Spiritual Encounters Thai Style

Posted by Katarzyna Ancuta on October 24, 2007 in Dr Katarzyna Ancuta, Guest Blog tagged with

As it usually happens on account of Halloween (and for some of us on a more regular basis), at this time of the year we frequently catch ourselves thinking of ghosts and spirits. Having said that, here in Thailand, ghosts are not simply seen as figments of one’s imagination. On the contrary, they are taken quite seriously and are commonly treated as one of ordinary facts of life. Not only do Thai ghosts inhabit folk beliefs and superstitions, but they also regulate the property market (with shops going out of business, houses getting hastily evacuated and entire districts suddenly dropping out of favour if declared haunted) and even have their say about the functioning of Bangkok sky train (with the trains omitting one stop during their nightly test runs due to the reported incidents of the dead Chinese commuters from the nearby cemetery trying to board the train).

Still, one has to admit that the wonderfully messy world of Thai spirits can confuse even the most enthusiastic spiritualist. For those of us who cannot speak much Thai, the confusion begins on a linguistic level. Since there are no fixed rules of Romanization of the Thai language, you may feel a bit lost deciding whether you are dealing with different ghosts or just with different spelling variations of the same spectral beings. Secondly, the unique character of the supernatural entities in question makes it difficult to ultimately categorise them in English as “ghosts,” “spirits,”or  “demons.” Consequently, the Thai word PEE (also spelt as PHEE, PHI or PI) is usually translated as GHOST, although it can refer both to the spirits of the deceased and to the more demonic types of supernatural creatures that have never been human at all.

According to a local belief, most ghosts become ghosts because they were caught unaware by their untimely death. The spirits who died in a violent or unexpected way are called PEE TAI HONG and are further distinguished by the type of death they experienced. Apparently, among the most feared ones are the spirits of pregnant women who died with babies still in their wombs, known as PEE TAI TONG KROM. The most famous of them is MAE NAK PHRA KHANONG, also known as Nang Nak (NANG meaning a woman) – the faithful wife. According to the legend, a young girl called Nang Nak died in childbirth shortly after her husband Nai Mak had been conscripted for military service. Despite her death and subsequent burial, the spirit of Mae Nak refused to move on and continued waiting for the return of Nai Mak disguised as a human being. When the husband finally came home, the spirit turned nasty towards the villagers who wanted to interfere and take him away from her and was only pacified after a monk cut out an oval piece of bone from her skull.

A still from Nonzee Nimibutr’s film NANG NAK (1999) showing Mae Nak’s skull being cut by a monk during a purifying ritual.

The story of Nang Nak, familiar to absolutely everyone in Thailand, gave rise to a peculiar Bangkok-based cult. Today the devotees visiting Mae Nak’s shrine in Phra Khanong pray fervently to her statue covered in gold leaf, which sits at the back of the room facing a television set that is turned on at all times. Apparently even a Thai ghost can get addicted to Thai soaps, or so it seems.

  Another shot from the same film showing an oval piece of bone from Mae Nak’s skull with spirit-restraining inscriptions.    

Nang Nak can be seen as an example of a Thai ghost which is the spirit of a dead person. These kinds of ghosts are usually represented in a purely anthropomorphic form and are frequently indistinguishable from humans, apart from the fact that they may possess certain superhuman powers, from time to time hover above the ground, suddenly turn green or black, or extend their limbs out of proportion.

A still from DEK-HOR / DORM (2006) by Songyos Sugmakanan. Can you tell which one of these two boys is actually dead?

Such iconic representation of the spirits of the dead seems to be quite similar to the way ghosts are treated in Chinese culture. But then perhaps this can be explained by the fact that Chinese ancestral worship has found a fertile ground in Thailand thanks to a large Thai-Chinese population and quite naturally many rituals and beliefs connected with the dead have followed.

In case you were wondering… it’s the one on the left. Not so easy to spot those Thai ghosts, isn’t it?

Still, perhaps the most unique Thai spirits are those who have never really been human at all, even though they have the ability to possess humans or feed on them. Some of those are supposed to live in trees (and you can always spot a tree with a spirit in it since the locals wrap it carefully in colourful ribbons). Among them, we can find such spirits as NANG TAKIEN (also spelled TAKIAN or TAKEAN) who lives in a takien tree and frequently moves into people’s houses since the wood of these trees is used for support beams and columns. But perhaps the most interesting is the spirit of the banana tree, NANG TANEE.

 Nang Tanee caught off action with her clothes still on (even if it doesn’t show). A still from TANEE (2006) by Pongsakong Choobuar.

Nang Tanee is said to visit young men offering them sexual favours and feeding on their life force at the same time. In effect you could say the poor guys die from sexual overload, but what a way to go…

Nang Tanee blending in with the banana tree in the background and looking rather gloomy.

Thai evil spirits are represented at their best by creatures such as PEE POP (also spelt POB, PORP or PORB) and PEE KRASUE (or KRASEU). PEE POP can be seen as a Thai variation of a hungry ghost, only this one has a particular fondness for liver. It is frequently represented as a dark-skinned skinny creature with a pot belly and a huge mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Meals on Wheels. Pee Pop right before an evening snack. A still from POP WEED SAYONG / BODY JUMPER (2001) by Haeman Chatemee.

POP can possess a human being and make him/her kill and feed on other humans in a semi-conscious state, but at times we can also come across stories of people transforming into POP after they die.

Pee Pop enjoying her candlelight liver dinner, just before an attempt to eat her date as well.

In colloquial Thai people sometimes call someone a POP if the person is regarded as exceptionally ugly. The next still can perhaps explain why.

 Pee Pop up close and personal (and this time with no make-up on).

PEE KRASUE is undoubtedly the most striking of the Thai spirits, even though you can actually find it in several other South-East Asian countries. KRASUE can at best be described as a disembodied female head floating mid-air with entrails attached to it. The creature also tends to glow in the dark, which altogether produces a combination so peculiar that we shouldn’t be surprised to find most KRASUE spirits in Thai comedies rather than in Thai horror movies. KRASUE is supposed to be a meat eater, although she frequently feeds on dead things rather than on live humans. Still, in some stories we hear about KRASUE spirits sucking the babies out of the wombs of women in labour, so they do have a nasty streak in them after all.

Pee Krasue hanging around before going out to dinner. A still from KRASUE (2006) by Bin Banluelit.

Having said that, baby foetuses seem to be a valuable commodity not only to KRASUE spirits. The bodies of boys who died in their mothers’ wombs on a Saturday have a chance to be turned into talismans known as KUMAN TONG. Following a rather ghastly process involving the grilling of the body, lacquering it and covering with gold leaf, KUMAN TONG frequently ends up in a glass jar or a clay urn which is kept in the house or in the shop for good luck and protection.

Baby in a bottle. Kuman Tong in its natural surroundings. A still from HIAN / THE MOTHER (2004) by Bandit Thongdee.

The owner of the KUMAN TONG has the responsibility to feed him and in exchange for sweets or toys KUMAN TONG will guard his/her house from danger or bring in more customers to the shop. This may sound like a rather harmless form of magic but then some types of KUMAN TONG can also be ferocious killers fed with blood and sent out to destroy the owner’s enemies.

Home-made voodoo. A woman holding a figurine of Kuman Tong. A still from BLACK MAGIC WOMAN (2004) by Surasak Chalongtham.

KUMAN TONG is sometimes also referred to as TOYOL (this name is usually associated more with Malaysia than with Thailand), although it is not completely clear whether the two spirits are actually the same.

Kuman Tong in person does not actually look too enticing.

You can find some more information about Thai ghosts and spirits here.

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