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Voodoo, Phis and Isaan Bar Girls

  • Written by Mega
  • July 1st, 2009
  • 17 min read


A couple of months ago I was sitting in a travel agency – one that I use regularly in Pattaya to arrange short trips in and out of Thailand to nearby locations such as Singapore – and I started a fairly in depth discussion with the manager, Khun Ae, about a range of different things in Thailand. As it happens, his office is situated on a small soi that is also home to a number of beer bars. Directly opposite his travel agency was a small open air beer bar that had a line-up of some fairly hard looking girls. I was interested in getting his perspective on the pay for pleasure industry in Thailand; a perspective from a middle class local who spoke good English and, therefore, who wouldn’t have problems in communicating his opinions. What he told me was not only surprising but highly enlightening.

“Most Thai people, particularly Thai men, don’t really have an issue with farang based prostitution in Thailand”

“Why’s that?”

“Because ninety percent of farang that come to this country end up with the women that Thai man don’t really want”

“But isn’t it true that a high percentage of women working in the farang based prostitution industry also have Thai husbands or boyfriends?”

“That’s mainly to do with money at the lower levels of Thai society. Thailand is a very class conscious society. No Thai man, particularly those who are in the educated middle class would ever consider being seen with lower class girls such as these. To do so would mean a big loss of face for the family. If anything, a Thai man, if afforded the opportunity, will try to marry a Thai lady who is above his level in Thai society”

“So what do you think of all these farang that come over here that enter into a relationship, or get married, to a bar girl?”

“Well, we’re actually quite amazed but we also feel sorry for them”

“Really?”

“Yes”

“Why?”

“Because they’re like big babies, they really don’t know any better. If they were patient and took a bit of time to get to know how things work in Thailand, I’m sure that many of them could do better for themselves. The farang that integrates himself into Thai society has much more respect from Thai people”

“How so?”

“Because he generally will learn Thai language, will take a bit of time to understand Thai culture and will usually make a better choice when it comes to selecting a Thai lady for marriage”

“So Thai people can see the difference between a bar girl and a non bar girl?”

“Very easily I’m afraid. But we don’t generally think badly of farangs who partner up with a bargirl. As you know we Thais are a very tolerant people. We just think that those farang we see with a prostitute as a wife, or girlfriend, can’t be taken very seriously”

“Because they don’t really understand how things work over here”

“Yes. What disturbs me though is some of the stories I hear of the older farangs who get cheated out of their life savings by these deceitful girls. It saddens me when I read, in the local paper, about farang who commit suicide when they’ve lost everything. Even worse when these bad ladies arrange to have the farang murdered”

“Why does it disturb you?”

“Firstly because it gives our country a bad reputation to the outside world which, really, is undeserved. Secondly because there is also something that is going on with these girls, especially from the Isaan region, which most farang have very little knowledge of”

“What is that?”

“Black magic”

I thought he was pulling my leg. The look on his face though was completely serious.

“Do you mean like voodoo or something similar?”

“Not exactly but that is part of it”

“Can you explain it to me?”

“Well, you know that our country’s religion is almost totally Buddhist”

“Yes, there are temples everywhere to prove that”

“It wasn’t always so. If you go back far enough in our history you will find that, prior to the arrival of Buddhism, we Thais had our own local folk religions that were based on animistic beliefs and ancestor worship”

“But I thought that was part of Buddhism”

“It wasn’t originally but, over time, these older rituals and practices have been incorporated into Thai Buddhism”

“What kind of things are we talking about?”

“The wearing of amulets; the blessing of new buildings; tattooing; the placement of spirit houses at strategic locations around the land”

“What’s this got to do with black magic and girls from Isaan?”

“Well you see, back in those early times, people believed that the world, as they knew it, was filled with both good and bad spirits. They also believed that, through a medium – a ‘Maw Tam’ – they could invoke those spirits to help them to make their lives better or, sadly, to take revenge on somebody they had a problem with. That is why in these modern times Thai people still have a lot of superstitious beliefs. How often do you see movies or TV shows about ghosts?”

“Quite a lot actually, now I think about it. Are Thai people, in general, superstitious?

“Not educated people. However, a lot of the poorly educated still believe in those kinds of things. That is why you can still find Maw Tam’s, or witchdoctors, in rural parts of Thailand”

“Are witch doctors still popular with rural people?”

“Yes they are, especially for things such as healing, divination and casting spells”

“Are you saying that an Isaan bar girl could get a Maw Tam to cast a spell on a farang that she wanted to ensnare?”

“Yes, I’m afraid that is quite possible”

The skeptic in me didn’t believe this for a second but I decided to prod him some more to see how it worked.

“How could that happen?”

“She would go to the Maw Tam with something from the farang's body. Usually a lock of hair or some toe nail clippings or saliva. A photo of the person and the date of birth will make the spell work better”

“Does this really work?”

