BANGKOK, Thailand -- Dancing bare-foot while singing Buddhist prayers may seem like an idyllic job, but for Bangkok's shimmering temple dancers it includes incense-choked lungs, dieting, and rare toilet breaks before the music stops on their 40th birthday.

"I feel happy to dance here because I love to dance," Wanpen Mapradit said in Thai during an interview at the glittering Erawan Shrine.

"But even though the salary is good, I would not recommend this job.

"We work every other day, either 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. The incense smoke from the shrine is strong, and my feet often hurt, but I am used to it, because this is my career.

"I earn 19 baht for each dance. The dance is not longer than three minutes. But my salary depends upon how many dances I do. I average about 1,000 baht a day," Wanpen said.

A woman at a nearby desk issues receipts to devotees who pay for each dance.

Fees are listed on a plastic sign attached to a wall.

People can hire a cluster of two, four, six or eight dancers to perform and sing a prayer. Prices range from 260 baht to 710 baht, depending on the number of women.

Many people pay the dancers to accompany their prayers, often in thanks for an earlier favor which devotees believe the shrine granted during a previous prayer session.

Thanks to its popularity, the Erawan Shrine pulsates with piercing xylophone music, backed by the beating of a double-sided drum.

The two xylophone players and lone drummer provide a captivating soundtrack for the dancers who can be viewed for free by the Thai and foreign visitors swarming around the shrine's four-faced, gold-covered statue of the Hindu god, Brahma.

Wanpen, meanwhile, smoothed her long hair under a black elastic hair-band, which all the women wear under a pointy, sequin-encrusted headdress as part of their traditional costume.

The women are allowed to snack, chat on their mobile phones, or simply rest for a while in a small alcove next to their dance area, when they are not working.

But as soon as someone pays for a performance, the xylophones and drum are sounded and the women must start again.

Each day, thousands of devotees pray at the shrine which enjoys a choice location on the corner of Rachadamri and Ploenchit, amid five-star hotels and upscale malls.

"It is difficult to get this job, because there are not many dancers here. And you have to be patient about many things, like for example, maybe you cannot go to the toilet because you have to keep dancing. Also, it will be hard to do this work when you get older," Wanpen said.

"I have been dancing here for six years. I studied dancing in college, so I really like to do this. On my holidays, I teach classical Thai dancing to children at various schools in Bangkok."

The vibe at the shrine has not always been so altruistic and celestial.

Two enraged street cleaners beat Thanakorn Pakdipol to death, next to the shrine, after the Muslim man used a hammer to smash the plaster Brahma statue in an unexplained frenzy in 2006.

His father said Thanakorn had been in and out of mental hospitals during the past decade.

Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister at the time, arranged a huge Hindu and Buddhist ceremony to replace the obliterated god with a new, stronger statue of Brahma.

More than 90 percent of Thailand's population are Buddhist, but they mix aspects of Hindu and animist beliefs into their spiritual perception.

Buddha was born in India during the 5th century BC as a Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama, so the link is not alien.

Amazingly, most Thais appear comfortable with Hinduism's pantheon of gods blending with Buddha's teaching that god does not exist.

"When I am dancing, I think of Buddha and the song that I sing, which is a prayer for happiness," said Netdao Lamsukdee in Thai during an interview while she relaxed in the alcove with the others.

"I started dancing here eight years ago because my grandmother was a classical Thai dancer and singer, so this is like a family tradition for me," Netdao, 28, said.

Her colleague, Walailak Sueapitak, said she would like to continue dancing at the shrine, as long as possible.

"I am also 28 years old, and have been here six years, but we usually have to retire when we are about 30 or 40 years old, because then you are too old to be able to dance like this," Walailak said in Thai, during an interview.

"I don't know what I will do after I retire. I will have to see how my health is. Even if I am 35, if I still can dance, and I am slender like I am now, I will continue. I stay on a diet to remain thin, so I can wear this outfit," she said, displaying her sparkling clothes.

The Erawan Shrine, also known as the Thao Maha Phrom, was built in 1956 and is a main tourist attraction, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It also provides work for people who sell flowers, incense, candles, and small religious statues within the shrine's open courtyard.

Outside the shrine's gate, vendors sell garlands, lottery tickets, food, and caged birds which people can release to "give them freedom" after paying a small fee to their captors.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)