By Andrew Biggs
It’s a particularly ghostly period in Thailand, where last Wednesday we witnessed the annual ghostly fireballs on the Mekhong River and now we’re preparing for Halloween this coming Wednesday.
Seven days of spirits.
Ghosts are ubiquitous in Thailand. You know how, in the West, we have the occasional haunted house? And you know how there is a variety of benign spirits in the West — playful children, jilted lovers, lonely lost Vikings, etc?
Here in Thailand it’s a radically different story. Ghosts are not benign. They are, on the whole, women, and they’re not happy.
I wonder how many famous ghosts you can list from your country. I come from Australia and I’d be hard-pressed thinking of more than three or four.
This is in direct opposite to Thailand. There are dozens.
This country is overflowing with spirits, and as you travel further away from Bangkok, the number of those ghosts increases exponentially.
Not only do the numbers increase, but so does the ferociousness of the apparitions. Can you spot the underlying theme of Thai ghosts? Here are four famous ones:
She is a woman who, from the neck down, consists only of entrails and innards. She flies around at night time, her innards pulsating red, looking for young men to attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
This ghost possesses young women who start acting like crazy banshees. They look for young men to attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
3. Nang Tani
This is a ghost that lives in wild banana trees known as kluai tani. She has a greenish face and is believed to be generally benevolent except for young men. Some say she will attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
4. Mae Nak Phrakhanong
She is a woman who dies during childbirth while her husband is away at war. She terrorizes her entire town, and in some versions she attacks and rips open the stomachs of men in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
Had enough of the raw gizzards yet? This is just the icing on the cake. I could also explain Phi Song Nang, Phi Tai Thang Klom and Kuman-thong but I will save the column inches by telling you this; they are female, and they really don’t do nice things to men. Think stomachs and raw gizzards.
Why is this country besotted with female ghosts performing torturous acts upon menfolk, usually around their stomach and nether regions?
These stories are taken quite seriously in remote rural areas. And as already inferred, it’s almost as if the frequency of evil spirits increases as educational levels plummet; we’ll have to explore that thought another week. Macho Thai farmer types cower when confronted with rumors that Kraseu or Bob is in town. They paint their nails bright colors and wear lipstick to “fool” the ghost, or so they say —that excuse is as thin as Larry Craig’s “wide stance” story.
I think the Mae Nark Phrakhanong story, number 4 on my list just then, is the most revelatory. She is to Thailand what the Loch Ness Monster is to Scotland.
This is the story: In a little village there was an attractive young couple named Mark and Nark, and with names like those I’m surprised they didn’t start up a travelling vaudevillian act.
Nark soon got pregnant, after which Mark went off to fight the Burmese. Nark later gave birth and both she and the baby died during childbirth, rendering the vaudeville idea no longer viable.
Nark and her child returned as ghosts. Mark also returned, his mortal coil intact, and went straight to his home and into the arms of his wife, unaware she and the kid were ghosts. He realized something was very wrong one night as his wife made dinner; pounding away at a chili paste with a mortar and pestle, she accidentally dropped a lemon down through the floorboards.
Mark watched as his wife reached her hand down … and down and down and down. Her arm stretched and elongated itself like a badly photo-shopped supermodel, until her hand reached the lemon.
Only then did the penny, like the lemon, drop. “Oh my Buddha! My wife is a ghost!” our dim but disturbed Mark exclaimed, rushing off in terror.
Nark terrorized the village until a sage monk at Wat Mahabut temple managed to trap her spirit inside a clay pot. The pot was tossed into the Phrakhanong Canal, ensuring the perpetual threat of her return. Even back in the olden days, that monk realized the potential of sequels.
I love the Mae Nark story, but how dumb is Mark? How does one sleep with a ghost or a corpse without knowing it? We’ve all had dud sexual experiences, but at least we knew the other person was >>alive.<< Either Mark lost part of his brain to the Burmese or he should be setting up the Phrakhanong chapter of Necrophiliacs Anonymous.
Whatever; it’s a fantastic story and one that, to me, truly reflects the unholy and uncomfortable relationship Thais have with the netherworld.
There is another side to the ghostly coin. These are the ghosts related to religion or animist beliefs.
Last Wednesday was the end of the Buddhist Lent. It is also the night of the biggest annual supernatural occurrence that takes place in Thailand.
They are the Naga Fireballs, ghostly lights emerging from the Mekhong River in remote Nong Khai province. Hundreds of thousands of people travel there to see them.
The fireballs are the work of a giant serpent that swims through the Mekhong known as Payanark, who shoots fireballs out of the river up into the full-moon night sky. It’s the only day that the fireballs appear.
Let me cloud the issue even further by explaining that Payanark is a >>mythical<< serpent. But the fireballs are real, and don’t you go saying otherwise or you’ll be in deep trouble, mister.
I know. I created media turbulence back in the mid-2000’s when I foolishly made an off-the-cuff remark one day on national TV that “anyone with any education could hardly believe the lights of Payanark.” Cut to commercial.
You could compare it to my standing in the middle of a World Championship Wrestling ring and revealing it’s all a pre-determined show. I was called all sorts of names relating to my hair style and ears and appendage size, not to mention a general call to have my visa recalled. The Land of Smiles I had grown to love turned on me in an instant.
While it’s generally believed these Payanark fireballs go back hundreds of years, it is only in the last decade, however, that they have gone from casual phenomenon to glitzy Las Vegas-style event.
It was no accident. What used to be known by locals as the “ghost lights” suddenly got dubbed the “Payanark lights” by the local council in the mid-1980s, and a cult was born. In other words the “age-old” tradition is, actually, 35 years old.
With such a huge amount of money coming into Nong Khai via tourism, the real question is: Is it in our best interests to disbelieve it?
The ghosts, too. Without the fearsome female entities threatening to eat their gizzards, would men behave themselves?
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that hell hath no fury like a Thai woman scorned. Living or dead.
Happy Halloween, dear reader!