Category Archives: Thai Culture

Baby Ghosts in Thailand

If you want any proof that superstition and black magic is alive and well in Thailand then you don’t need to go further than the front page of the Thai Rath. This is the most popular newspaper for Thai people and its front pages are often filled with colour pictures of road accidents and murder victims. On the front page of yesterday’s newspaper was this photo of a policeman looking at 14 jars containing the pickled remains of foetuses. Yes, you heard right. The foetuses all come from illegal abortions. Once they are dried out, a black magic ceremony is performed to turn this into a Kumong Tong or Golden Boy. Some people believe that the spirit of the un-born child will protect them and keep them safe from danger. They are often worn in an amulet around the neck or close to the body. It is believed the kumong tong can warn of approaching danger. Some people also believe it will bring you good luck as in revealing the lottery numbers. You can read more background information about it on our Paknam Web Forums.

Having Bad Luck? Blame it on the Plants!

After a string of bad luck, the Thai government has decided that the best way to bring about national reconciliation in Thailand is to move around some furniture and potted plants at Government House. I don’t want to belittle the beliefs of the people in government, but wouldn’t it be better if they paid a little less attention to feng shui and more to the hard work of solving the problems that the country is and has been facing for the last four years or so?

Here is the news according to MCOT:

“The Thai government has readjusted its feng shui at Government House according to Chinese cosmological understandings to enhance luck and prosperity as well as to create peacefulness. Six potted plants of one species were placed on the lawn in front of the Thai Ku Fah Building, opposite its entrance, where Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva enters the Government House compound. The placement of plants there is believed to avoid and drive away bad luck. It is also believed the bright colours of the plants, yellow and green, are to enhance luck and prosperity and to create unity as well as bringing out the honest and boost charisma. The feng shui at Government House had previously been adjusted once, according to the government’s past problems. A Happy Buddha was invited on the rooftop above the prime minister’s office and round marbles were decorated at several spots of the Thai Ku Fah building to fend off bad luck and enhance good luck and prosperity.”

I know a lot of Thai people believe in feng shui. I have had first hand experience of some of them paying a lot of money to an expert who gave advice on how to improve their life and well-being and also how to drive out any bad luck. I remember once coming back to my school office after the summer holidays to find that all of the tables in our computer office had been ripped away from the partition. This was done so that we could all sit at our computers facing north. Apparently we would be more productive workers. I am not sure about that but our office certainly looks a mess now. The partitions had hidden compartments that had the electricity sockets and wiring for the networks. Now all our wires run across the floor. Another teacher gets leg ache because he is no longer facing head-in to his cubicle. He has to sit from left to right with his chair up against the partition. But, this is Thailand and no-one dared complain about this to the school admin. They just had to suffer in silence. Actually, this particular teacher no longer spends so much time working at his computer.

Last year one of the 6th Grade students committed suicide by jumping from the 6th floor of the school building. Apparently when he had arrived in the morning, he had calmly gone up to his classroom on the 5th floor and put his bag on his chair. He then went up to the computer center on the 6th floor and jumped from the balcony. He actually survived the fall and one of the teachers on duty in the playground picked him up, put him on the back of a samlor (three-wheeled bicycle) and took him to the hospital. Sadly he died in intensive care later. The speculation at the time was that he killed himself after having an argument with his father about video games. Naturally, his teachers also felt a bit guilty as he could have been reacting to any one of them if they had scolded him the day before. I think if this had happened in the West the school probably would have put up higher barriers to stop the students climbing out to the balcony. In Thailand, the normal solution to problems like this is to remove any potted plants that are deemed unlucky. The feng shui expert also told the admin that we needed to have some large shiny marbles around the school in order to ward off any further bad luck.

I know I sound cynical but I feel that other methods are needed in order to keep away any bad luck. Like practical methods. But, I guess I have turned Thai myself and no longer fuss so much about safety. I remember when I first came here to Thailand I kept going on about the need to have fire extinguishers and a real evacuation plan in case of emergency at the school. No-one wanted to talk about it. Do you know why? If we did, then it would invite this bad luck to the school. So, if there was a fire in the future, I would then be blamed for the bad luck that brought it about. I guess I should be thankful that I didn’t mention anything about my worry of the balconies on each floor in the school building. But then again, maybe if I had said something and kicked up a fuss, maybe that student wouldn’t have been able to jump to his death. Sometimes just moving plants around in a certain order is not enough. We need to look at the underlying causes of these problems and then take practical steps to prevent any catastrophe before it happens.

Going to a Thai Funeral

It would seem that the longer I stay in Thailand, the higher the frequency that I attend funerals. In fact, I have two sets of funeral clothes now. I thought today I would give a brief overview of a cremation in order to help any foreigners who might find themselves attending a funeral while in Thailand. Normally, a funeral will go on for three, five or seven days with the actual cremation taking place on the last day. It is possible that you might be invited to attend the chanting during the week. You would do this if it was a close friend or a relative of a close friend. However, most people would only attend the actual cremation on the last day.

For this cremation, most people were invited to turn up at 5 p.m. By the way, cremations never take place on a Friday. During the afternoon, the coffin was transferred from the main hall where the daily chanting took place and was taken in a parade to the crematorium. Before it was taken up the steps, it was taken around the crematorium three times. Normally, we would do this in a clockwise direction. But, for funerals, this is always done in an anti-clockwise direction. The coffin is then put on a stand in front of the crematorium and the photo of the deceased placed to one side.

At some cremations I have attended, there were performances such as traditional Thai dancing and also music. However, as this all costs a lot of money, most funerals keep it simple. After the history of the deceased person has been read out, distinguished guests and close family members then present monk’s robes in front of the coffin. Notice on the right a piece of cloth that goes up and into the coffin where it is attached to a piece of string that leads to the deceased person. What happens is a monk will then take the robe from the tray as if the deceased person had presented it themselves.

