“I never scared,” claimed Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, one night as we lay cuddled together in bed watching a Thai movie on TV. It was a horror flick. Being in Thai with Thai production values, it really was quiet frightening. Thai sitcoms have the same effect on me. But this movie had ghosts, and knowing about the Thai belief in the supernatural, I’d asked him if he was scared.
Ask a Thai if he believes in ghosts and you’ll get an incredulous look in response. It’s like asking if the sky is blue. Of course there are ghosts. Why would any sane person doubt that? Farang can be so silly at times. It’s estimated that 90% of Thais believe in ghosts. The other 10% don’t. Until the sun goes down.
Noom gets free reign with the TV; I’m not much of a TV person so I don’t really care what’s on. When he falls asleep, a frequent event, I switch the channel over to the BBC allowing the soothing sounds of English to wash away the screeching Thai noises that have been invading my consciousness. We go to the movies at least once on every trip I make to Thailand. Originally I always let him pick the movie, a selection that never troubled him as making any kind of decision does for most Thais. But after having to watch Madagascar 2, I don’t let him make that call anymore. The idea of having to sit through Madagascar 3 scares me.
Visiting Bangkok with a group of friends, we decided one night to see Avatar at the IMAX at Siam Paragon. Noom liked the movie, and loved the IMAX experience. It was the first time he’d been to the big screen. We caught the last show of the night, and it let out around one in the morning, dumping us onto a deserted street that is usually bustling with traffic. Now, one of the few petty annoyances that I allow to bother me in Bangkok is that you need to catch a taxi driver going in the right direction. Seems to me if I’m paying for the ride he can hang a U turn if need be. But that won’t happen. You need to walk across the street instead; you need to be going in the direction they are headed. So on this night we had to cross over Rama I Road and then again across Thanon Henri Dunant to be in the right spot to catch a cab going back to our hotel. After several taxis slowed down, eyeballed us, and then sped off, Noom suggested we move up the street a bit. Frustrated, I’m thinking, “What? We not only have to be headed in the driver’s direction but have to be a few hundred yards closer to our destination, too!?”
Turns out we had been standing in front of the Institute of Forensic Medicine. A spot of major bad juju and a likely hang out for ghosts, freshly departed from the land of the living. No Thai taxi driver is about to stop there during the early hours of the morning. I guess ghosts don’t tip well in Bangkok. And the drivers were only slowing down to check and see if those pale faces shining in the moonlight belonged to ghosts.
Raised on ghosts stories from old religions before Buddhism came to Thailand, as well as supernatural tales from Buddhist legends, Thai people are really afraid of ghosts. At least of the malicious ones. Phi means ghost. Phi Tai Hong are the ghosts to be most feared. They are ghosts with a grudge. These spirits died a violent death. Add Tong Glom and you really have something to be sacred of. These seriously evil ghosts are the spirits of dead pregnant women, doubly nasty because they have the power of two people who died tragically and unexpectedly. Pregnant and abandoned by their mate, they’ve often committed suicide and can now be seen wandering in search of their boyfriend, husband, or any random Thai worthy of a bloody death. The Thais too believe that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
The most famous Phi Tai Tong Glom is Mae Nak. Every Thai knows of her. There have been more than twenty movies made telling her story, each a box office hit. Mothers threaten unruly kids with her vengeance; if you don’t behave Mae Nak will break your neck and eat your head with chili sauce. She was a pregnant woman who died during childbirth while her husband was fighting in the army. When he returned home, so did she, reappearing in human form until he discovered she was a ghost. He fled, she got pissed and went on a murderous rampage. Ask any Thai you know for the whole story, he’ll relish recounting it for you. There is a popular shrine to her at Wat Mahabut by the On Nut BTS station. Locals flock to the shrine for lucky lottery numbers. Pregnant women tend to avoid the place.
Phi Kraseu are another type of ghost to be feared. This is the most popular Thai horror movie ghost. Always depicted as a floating female head with entrails hanging out, she prowls the night for dead bodies or human excrement to snack on, but will gladly consume live bodies too. Phi Kraseu haunt the areas around cemeteries. Your bar boi d’jour will not be pleased if you’re staying at one of the hotels built next to a Bangkok cemetery.
