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Ghosts And Spirits




As a small boy, I was both fascinated and terrified by ghosts in equal measure. When I grew older, I found there would inevitably be a perfectly rational albeit rather dull explanation for things that went “bump in the night”. However, in Thailand a rather different view prevails. A profound belief in ghosts and spirits is engrained within the Thai psyche. This is reflected throughout daily life, especially in religion and entertainment. Thai television regularly transmits gory tales of conflict between the living and the un-dead for family viewing.

My wife tells me some of the older hotels in Kanchanaburi province are believed to house many ghosts. Unsurprisingly, Tour Guides supervising two day excursions to the River Kwai area are uncomfortable staying overnight in these hotels, especially alone. I understand that one very senior guide always insists her young driver shares her room when visiting the province. I didn’t ask whether or not this has anything to do with the ghosts!

A visitor to Thailand will immediately notice a preponderance of Spirit Houses. These may be found almost anywhere, but especially outside temples, private homes and businesses. I once encountered an accident black spot where several dozen simple Spirit Houses were installed by the side of the road marking the place of passing of those that perished there.

The purpose of a Spirit House is to provide a home for spirits that live on the Earth, especially ancestors. The thinking behind this is that if spirits are provided with a place in which to reside, they will not find it necessary to haunt the home or business of the provider. To ensure the spirits are content, offerings are made of food, drinks, garlands and incense sticks. If properly looked after the spirit guardians will protect the building and bring wealth and prosperity.

Spirit Houses can be made of wood, concrete or brick and come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Some are simply constructed whilst others may be ornate and very decorative. They may house statues, small figures such as Thai dancers and even animals – elephants and horses are popular. Miniature furniture may also be provided.

I once asked my wife whether she wanted to import one back to the UK. She explained that buying and installing a Thai Spirit House is not a simple affair. First, a suitable place has to be found. The Spirit House should not stand in the shade of the building. A location to the north of the building, with a nearby tree is ideal. The colour of the Spirit House must also be considered. It should be chosen according to the day of the week on which the owner of the building was born. Erecting a spirit house requires a special Brahmin ceremony, an integral part of which involves inviting the spirits to come and live in it. The timing of the religious ceremony is important too. Unlucky dates should be avoided. During the ceremony special offerings will be made; often a pig’s head, fruit and sweetmeats.

On change of ownership, the new owner of a building may wish to erect their own Spirit House. The old Spirit House may either remain in situ, or be decommissioned. A special ceremony is needed to remove an old Spirit House. There are Spirit House graveyards in Thailand, where Spirit Houses no longer in use are taken for storage.

Turning now to ghosts and legend, perhaps the most famous Thai ghost story is “Nang Naak”. Her story has been the subject of many films and is well known, even outside Thailand. There are many different versions of the tale, and even the era when these events supposedly took place is open to debate. Despite this, most Thais believe her story to be true, or at least some parts are. A brief synopsis of the tale is provided below.

A teenage girl named Nang Naak falls in love with a handsome young man, Nai Maak. Shortly after they marry, Nai Maak is conscripted for military service. He is forced to leave his pregnant wife behind. Whist he is away Nang Naak goes into labour, but both she and the baby die during childbirth. As was customary at the time, Nang Naak is buried rather than cremated because of the nature of her passing. It was believed that burial would prevent her from returning from the dead. Despite this, her spirit refuses to die. When Nai Maak returns to the village, the ghost of Nang Naak makes both herself and her baby daughter appear as humans. The family reunion is sweet but short lived. The villagers try to warn Nai Maak that he is living with a ghost, but he refuses to accept it. For her part Nang Naak kills everyone who comes between her and her husband. Nai Maak is eventually forced to acknowledge the truth when he sees his wife grotesquely stretching her arm between the floorboards of their traditional Thai stilt house to pick up a fallen lime on the ground. The husband, villagers and monks then all go to Nang Naak’s grave. During the exorcism, Nang Naak sits up in her grave. Her face is young and beautiful at first but rapidly deteriorates into a corpse. The senior monk then cuts away a piece of her skull and tells her to go to her proper place. She is never seen again! Legend has it that the piece of her skull cut away by the monk was made into a broach which later came into the possession of Prince Chumbhorn Ketudomsak. There is a shrine dedicated to Nang Naak located on Sukhumvit Soi 77, in Bangkok.

The Thai word for ghost is Phi, pronounced with a rising tone. Thais believe there are many different types of ghost residing in their land. The ghost of a female, such as Nang Naak, who dies alongside her child whilst giving birth is probably the most feared. This is due to the evil strength of the spirit being enhanced through the death of the child.

Another type of ghost found in Thailand is one we would recognise from the Dracula stories as a vampire, in that it sucks the blood of its victims. I believe that many hold the local equivalent of a UK actors Equity card, in that they are often to be found working on Thai TV and in film productions!

Although like most Thais my wife is a firm believer in ghosts, she has only once claimed to have encountered one. On several occasions she has made it clear to me that you should never seek out or in any way show disrespect to a ghost. Apparently, as a young woman when camping out with friends they did exactly that. After going to bed my wife was awakened by a heavy weight on her chest. It was impossible for her to move and very difficult to breath. The culprit she believes was a type of ghost known as a “Phi Am”, which specialises in this type of anti-social behaviour. Fortunately after imparting a salutary lesson, it departed of its own accord.

Not all ghosts are bad! There is a female tree spirit which lives in banana trees and appears on the night of a full moon. This kindly spirit will dole out bananas and may occasionally fill the alms bowls of itinerant monks.

One to avoid is the ghost that takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to mesmerise her victim. This ghost has no lower body, but unlike our mermaid, who has a tail, this siren may be identified by a mass of internal body parts suspended from her head. The unsightly mess is usually concealed under a long flowing dress.

My particular favourite is a comical ghost that appears as a black monkey and seeks out victims sleeping in the jungle so he can suck their big toe.

I hope you sleep well tonight and don’t have nightmares. But if by chance you are awoken by a bad dream and need to use the bathroom, then perhaps you should call upon the services of the Phi Kee or “Shit Ghost”. Apparently if you ask your excrement to go peacefully before flushing, then the Shit Ghost can take away any bad luck. On a cautionary note, if your wife overhears you talking to the Shit Ghost, she just might commence divorce proceedings on the grounds of insanity. Whether this counts as good or bad luck, only you can say!

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Stickman's thoughts:

For sure, ghosts are no joking matter with the Thais. Even a minor passing comment can get Thais most upset!