I am renting a haunted house here in Thailand. It has a particularly dark back story. There have been two suicides in it. My fiancé, Joom, often talks to the ghosts, both young women, who did away with themselves in our rented home. The usual story; their husbands were unfaithful, didn’t even bother to hide their infidelities, so the girls took a swig of iodine and that’s all, folks. Joom is quick to let me know that if I ever attempted hanky-panky behind her back she is not the kind to go into a decline and seek solace amongst the dead; she will borrow a gun from her soldier brother and . . . BOOM! . . . another lurid story for the Bangkok newspapers.
When the ghosts are in a generous mood they tell Joom what the winning lottery number is going to be. This costs me a couple hundred baht per month, but who am I to ignore a supernatural tout? A ghost has as much chance as a living person of picking the winning number.
Whether you want to call it superstition or reverence for a higher, unseen spiritual plane, Thais are fascinated and firmly believe in spirits. Every decent home sports a traditional spirit house in the yard – and some of them are mini-Taj Mahals. Thais would feel right at home in the world of Harry Potter, dealing with apparitions, witches, and magical incantations.
Joom, for one, knows her own horoscope better than Einstein knew his equations. Tuesday is her unlucky day of the week. She tells me that nothing she has ever planted on a Tuesday has ever come up in our extensive garden. She refuses to go shopping on Tuesday. She pretty much sits around the house watching TV and dipping sticky rice into that nasty fermented fish paste the Isaans call palaa. I do my own cooking on Tuesdays.
We Westerners tend to pooh-pooh all this stuff, but you can’t beat it when it comes to telling a cracking good ghost story . . .
The one time I taught English away from Bangkok and its environs was a brief stint up in Lopburi. I had known the principal a long time prior to going to work for her; we had been members of the same church congregation in Bangkok. I needed work during the annual school vacation starting in March, and she kindly brought me up to her school for 3 months of language camps and makeup classes for the more sluggish scholars.
Her school was unfortunately situated. There was a very small, abandoned Chinese cemetery next to it. All the bodies were said to have been exhumed and sent back to China for burial – a traditional custom for expat Chinese – but rumors circulated, usually late at night with just a candle lit, that several unfortunate corpses had not paid their full cemetery fees when alive, and had no family to pay it after they died, and so their bodies had not been exported and they were doomed to wander the decrepit graveyard night after night for eternity. Those who claimed to have seen them said they were not happy campers. Across the gravel road from the school was an ancient rosewood tree, where damaged and abandoned spirit houses were left to rot. A nest of cobras was said to inhabit the heap of marble and wood, waiting to strike the next unfortunate to bring their superannuated spirit house to add to the pile. It was considered an unlucky place, and no one honked their horn when they passed it in their car – a traditional honor given to most spirit house scrap heaps.
I was in the habit of bringing my lunch to school, since they did not run their cafeteria during the vacation period. Rice, a couple of hard boiled eggs, and some pickled vegetables. Cheap and easy to prepare ahead of time. I transported it in a tin that originally held Danish butter cookies. Several times I would start my lunch, then leave to talk to someone briefly, and when I came back my lunch was gone. The same thing happened to several fountain pens I was using to practice writing the Thai alphabet. When I mentioned this to my principal friend, she smiled nervously and timidly suggested I might have just misplaced the pens and perhaps finished my meal absent-mindedly without realizing it. The other teachers gave me the real scoop. The place was plagued by greedy ghosts who took food and possessions and in return would try to snatch you at night, if you were in the vicinity, and drag you over to the abandoned Chinese cemetery for the ghouls to feast on.
I snorted derisively at their nonsense. Some little sneak thief of a student was obviously pilfering my stuff. When I caught the little hobgoblin I’d make their ears burn, and perhaps their backside as well.
One evening, as the lazy tropical dusk drifted down over Lopburi, I decided to go back to the school for some papers I’d forgotten to bring home earlier. I nodded to the cleaning ladies, who were hurriedly finishing their tasks – no one liked to be inside the building once night had fallen. As I gathered up the papers in my office I spotted one of those cheap comic books the Thais love to read, mixing bathroom humor with vampires and werewolves. I laid my papers down, just for a second, turned on the desk lamp, and began to parse my way through the comic book, to see how much I could understand. Not much, as it turned out; but those graphic drawings of fanged creatures tearing apart innocent victims started to creep me out. When I at last dropped the comic book back where I’d found it I was surprised to see it was pitch black outside. When I turned off my desk lamp I was disconcerted to be plunged into total darkness. The school did not keep any lights on inside. The nearest source of illumination was a street lamp across the way, at the spirit house graveyard.
I began to feel my way out of the office when a low moan behind me caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand at attention. I didn’t really want to turn around, but something made me. On top of the metal filing cabinet I could make out two glowing red eyes staring at me. I backed up and tripped over a waste basket. With the howl of a damned soul the thing on top of the filing cabinet lunged at me, then scuttled out the door.
It was a damn monkey.
I found out later that Lopburi is lousy with monkeys. They’re a tourist attraction. They even get their own honorary dinner served to them by the townspeople each November. They’d been coming into my office to filch my lunch and my fountain pens.
A natural, rational explanation.
But that’s about the last thing a Thai ever wants to tell you. They’d rather scare you out of a year’s growth with some infernal jiggery-pokery.
I’ll be glad to eat these words, just as soon as one of those ghosts Joom is pals with gives her the correct lottery number!