A Thai Ghost Story
The Thais love a good ghost story. In fact, they will throw in a ghost, or spirit, just for the heck of it, even if it doesn’t move the plot along or proves to be a distraction. Thais are very spiritual people, in the sense that they accept an unseen world that constantly has an impact on their own world. A Thai movie or TV show or music video that doesn’t include a ghost or demon or vampire of some sort isn’t considered a complete entertainment package.
My erstwhile Thai girlfriend Joom rented a house inhabited not by one, but by two ghosts. They were both tragic suicides, children of the landlord. Both had ended their lives over failed love affairs, which suited Joom just fine, since she had the fiery romantic disposition to follow suit if she ever thought I was engaged in hanky-panky. The only difference being, as she told me plainly, she would take me along with her into the spirit world. Now that’s true love, Thai style – the threat of murder . . .
Her ghosts were of the shy, retiring kind, rarely making an appearance. But they liked to be helpful, so they often whispered to her the upcoming winning lottery number. This incorporeal tip had to be acted on quickly, with my money. I would pony up the hundred baht for Joom and she would rush down to the sidewalk in front of the 7-11, where she had a cousin who sold lottery tickets from a wooden suitcase. None of these numbers ever came through, but when I taxed her about these ghostly bum steers she just grinned at me wickedly and told me to be quiet and eat my green curry. Since her cooking was fantastic, I didn’t begrudge the ghosts their little joke at my expense.
I, myself, of course, have no truck with haunts of any kind. Pure bosh. I told this to Joom the day I accepted an ESL teaching position up in Lopburi, a town she said was riddled with the presence of the restless dead.
When I got off the bus in Lopburi it was already dark, and no one was around to greet me from the school where I would be working. It was an ill-lit area, with the waning moon highlighting the Prang Sam Yot, an ancient Khmer temple with crumbling towers that appeared like rotted fangs thrust into the sky. Not a good omen. But I shook off my dread, gently cussing Joom for infecting me with such folderol.
The next day I went to work. My students proved to be amiable and lazy, as most Thai children are, being spoiled rotten by their parents, so I was kept busy trying to mold their mushy intellects. But still, I eventually noticed that the school was unfortunately placed. Across the street was an ancient weeping fig tree, with massive roots that had lifted and toppled a wooden sala (or gazebo) where lovers had been accustomed to sit and spoon in the days of King Prajadhipok. Scattered among its roots were dozens of decayed and broken spirit houses. A spirit house is a sort of doll house for the sprites that inhabit every residence and business establishment in Thailand. The residents or business owners leave offerings of flower and fruit in front of the spirit house to placate the sprites and bribe them to bring good fortune upon the household or business. When the spirit houses begin to fall apart they are supposed to be taken to a Buddhist temple, where the monks will destroy them with dignity. But if a homeowner feels his or her house spirit has not cut the mustard, the house is unceremoniously dumped out on some wasteland. In Lopburi, this waste place was beneath the weeping fig tree across from my school. As any Thai child can tell you, such treatment infuriates the house sprite; they lay in wait at night, ready to vent their supernatural spleen on anyone who approaches too close. Not even a dacoit who would slit his own mother’s throat for a tical would venture to rummage through the spirit house debris, even though all of them have an abundance of gold leaf plastered on them.
As I say, this bad luck tree was directly across from my school on a lonely country road. But I never gave it a thought.
Behind the school was a Chinese cemetery. Thais are traditionally cremated by Buddhist monks, but the Chinese in Thailand have a horror of such things, and work all their lives to assure that their body is properly buried above ground in a stone vault until such a time as it can be shipped back to the family village in China. The Lopburi cemetery, according to local gossip, contained several Chinese corpses that had been abandoned, since the unfortunate stiffs, when alive, had not managed to save up enough money to be shipped home after their demise. It was naturally assumed by the superstitious Lopburians that the ghosts of these lonely Chinese roamed about at night to bemoan their fate and perhaps work a mischief on any passing human. Strange lights were said to float fretfully around the graveyard at night. Probably fireflies; but I kept that thought to myself. I’m not one for stepping on other people’s toes.
There came an evening when I had stayed at school very late, grading papers. When I finally finished I looked up to see that I was all alone in the building, and that the only light was from my desk lamp. Unsettling noise filtered in from the tropical night; the snarl and snap of feral dogs in the underbrush, weird cries from the night birds, and the monotonous drone of Buddhist monks holding a cremation ceremony in one of their numerous temples. I gathered up my papers, vexed at the thought of having to walk home. The only public transportation that went by the school was a song taew, a truck that took on passengers by cramming them in the truck bed on narrow benches. But it would never stop near the cursed weeping fig after dark. I gave an involuntary gasp as out of the darkness loomed a figure with an uncanny resemblance to George Zucco, a grade-B horror movie actor of the 1940’s. It was only the night watchman making his rounds. He kindly offered to unlock the nurse’s office so I could sleep on a cot instead of having to brave the legion of goblins that undoubtedly awaited me right outside of the school gate. I thanked him but said the exercise would do me good. He shook his head dubiously and faded back into the murky night.
I headed down the hallway to the principal’s office to leave her my week’s lesson plans. I didn’t bother to turn on the office light. As I laid my paperwork on her desk an unearthly howl sounded right next to me. I nearly jumped out of my flip-flops as I saw two glowing red eyes staring balefully at me in the dark. Something hairy and powerful pushed on my chest, gibbering like a fiend; I fell back and tripped over a waste basket. The creature bounded over me as I let out a yell that could be heard all the way back to Roseville, Minnesota. Then it was gone out the door. I got shakily to me feet, tottered to the door, dreading the return of whatever it was that had tried to drag me down to Hades, and saw, sitting on its haunches calmly eating a banana, a macaque. These monkeys infested Lopburi, and were known for their boldness, invading homes and offices in search of food. It gave one last insane hoot and was gone, jumping over the stair rail and scampering towards the Chinese cemetery.
The night watchman found me giggling hysterically a few minutes later. This time I gladly accepted his invitation to bed down at the school for the night.
Not because of any so-called evil spirits. I just don’t like monkeys.
Tim Torkildson taught ESL in Thailand for five years. He is currently the editor of the website http://iwritetheblogggs.com/