article. Fascinating. Love the photos of the freak show! Amazing. Thanks very much for posting this.

    Also thanks for the link to the Joe Coleman interview.

    June 2, 2011 at 1:30 pm

  2. carltonmellick

    This makes me want to visit Bangkok!

    June 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

  3. A pickled punk is definitely on my list of things to get eventually… though I’ve got a feeling that the iguana would be a bit easier to obtain.

    Fun article! There need to be more freak shows.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm

  4. Awesome!

    June 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm

  5. TEE

    The “prickly brush” from a boar is likely a “bezoar.” Specifically, a trichobezoar.

    Bezoar “have the power of a universal antidote against any poison. It was believed that a drinking glass which contained a bezoar would neutralize any poison poured into it. The word “bezoar” comes from the Persian pâdzahr (پادزهر), which literally means “protection from poison.””

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bezoar

    June 3, 2011 at 3:59 am

    • Thanks for the info Tee. I wtf’d over that boar brush.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm

  6. Wow, this is pretty amazing stuff.

    June 3, 2011 at 5:20 am

  7. Kevin Sweeney

    Grand stuff, sort of like “Bodyworlds” done Thai style.

    Haven’t been back to the City of Angels in awhile (too long, according to my favourite mammasan.) You checked out the “black museum”, with the mummified body of the Child Eater?

    June 3, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    • That’s funny you mention Body Worlds because there is a knockoff Chinese version touring Asia. The bodies used are most likely executed Chinese prisoners. “The Body Show” came to Bangkok but I missed it.

      I have been to the Forensics Museum and love it. It will definitely be featured in a future post here.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:10 pm

  8. Bradley Sands

    I’ve always wanted to see Body Worlds. Once almost had the opportunity in Boston, but there was like a two hour wait and I was in a rush to go somewhere. I don’t know where.

    Slightly off-topic, but I went to the Disinfo con in 2000 and saw Joe Coleman do some sort of incomprehensible spoken word, then “blow himself up” by lighting the fire crackers underneath his short. Here are some photos from the event: http://www.remyc.com/disinfoto.html

    I’m in a couple of them. It was back when I wasn’t balding and I bleached my hair (which probably explains why my hairline started receding at an early age).

    June 3, 2011 at 8:25 pm

  9. Bradley Sands

    I intended to mention this, but I forget, and it isn’t very important, but I have an irresistible urge to continue to type: I used to have this wonderful book of Joe Coleman’s art. I think Feral House published it. I lent it to my girlfriend when I was about 21 and in college along with a bunch of other books. And then she turned into my ex-girlfriend. And she wanted to return the books to me, but I felt uncomfortable seeing her again, so I never got it back. I regret that. I’ve given away and sold a lot of my books at used book stores, but I would have liked to have held on to that one. His art is really great.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:58 am

  10. Kevin Sweeney

    You could probably write a FUBAR travel guide for the whole country; the self mutilating Vegetarian festival down in Phuket, the Hell Gardens, the Penis shrine, that bank shaped like a robot…

    June 4, 2011 at 6:54 am

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