“It can only work if the Maw Tam really knows what he’s doing and victim has weak defence to voodoo. The Maw Tam will try to invoke a spirit to enter into the victim through a ritual using the bodily pieces, the photo and birth date. Usually, the lady will ask for a spell to be cast that makes the farang love her and can never leave her”

I didn’t want to upset him by telling him that I thought it was a load of cods wallop so I just said “that’s very interesting, those farang need to be careful when they take a bar lady for a girlfriend or wife”

I had to admit he had me intrigued. Even though I was a card carrying Atheist, a believer in science and a confirmed skeptic, I wanted to know more about the influence of folk religion (beliefs) on Thai Buddhism and how those older beliefs are integrated into Thailand’s national religion today. An easy bit of research on the net revealed some interesting stuff.

According to Wikipedia:

Theravada Buddhism reached what is now Thailand around the sixth century A.D.

Theravada Buddhism was made the state religion only with the establishment of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai in the thirteenth century A.D.

Three major forces have influenced the development of Buddhism in Thailand. The most visible influence is that of the Theravada school of Buddhism, imported from Sri Lanka.

The second major influence on Thai Buddhism is Hindu beliefs received from Cambodia, particularly during the Sukhothai period. Vedic Hinduism played a strong role in the early Thai institution of kingship, just as it did in Cambodia, and exerted influence in the creation of laws and order for Thai society as well as Thai religion.

Buddhism in Thailand has become integrated with folk religion (beliefs) such as ancestor worship.

Folk religion—attempts to propitiate and attract the favor of local spirits known as phiforms the third major influence on Thai Buddhism.

While Western observers (as well as urbane and Western-educated Thais) have often drawn a clear line between Thai Buddhism and folk religious practices, this distinction is rarely observed in more rural locales. Spiritual power derived from the observance of Buddhist precepts and rituals is employed in attempting to appease local nature spirits. Many restrictions observed by rural Buddhist monks are derived not from the orthodox Vinaya, but from taboos derived from the practice of folk magic.

Astrology, numerology, and the creation of talismans and charms also play a prominent role in Buddhism as practiced by the average Thai—topics that are, if not proscribed, at least marginalized in Buddhist texts.

Folk religion consists of any cultural practices without a guiding authority which are deemed "religious" by outside observers, including beliefs, superstitions and rituals.

Folk religion answers human needs for reassurance in times of trouble, and many of its rituals are aimed at mundane goals like seeking healing or averting misfortune. Many elements of folk religion stem from animistic or fetishistic practices, which is almost inevitable given its mundane goals and ritualistic nature. Folk religion also often aims at divination to foresee the future. The line is often blurry between the practice of folk religion and the practice of magic. Examples of folk religion would include:

There was quite a bit there to consider. I started thinking about the things that I’d seen and experienced, during my years in the LOS, which I’d naturally thought were just part of the Buddhist system here but were, in fact, originating from the older folk religions (beliefs) of Thailand.

Spirit houses: These are something that you see everywhere in Thailand. Years ago, in the presence of a Thai, I’d mistakenly called one a shrine. He corrected me rather quickly and informed me that it wasn’t a shrine, it was a spirit house. The purpose of a spirit house is twofold; ancestor worship and to appease the spirits in certain strategic locations. You can often see spirit houses, with heaped up offerings, on roadside corners where there’s been a bad accident. The idea being that by placating the spirits, in that location, there’ll be a reduction in accidents.

There’s rather a large spirit house at the junction of Beach Road and Pattaya Klang. It forms part of the walkway than runs along the beach front. In the late afternoon you’ll often see, prior to commencing their shift, bar girls making offerings, burning incense and praying. A couple of years ago I remarked to a girl friend that it was good to see bar girls praying for forgiveness. How naïve of me! The girlfriend laughed and said that the girls were simply asking for good luck in finding a farang, or money, for that night.

Amulets: An amulet can have a dual purpose. It can be worn to ward off spirits which can cause bad luck, ill health and suffering. It can also be used as a way of invoking good luck.

A lot of newbies, to the LOS, can be identified by the ubiquitous piece of orange coloured string around the left wrist. This normally occurs after a trip to the temple with the newly found teerak. Having the string tied on the wrist, by the monk, normally involves parting with a couple of hundred baht. Everyone is happy. The monks have generated some income, your teerak has gained face and made merit, and you’ve got a defence against the hundreds of bad spirits lurking in the area. Unfortunately on my first trip, many moons ago, I caused the ultimate indignation by refusing to have the piece of orange string tied to my wrist. The teerak was rather upset by this and assured me that bad luck would soon befall me. Sure enough, the next day I was throwing up and shitting through the eye of a needle. The teerak was absolutely certain that a phi had caused this to happen and that I should’ve taken the orange piece of string from the monk. The idea that my condition had been caused by eating roadside barbecued pork, a kilo of durian and washing it down with three or four Heinekens wasn’t even a consideration (I was sick for three days).