I tried to interest Noom in watching True Blood, having bought the third season from my favorite pirated DVD seller in Patpong. Knowing Thais love ghosts and goblin movies, I thought a vampire series would do the trick. But when I described the show to him, he sneered. Western vampires are a joke; who’d believe in that crap? But mention the Thai version, the blood sucking Phi Duat Leut, and he gets serious.
I’d tell you I don’t believe in ghosts, but then I’ve seen many Phi Peta in Thailand. These are hungry, ill tempered ghosts with an aggressive nature. Preoccupied with material possessions, they have a giant belly and an enormous appetite for almost everything: food, money, power, or sex. They are more commonly known as expats.
There is an incredibly long roster of types of ghosts that Thais believe in. Most Thais will tell you they have seen a ghost. Some are to be prayed to for favor, others avoided at all costs. You never make fun of ghosts, or the belief in them, or you’ll risk pissing them off. Some are not so much malicious as mean spirited, causing minor problems and annoyances.
I am a smoker. Noom quit smoking just before my last visit. Not thinking, I went ahead and filled the hotel room with a blanket of smoke before we retired for the night. He woke up coughing in the middle of the night, rousing me from my slumber with his insistent hacking. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Phi Am,” he croaked out as he tried to get his coughing under control.
Phi Am is a Thai spirit who sleeps on your chest, making it difficult to breath. I think the English translation is Marlboro. I’m an ex-smoker now. Pretty amazing that after forty years of smoking and having never quit even once, I’ve given them up for no better reason than to keep the evil spirits away from a Thai bar boy’s chest.
Ghosts and spirits are very real to the Thai people and an integral part of their daily lives. Spirit houses seem to be everywhere in Thailand. Offerings of food, drink and little figurines representing servants, entertainers, and various modes of transportation are left for the spirits residing within. Every Thai house has a spirit house, the size usually corresponding to the size of the human’s house. The bigger it is, the bigger the spirit house will be. Every morning the spirits are fed, which in turn assures good blessings and good luck for the occupants of the house. Businesses too often have a spirit house with gifts of food and the like left to placate the ghosts and spirits and to attract good luck and prosperity. Some spirit houses are built alongside roads, to protect drivers, others pop up in the strangest places, their placement confusing to anyone not Thai.
Trees, too can contain ghosts. You’ll often see a saffron sash tied around a tree’s trunk, usually in a temple, but also in forests. The cloth is a warning to alert people to the spirit’s presence and the tree can not be cut down without first warning the spirit to allow him to find another tree to call home. Of course not all ghosts are of an equal standing. Not all spirit houses, trees, and shrines have the same power.
Whenever we hit a new temple or shrine, or walk past a spirit house, Noom will tell me whether it is ‘real’ or not. I’d like to ask him the criteria he uses for making the ‘real’ or ‘not real’ call, but it would be like asking if he believes in ghosts. The answer too obvious to bother with an explanation. He also judges them with ‘power’ and ‘no power’. This one I get; he’s taken the time to explain. The Western version of his explanation would be if enough people have prayed, left offerings, and honored the shrine, the spirit then has power, building energy off of that paid by worshipers through respect. A shrine that is not cared for and which does not receive enough attention lacks that energy. It has no power. So obviously if you are going to pray you’re better off doing so at a shrine radiating with a powerful spirit.
I love watching Noom pray. He carries on quite a conversation with whichever god it is empowering the particular statue, shrine, or temple we are visiting. There is no doubting his belief, or his sincerity. It would be easy for a Westener to call this a superstition, but that term is lacking; it fails to take into account the very real spirit world of Thailand. Whenever Noom and I visit a new wat, he’ll clue me in to the validity of the Buddha at the temple. “It real,” he’ll tell me before dropping to his knees and raising his hands into a reverent wai.
Spirit houses, evidently, or at least the places spirits, as opposed to a god, reside, don’t rate the same degree of reverence. His wai is just as respectful, but he’ll remain standing. On one visit to a new shrine, after informing me it was real and had power, Noom offered proof, pointing to the hairs on his arm standing on end. His physical reaction gave me goose bumps of my own. Sometimes he scares me.
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