Revised February 7, 2006; August 29, 2007; May 1, 2013; and April 23, 2017.
Copyright 1998-2017 by John W. Allen.

Mushroom Art and Mushroom Craftsman Ship in Thailand


T-Shirt, Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand, circa 1989.

Originally published in the Boston Mycological Club News Bulletin vol. 46(1):11-14. 1991

Commercial Activities related to Psychoactive Fungi Use in Thailand
Mushrooms have been portrayed in various art forms throughout the ages, notably in paintings, children's books and on postcards. Since the recent (1952-1953) rediscovery by R. Gordon Wasson of an hallucinogenic mushroom cult in Mexico, the proliferation and sale of "magic mushrooms" and items with mushroom motifs have been incorporated by many groups of indigenous native crafts-peoples in several developing countries (Mexico, Bali, Peru, etc.)

In 1989 and 1990, I had the opportunity to visit Thailand on six separate occasions. During these visits I observed the unique recreational use of two species of psychoactive fungi (Psilocybe cubensis and/or Psilocybe subcubensis and a variety of Copelandia). Use of these fungi occur primarily among European tourists as well as German immigrants. Thai native peoples of both sexes, including children, were involved to a lesser degree. My observations included the smoking of Psilocybe species in bamboo pipes by both children and a few adult Samui natives.

During these visits to the island of Koh Samui I witnessed the sale of "magic mushroom" omelettes and "magic mushroom" T-shirts at several resorts and tourist shops at both Chewang and Lamai beaches on the east coast of Koh Samui. This island is situated approximately 710 kilometers south of Bangkok in the southern region of the Gulf of Siam ([Gulf of Thailand]).

While preparing a manuscript on the recreational use of these fungi in Thailand, I met a young German immigrant who had once worked at one of the many "magic mushroom" farms on Koh Samui. Mr. N....showed me a hand-painted T-shirt he had purchased in 1986. This colorful T-shirt displayed a caricature of what appeared to be "magic mushrooms" (for a detailed account of my research on Koh Samui and Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand [see] Journal of Ethnopharmacology [vol. 35(3):205-228, Psychoactive Fungi Use in Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand]).

During my first two weeks on Koh Samui I failed to visit the tourist shops at various villages on the island, so I was totally unaware of the marketing of these beautiful T-shirts. However, I sis meet several farmers and women and children who had [local] knowledge of psychoactive fungi. Samui natives, all of whom are definitely friendlier than up-country Thais, refer to the "magic mushrooms" in Thai as "Hed Keequai." In English this implies "mushroom which appear after buffalo defecates" [shits]. Both Samui Children as well as adults sell these fungi to tourists and to restaurants which serve "magic mushroom" omelettes from their menus.

During my second visit to Koh Samui and also to Koh Pha-Ngan (a sister Island) I became aware that numerous Samui artists created merchandise with various mushroom-inspired motifs. These included T-shirts, embroidered dress shirts, postcards, posters, key chains, hats and pencil holders. All of these items were sold primarily to those persons who knew of the mushroom experience. In the Northern city of Changmai, motifs of "magic mushrooms" adorn boxes, cigarette lighters, hats pencil holders and key chains, as well as factory printed "magic mushroom" T-shirts [copied from the postcards), all of which are common at the night market.

As in Mexico, where native peoples have greatly profited from the sale of mushroom motif designed items (Ott, 1975), local artists and crafts-people in Bangkok, Changmai and Koh Samui also profit from the popularity of "magic mushrooms" in their regions. Some T-shirts from Bangkok portray opium poppies, ganja (Cannabis), mushrooms and even Buddha, with the text explaining "Same Same But Different."

On one occasion I purchased more than thirty different hand-painted T-shirts (tank tops included) portraying "magic mushrooms" in one form or another. A T -shirt purchased on the island of Koh Pha-Ngan displayed both Psilocybe and Copelandia species on the front and opium poppies on the back. On two other visits I purchased more than twenty new hand-painted T-shits. Framed posters (copied from [mushroom] postcards) were now available, as were similar factory produced (machine printed) T-shirts. These same factory produced T-shirts were also available in Bangkok.

Given that elderly men and women as well as young children engage in the practice of collecting, marketing, to some extent, consuming psychoactive fungi, as well as creating art masterpiece, the question that jumps to the fore is, how ancient is this knowledge in Thailand? If these activities are just a part of the 50's-60's dysphoria of psychoactive substances awareness then the people have adapted rather well, it would seem. to the forces of tourist influence and preferences.

The use of these drugs in Thailand and the marketing and sales of mushrooms and motif designed items, most likely had their origins in Bali in the early 1960's. Both William Emboden and Richard Evans Schultes reported the sale of mushroom beverages and omelettes in Bali, and Paul Alan Cox has reported similar activities in Samoa. Travelers in Bali obviously carried their knowledge of psychoactive fungi use to Java to Sumatra, bypassing Malaysia (due to its heavy drug laws) and settled there usage of fungi in the southern peninsula of Thailand. I purchased several mushroom batiks while on Koh Samui in the village port of Ban Nathon. These beautifully designed images were imported from Bali.

I should mention that while visiting the ancient city of Muang Boran, I was able to photograph a large mushroom sculpture depicting a half-naked dancing girl entwined around a tree and a snake entwine around the girl. No one theory has as yet been able to explain to me the symbolism of this sculpture, whether it be phallic symbolism or the symbol of an ancient mushroom cult which may have once flourished in ancient Siam.

In January 1989, Thai law proscribed the use of "Hed Keequai" as illegal, yet in July and August of 1990, restaurants were still serving "magic mushroom" omelettes and beverages in their resort establishments. Before returning to my home in Honolulu, I again purchased over thirty all new designed "magic mushroom" T-shirts.

A Daliesque shroom image from Koh Phanghan Island at East Haad Rin Beach.

The work of ethnomycologist, John W. Allen was first brought to our attention by member Carolyn Kelley.
Mr. Allen will lead a tour to Thailand on July 24 - August 9, 1991. The tour includes forays on the island of Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan, visits to ancient ruins and to palaces and markets in Bangkok. The cost including airfare from Honolulu is $1,750 ea. For information write Exotic Forays, P.O. Box 12053, Honolulu, Hi, 96824-1053

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