Tattoos:

Tattoos in Thailand have an interesting history. They were used as a way of indicating the patron all of Thai men and to indicate which region they were from if they decided to abscond from their indentures, of work owed, to those patrons (Nais). Tattoos were also used as defensive mechanism, or hex, against bad, or evil, spirits. There was also aggressive tattooing which, when combined with black magic, or spells, supposedly give the owner of the tattoo all sorts of onerous powers.

Defensive tattoos are normally worn on the upper torso while aggressive tattoos are usually worn on the lower torso. . Monks generally only do defensive tattoos, while lay teachers do whatever they see fit.

Gleaned from another source;

“The power of the tattoo is not the tattoo itself, but the tattoo has to be activated with spell as well in a short ceremony after the tattoo is finished. Many tattoos have different strengths. Charms are generally very unproblematic, not too many rules have to be observed. Considered very strong and potentially harmful for the carrier is for example the Hanuman tattoo. There, even alcohol should be avoided as it could activate the tattoo to the extent that the carrier falls in a mad sort of trance. One very interesting tattoo is a dragon on the lower arm, it is considered so strong that only very few teachers dare to do it”

My girlfriend has a defensive tattoo on her left shoulder. It is simply a number of closely aligned, parallel lines of vertical script. Apparently, it’s supposed to provide protection against misfortune and illness. It hasn’t done her much good this week as she’s come down with a bad dose of the flu. My joke that it was kai wat moo wasn’t received very well (I might be sleeping on the sofa tonight). She also takes great pride in reminding me, on a regular basis; that her tattoo was done by the same monk that did Angelina Jolies’. I’ve told her that, the next time Angelina is in town, I’ll try to get the two off them together and strip off so that I can verify this. So far, she hasn’t seen the merit in this idea. What’s amusing though is that, every now again, I pick up one of those celebrity magazines and there’s Angelina proudly displaying her defensive tattoo. A tattoo that is basically something similar to affixing a hex sign to the front of your house to ward off the ‘evil eye’. I wonder if anyone’s told her that she needs a magic spell to activate the thing.

Here’s some more weird stuff.

Voodoo Dolls:

Thai voodoo (black magic) is, like a lot of things in Thailand, originally Cambodian (Khmer) in origin. Supposedly, there are Maw Tam’s (witchdoctors) who say they can capture and control the spirit of a dead child. This apparently involves the construction of a small doll within a day or so of the death and the use of spells to attach the spirit to this doll. Some people who subscribe to these beliefs have more than one doll. The person exercising control can instruct the child spirit to do various things such as influencing worldly events in his/her favour or doing ill to his/her enemies. The controller will speak to the doll in the role of 'mummy' or 'daddy', and will promise treats of food or sweets in return for the requested acts.

I think I can hear twilight zone music playing in the background somewhere……..

Phi (ghosts):

In Thailand there is a widespread belief, or acceptance, of the existence of demon spirits or ghosts: People usually conceive of a ghost as a wandering spirit from a being no longer living, having survived the death of the body yet maintaining at least vestiges of mind and of consciousness.

There’s no doubt that Phi (ghosts) get a high rating of believability in Thailand. The number of TV shows and mainstream movies, featuring Phi, will attest to that. Ingrained superstition and poor educational levels help engender the continuing belief in the existence of Phi. A Phi movie, on TV, would have a previous girlfriend transfixed, with eyes wide and mouth agape, while some B grade actor blunders around covered in a white sheet making silly moaning noises. Some of the better movies would make a bit more of an effort with the make-up and you’d get the upgraded Phi with the grey skin and long white hair. At the end of the day though, it’s all just got a bit too much of the 1950’s Boris Karloff look to it for my liking.

If someone was to ask me now if I thought that folk religion (beliefs) still has a widespread influence in Thailand, I would say it definitely has. A lot of it has been integrated into the Thai version of Buddhism. Besides the things that I’ve listed above there’s also ritualistic practices which, when I first heard of them, seemed rather bizarre; the blessing of new buildings, vehicles and boats. There’s also a fondness for all kinds of divination such as astrology, numerology, card reading and fortune telling. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a Prime Minister who regularly consulted astrologists before making any important decisions.

The reality is the most of what can be ascribed as being folk beliefs’ is simply just superstition. The difference between embracing it, as something that can influence your life, or rejecting it as purely hocus- pocus is education.

So, the next time your new found teerak asks you if you want your haircut or your toe nails clipped; what date your birthday or if she can have your photo – well, I’ll leave that up to you.



Stickman's thoughts:

It has to be said that many Thais are very superstitious and many are particularly wary of those from the southern parts of Isaan that border Cambodia, meaning predominantly Buriram and Surin.