As the popular Thai song says, “Pee’e my chu, my chu, my chueah” or as directly translated “I don’t believe in ghosts”.
Sit back and let me just reminisce about my experience on the heavy influence of ghosts in Thailand culture. Sure we all have are ghost stories, have sworn to have seen things as a kid, or claim to have dead relatives who visit us in dreams, but none of this, and I mean none, compares to the severity with which Thai people so often and unabashedly refer to ghosts in their culture. Let’s start with some examples.
Now, I can only speak from my experience, and although lengthy, is limited to “khon Esan” or Thais reigning from North Eastern Thailand which has a heavy influence from neighboring Laos. However, the fact that ghosts are an integral part of MAINSTREAM Thai culture is undisputable.
It all started some 7 years ago, when I first met my wife and we spent a month long holiday on Patong Beach near Phuket. My wife, a Northeastern Thai, refused to go in our hotel room by herself (in the Nordic Bungalows # 137 to be exact, some of you have been there) or to stay there alone. She claimed that every night a ghost sat right there in the corner and watched us. She even asked me several times if I saw him myself. I said no, eventually accepted her as being delusional and asked, “Well he obviously can’t hurt us so what are you worried about”. She claimed he was “a large angry-looking Muslim man who was quite upset with us for buying and eating pork” on his land. I eventually got over this, blamed it on all the shots and Heineken we were pounding at Summer Lover’s bar and enjoyed my stay. However, those of you who have stayed on that beach know of the constant night downpours that can come raging in (this was in particular December 1999 to January 2000). And I must admit, even being a stubborn westerner (even worse an American) I was often quite scared in that room at night while the wife was sleeping. Wind blasting, lightning striking and thoughts of an angry ghost watching my every move made me uncomfortable on more than one occasion. But that’s neither here nor there. Every morning around 6 AM or so, the Muslim chants would echo through the mountain from the local Mosque, the sun would rise and all was calm again. A real surreal experience and my first introduction to the Thai belief in the REALITY of ghosts.
Since then I have been emersed in Thai culture. Here are a few quick examples of ghosts folklore. Perhaps one of the biggest arguments I ever had with my wife was when our daughter was about 3 months old. I decided to walk around our village (about an hour east of Nong Bua Lamphu) and take the baby for a little stroll around 10pm. I NEVER lived that one down. I was promptly scolded by my wife for putting our baby at risk for losing her soul to the ghosts of the dead. I am not making this up. It was explained to me that ghosts recognize the beauty and naivete of a newborn child and see them as a perfect opportunity to seize an unsuspecting soul. And I’ll be damned if my baby didn’t cry all through the night until morning that night. I was blamed saying that the child, obviously had seen the ghosts that were after her and frightened to death. The elders sided with my wife. My argument was that I never would believe in a ghost and I could take my child where and when I damn well pleased. Needless to say I would have slept on the proverbial couch that evening (had one existed in my house in Thailand). After much brooding, I admitted I was at fault and at the very least should respect the wishes of my beautiful wife and gracious host. (i.e. when in Rome theory). From then on, as with all newborn babies, when leaving the home at night with small children we place a smudge of ash on the babies forehead, which makes it unattractive and unrecognizable as a pure soul to ghosts who are passing by. When my stepson was barely 3 years old he allegedly asked where his grandfather (who was then dead several years) and all the old people were going as he pointed. When asked to describe them, he did it to a T. Something far beyond the imagination of a three year old. This was on a Buddha holiday, reknowned for the occurance of ghostly sightings.
I once drove our motorbike out to my rice farm in the middle of the night to “du pee’e” (look for ghosts) with my stepsons. I then pretended I couldn’t start it (which actually happened once when a male water buffalo challenged me, but that’s another story). They were scared, but in good fun, and hopefully were not traumatized by the outing. However, now if I ask them if they want to go ghost hunting they promptly answer no, and ask twice before getting on a motorbike with me at night.
Most Thais where I live will not go outside at night (after 11pm or midnight), for fear of running into ghosts. Most have outdoor plumbing for restrooms, so this becomes a difficult task. Many keep bedpans close to their bed to alleviate this predicament. They also make sure all doors and windows are closed at night, even the ones on the second floor. Again when I inquired as to why we had the house all bottled up at night when it was so HOT, my wife informed me that Thais do not like to leave their windows open at night in fear of ghosts or spirits coming in and stealing a soul.
