A Different Kind Of Girl
I’m having a quick coffee in Pum’s house; it’s mid Saturday morning. It’s already getting warm outside, and her nephew and nieces are sitting under a tree opposite where the neighbour has set up a stall selling Khanom Jeen (a kind of rice noodle eaten with a curry sauce and lots of fresh herbs). I see her son’s army boots in the corner; he’s off with his friends somewhere already.
‘You know, yesterday I forgot. I was helping to clear the debris from the work in the kitchen, and was wondering how I hurt my foot.’
Now the reason I got dragged into the house in the first place was that she wanted to show me the just-about-finished tiled concrete work table in the kitchen she had done by Tom’s husband. They help each other out here, and she was on the lookout for him when she spotted me.
She goes on, ‘But if I was carrying it out the back of the house, over the klong (small irrigation ditch) at the back, and putting it on the other side, I would have hurt both, wouldn’t I?’ I guess so. ‘But my son told me what he thought had happened, and true enough, my leg doesn’t hurt any more.’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Well, do you remember some years ago I put a spirit house out at the back, the one the medium advised me to, when he told me about the termite hill?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, sometime last year, we had this really bad storm and a tree fell on it. I asked the medium what to do about it, and he just told me to ask the spirit to take up residence in the termite hill, which I did.’
‘So what has that to do with your leg?’ She continues, ‘Well, my son thought that I may have accidentally stepped on it while carrying to debris out, So I got him to buy a garland and some joss sticks, and I went out to ask the spirit forgiveness for stepping on his residence, and put the garland on the termite hill. The hurt just went away.’
Pum is different. Yah, you’ve heard it all before, haven’t you? Well, different, but not in the way you think.
Like most of her friends here, she’s in her early forties. They all go to the temple for Tum boon ceremonies, attend funerals and on occasion see the local medium. All dream of getting a winning ticket in the lottery. So, why different?
She can see spirits, and is quite matter-of-fact about it. Her friends know, too.
There was a reason why the spirit house in the back was erected.
I remember her telling me, all that time ago, that sometimes she couldn’t sleep. When I asked her why, she said it was on account of two spirits running around and playing in her room. She also said that they were small children, dressed in old-stye Thai garb, and complete with pony-tails. Not long after that, she went to see the medium, and was told to put a ornamental water stand out the back with two statues of the children; he told her they liked to play with the water, and told her their names. He also told her to put up a spirit house for the other spirits next to the termite hill. At the time, she hadn’t seen one, so told the medium there wasn’t one. The medium replied, ‘Go look again.’ She found the termite hill.
Now, consider this. The medium stays at least thirty kilometres away, and has never ever been to her house.
She did what was asked. While she still did see the children, she told me if they got a little boisterous she’d ask them to play less quietly, and they would.
She also has a sense of premonition. At that time, I was at someone else’s house a few doors down, having a couple of beers there. The house is bigger, so it would become the focal point for at least two or three families, and they liked to prepare their communal meals there. Pum showed up a bit later with a bit of a frown. She said, ’There’s something not right about the house they’re building next door.’ We walked out to take a look. ‘There should only be four pillars. This house has five. Something bad is going to happen.’
A bit of background. Whenever a house is built, a ceremony is conducted, usually by a medium, to install the main pillar, and has to be at an auspicious time and day. You can think of it in terms of being the cornerstone.
Well, two days later, there was an accident, and as bizarre as it sounds, I actually visited this person in hospital. The workers were hoisting roofing beams when they slipped and hit the high tension electric cable, which I think in Thailand is ten thousand volts. The cable got dislodged, and fell in front of the house. There was a loud crack! And the neighbour, who was just meters away, had the whole side of her left leg seared. There were, fortunately, no fatalities.
Many people think that Thailand is a Buddhist country. In many respects this is true, but you have to understand that animism has always co-existed alongside, possibly from long before. The spirit houses that you see everywhere are not Buddhist in origin. There is a whole cross-culture of the Hindu religion, and the Brahmin priests preside over the installation ceremony of these spirit houses. This installation ceremony is an important part of setting up any new factory, and all the staff are required to attend. I heard a story where a farang manager scoffed at it, and refused to attend. From that night on, until he left for good two weeks later, all the soi dogs set up an incessant howling every night in front of his house. It stopped when he left. True? I don’t know.
I have been brought along on some subsequent visits to the medium, not necessarily with this group of people. They have a ceremony called ‘Ab Naam Mon’ loosely translated meaning bathed with lustral water. It is supposed to wash away any bad luck you may have coming in the future.
Usually there will be five or six people involved. First, the medium calls on the spirit, then has everyone sit on a circle on the floor. He encircles the group with a string, then chants, holding the string, and with a lighted candle over a bowl of water, until it is burnt almost to a stub. It is said that the colour of the wax floating on the water’s surface can determine the degree of luck among that group of people.
Then everyone goes off and changes into a sarong. Nothing at all on underneath. Everyone then sits in a straight line with their backs to the medium, when he then proceeds to throw buckets and buckets of cold water over everyone, chanting all the time. You are supposed to think about throwing your bad luck away and let it flow with the water.
After everyone has dried up and changed, you may ask about your particular luck, but you need to provide the medium with your year of birth according to the Thai zoological calendar, and the day of the week you were born on. He was frighteningly accurate.
Pum knows she’s a little different. It doesn’t bother her. She said it’s been that way ever since she can remember. The people in her first village remember her too. ‘When I was very young,’ she told me at one time, ‘I got very, very sick. People thought I had died, and placed me in the coffin. But suddenly I got up. They still remember me there as the girl who came back to life.’
The family moved away not long after that, and she didn’t know or visit until twenty or so years later.
She related another incident. ‘Before I got married, I did a lot of farm work. There was only one truck in and out, maybe twice a week, and I had just arrived at this place. I had to rent a room in a single storey block; it was just over a week and it was already dark when I got off the truck from the town where I had been shopping. To get to the place, I had to walk maybe half a kilometre through tall rubber trees, and was a bit surprised to see a figure of a girl walking a little ahead of me, going in the same direction. I followed, and saw her reach a big tree right next to the block. She didn’t appear on the other side.’
She questioned the workers about this, and described the person she saw in detail. Yes, they remembered the girl. She was the previous tenant of the room, and was a heroin addict. She had hanged herself from the tree where Pum saw her disappear.
The owner offered to find another room, but Pum declined. What she did do, in her words, was to talk to the person’s spirit, and ask her not to disturb her. If the spirit wanted something, to please let Pum know. And every month, Pum would buy a syringe of heroin, place it on a tray, and offer it to the spirit.
Pum said the spirit never bothered her again.
Pum’s smiling at me over the coffee. ‘It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Sometimes you want to dismiss it altogether, and yet you can’t. And my leg just doesn’t hurt at all!’
And I am now beginning to understand the significance of those garlands on all those termite hills…
Interesting stuff, although personally I find it hard to believe in anything like this. That's just me, I guess.