I asked my friend Noom once if he believed in ghosts. Silly question. They’re real, so why wouldn’t you believe in them? I also asked if ghosts scared him. He scoffed. Nothing scares Noom. Of course, his pronunciation of the word ghost comes out sounding more like goats so that makes sense. Nothing too scary about goats.
With Halloween just around the corner, I revisited the subject with him just to make sure. Because my plan for the day was to visit Thailand’s most famous ghost’s shrine: The new home of Mae Nak, a rather nasty piece of work if you ever got in the way of her and her man. Hmmm, actually that sounds like most fish . . . but on with the story.
Mae Nak’s tale is often told in Thailand. Mothers use her to scare their unruly children into behaving. There have been more than twenty movies made telling her story, each a box office hit. And her tale formed the basis of an opera, too. Ask any Thai you know and he’ll tell you about Mae Nak. The details of her story tend to change from one telling to the next, but the basis is always the same: She’s one pissed off bitch and you don’t want to get on her bad side.
Nak lived with her husband, Mak, along the canal by Wat Mahabut. They were very much in love and as straight folk do, went at it like rabbits until Mak knocked Nak up. (Chill. I know the whole breeder sex thing is terrifying, but that’s not the scary part.)
So Mak is in the army and gets sent north for several months, leaving Nak to fend for herself. He returns home finally to find his wife and new baby waiting for him. Before they get a chance to have reunion sex, Nak cooks Mak his favorite meal and accidently drops a spoon on the ground while cooking his dinner.
Unknown to Mak, Nak died while he was away. So did the baby. But Nak knows she’s a ghost and uses her ghostly powers to extend her arm to pick up the dropped utensil. Mak sees her magic arm trick, doesn’t stop to think just how much fun that little trick could be, and instead flees for his life.
Typical of a woman scorned, Nak goes ballistic, blames the neighbors, and starts killing them all off in all sorts of grizzly manners. And then takes off after Mak. Eventually a powerful exorcist comes to the rescue and convinces Nak that in a future life she will be reunited with her husband, and so the ghost voluntarily leaves this world for the afterlife.
So, okay, I never said it was a good ghost story, just a famous one. The Thai people love the story because of Nak’s love and devotion to Mak. And as scary of a ghost as she is, she is also viewed as a spirit who can help locals who visit her shrine. For some reason, she’s especially good at helping pick lucky lottery numbers.
Her shrine is on the grounds of Wat Mahabut by the On Nut BTS station. The shrine itself is behind the wat along the Phra Khanong canal. The small wat didn’t seem to be doing much business the day we visited, Mae Nak’s shrine proved to be quite popular. As soon as you enter the wat’s grounds there are dozens of vendors selling toys and fancy woman’s dresses in addition to the regular temple offerings of incense, lotus blossoms, and garlands. Visitors to Mae Nak’s part of the grounds buy the outfits to present to her as an offering and her small statue (with a creepy looking Chucky look alike baby) is surrounded by the dresses people have left there.
The main shrine is located in a green wood building; a smaller shrine with pictures of Mae Nak instead of a statue is located just outside. Her statute sits in a small room toward the back of the building while there are two large trees in the front area growing through the roof that people have encircled with colorful cloth ribbons. Wishes are written on small slips of paper and tucked underneath the colorful fabric.
You’re not supposed to take pictures of Mae Nak’s statue (no problemo doing so of The Buddha at any wat, but lets show some respect for minor ghosts). I decided to summons the Thai within me and disregard the rules, but did so surreptitiously. So the photos I shot were on the sly and didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. Noom normally has no problem laughing at rules himself, but when he saw me shooting the pix of Mae Nak, he kept his distance. There may be nothing that scares him, but evidently that doesn’t mean you should take foolish chances.
Back outside there are dozens of lottery ticket sellers under a pergola and closer to the canal about a half a dozen fortune tellers who all seemed to be doing a brisk business. You can also buy small live fish to let go in the canal as a form of offering, and there are several large vessels along the water for burning incense sticks.
The other areas of the wat’s grounds contain a few unusual shrines and religious statutes worth taking a look at. And the canal area is a serene spot perfect for a short rest and a bit of daydreaming. The wat is not one that touri flock to, but if you are looking for a suitable Halloween outing in Bangkok, go say Hi to Mae Nak and her spooky little baby.