My mother-in-law has a ghost story that is also corroborated on by 2 of her best friends. Apparently the three of them were walking home from a friends house that recently died. They had just had their fill of food, friends and Buddhist prayers. They continually heard a loud noise as if something was being dragged behind them. After they walked about a mile, they turned around allegedly to see their dead friend following them dragging his coffin. They all swear to this and even if I don’t believe them, THEY are 100% convinced. Where I live in Thailand, and perhaps all over the Kingdom, it is said that when a Thai person dies they can come back and visit their house for about a week after their death before moving on to their next life. If you have ever been to a Thai cremation, this is why the people walk three times around the center of the temple property, to confuse the ghost so it will go to it’s next life and not come back to this one. That is also why they sometimes give money to a corpse and give it food and water offerings every year or on certain Buddhist holidays.
My wife tells me of the story when her own father came to visit her after his loss with liver cancer. She was alone with her toddler nephews in their poor wooden home. Which if you have seen them, you know how you can see through the wood on the walls and floorboards. She too heard someone coming in the middle of the night. As the dogs started howling closer down the roads and closer to her house, she began to realize that it was probably her father who died less than a week previous (Thais believe the incessant howling that dogs sometimes do in the middle of the night is to report an oncoming ghost. It is also believed by Thais in the country that when a chicken/duck or dove clucks or coos in a certain eerie manner it also signifies a ghost is present.) Regardless these sounds are ALL creepy. The story goes on about how her father came to the kitchen, which was just an outdoor attachment to the house and rummaged through the pots and pans as he often did while cooking. Upon seeing his ghosts through the cracks, she closed her eyes and willed him to leave for fear of her heart bursting at the seems, which he did.
Last time I was in Thailand the gong from the temple started chiming rhythmically at about 4AM. And for all of you that have heard these gongs, they are very loud and can be heard for miles. This is not uncommon to hear on a Buddha day, but this time I could hear everyone in my village waking up and a flurry of Thai being spoken. When I inquired about this, my wife explained of a local legend about a Thai woman who was gang raped and beaten to death. Legend has it that one night after her death the gong chimed incessantly. When all the town and the monks went to the temple to see, they found her ghost pounding the gong and sobbing terribly. Needless to say, when the gong tolls unscheduled at four in the morning in our town, people curb their curiosity and try to get back to sleep.
There are several other stories. I could go on and on. The one of the friend who said hi to his best buddy on the way into town, only to find that he had been killed in a motorbike accident days earlier. The ghosts that are said to roam the rice fields of northern Thailand are another example. Even, very recently. A Thai friend of mine who owns a dive shop in Phuket and was heavily influenced by Western culture growing up, (and coincidently not a big ghost believer) told me that a week after the tsunami’s hit her and her friends heard partying on the beach. Shocked they went to the beach to see who could be blaring loud music and irreverently carrying on so shortly after such a huge tragedy. (If you recall the Prime Minister even ceased Falang New Year celebrations due to the recent events. I say falang because it’s obviously not the Thai New Year.) When she and her friends got to the beach, what sounded like hundreds of people partying stopped and NO ONE was there. From that day on she believed in ghosts. My wife does not want to go back to Phuket for a long time, for fear of the thousands of ghosts she thinks now reside there.
So believe it or not, ghosts are everywhere in Thailand. From pop songs to cheesy nighttime soap operas. To this popular game with toddlers called “pee’e locke or ghost face”.
Around every corner you’ll find a pale faced, pupil-less bloodied ghost just waiting to steal your soul. Whether you believe in them or not is a personal decision, but be respectful and mindful of Thais, because most of them are firm believers, not to mention that it’s a part of the culture as well. And as I always say, Thailand has been around for 2500 years plus (and that’s just written history), so who am I to argue with thousands of years of wisdom. As an old Thai person could easily say to me, “Son, everything you learn today, I forgot 10 years ago.”
So Sawasdeekrup to my Thai friends, family and expats. And remember, next time your out on your farm or at the beach at night unloading all that beer Chang you just drank onto your favorite palm tree, don’t be surprised if you start thinking to yourself, “Am I being watched? I wonder if there really are ghosts out here!” Until then, I’ll try and stay one step ahead of them.