The monks in attendance, distinguished guests and close family members will then place sandalwood flowers underneath the coffin. This is symbolic and is as if each person is helping light the fire. Then everyone else, including you if you attend a funeral, go up the steps of the crematorium to place the flower too. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times, place the flower in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person. Notice in this picture how people are dressed. You should wear black or white or combination of both.

At this stage, most people would go home. They have paid their respects. For this particular cremation, it was over within twenty minutes. Others I have attended took about an hour as there were performances too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. Some even threw more sandalwood flowers into the coffin.

Everyone then went down to the bottom of the steps where they gathered around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets were fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas. They don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. There will then be more chanting before the ashes are scattered on the Chao Phraya River. This is where I went today and I will share my pictures with you later in the week.

Rainy day at Tad Mok waterfall

A couple of weeks ago I went to Mae Sa waterfalls on the edge of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. On the way back, I noticed a sign saying Tad Mok waterfall, 9 km. It was already too late to make the little side trip so I postponed the visit until the next suitable time.

A lot has changed in one month, since then. The rains have finally started in earnest – I am not a fan of the thundering water on the neighbour’s tin roof at night, but I realise how important the rain is in keeping the jungle alive and moist enough to slow down the spread of forest fires at the beginning of the hot season.

There was a brief gap in the rain this afternoon when I decided to set off, taking chances, carrying a change of dry clothes, and of course my precious raincoat. I have never understood why so many Thais are taken by surprise when the downpour comes and get drenched – of course we did, about 15 kms out of town. The rain was then on and off, so I decided to go on anyway, it’s just water.

The road to Tad Mok waterfall is off the Mae Rim – Samoeng road, one of those narrow rural roads that may be swallowed up by the jungle in any minute, it feels. The trees lean over the concrete and form a tunnel, drivers on motorcycles need to be really careful not to get hit on the face by a low branch. The undergrowth is also spilling onto the road, you can almost see it grow. There are small villages made up of mostly wooden houses along the road, the odd fancy resort, banana plantations, and mountains covered in mist, trees steaming clouds, deep, rich greens all around. Sometimes in the distance, ranges of mountains to the north and east, a real feel of wilderness, only half an hour away from downtown Chiang Mai. This contrast never ceases to amaze me.

Unfortunately, my camera was tucked away safe and dry well under my raincoat, so no photos of the scenery, again. Next time. The road seems to go on to Samoeng around the mountains so there will definitely be a next time.

When I got to the waterfall, the sun decided to shine on me for a few minutes before disappearing behind the clouds. There was absolutely not a soul around, so I did not dare to take a dip (in case something happens and I need to be pulled out). The falls are about four storeys high, and the stream is surprisingly narrow and insignificant both above and below the waterfall. Looks like a lot of splash for so little water. You can climb up to the top of the waterfall, and, slightly ignoring some warning signs, you can look down as well.

It is a little park, with a short walking trail, you can take it all in within an hour, including a picnic. There are no shops – maybe on a good day there is a stall – but there are benches and tables.

I was wondering how many little waterfalls like this could be scattered around Thailand. Maybe tens of thousands. Probably there are even ones deep in the jungle that no humans have ever set eyes upon. In my country, this would be a major tourist attraction. Around Chiang Mai, just a little dot on the map. It could actually be one of my favourites if there was a little more to this park, maybe a longer walking trail, some more nice scenery to take in along the path. It is definitely recommended for waterfall enthusiasts and for anyone who is passing by while getting lost in the mountains.

The national park charges 50 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for motorcycles to enter Tad Mok waterfall. When I suggested I leave the motorcycle outside, and walk (all the strenuous 200 or so metres to the parking lot), it did not go down very well. If you buy a ticket, it is valid on the same day for all the waterfalls in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It is only 30 kms from Chiang Mai, and the area (along the main road) is dotted with attractions like orchid farms, the Mae Sa elephant camp, Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, and various animal shows. It is clearly signposted in English at every junction where the traveller may wonder.

I have marked this location on the Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map – I am not 100% sure it is that exact bend, but it must be pretty close. (I think it will only be online tomorrow, though. Bear with me.)

Student Jumps from 6th Floor of my School

Some of you have probably already heard about Pongsathorn Wattanabenjasopha, the 12 year old school boy that committed suicide last week by jumping from the 6th floor of our school building. It was front page news last Friday in all the Thai newspapers and on television as well. All of them had a close-up of the last SMS message he had sent on his mobile phone. He had sent it to his friends late the night before. He basically said that the next day would be his last. His father had apparently scolded him for playing video games and forbid him from playing again.

All of the newspapers picked up on this and basically said that this was why he had jumped. We will never know for sure. I really feel sorry for his father as some newspapers criticized him for being too harsh with his punishment as if he was solely responsible. It wasn’t that long ago that they were blaming parents that allowed their children for playing video games too much. They wanted the gaming shops to be closed down or put out of bounds for young students.

Pongsathorn, or Arm to his friends, was just a normal kid loved by many including a number of the teachers. He was a good student that was in “hong king” last year – the class for gifted students. What happened was a real shock to everyone. On Thursday morning he came to school as normal. He walked up to his classroom on the 5th floor and put his bag on his desk. He then climbed the stairs to the computer center on the 6th floor. It was before school and the area was completley deserted. The time was 7.15 a.m. He climbed over the wall which is about three or four feet high. On the other side there is a kind of wide balcony where there are a number of potted plants. He climbed around these to the edge and then jumped to the playground below.

I arrived at the school about twenty minutes later. At the front gate there were some teachers standing in complete shock. One had tears in her eyes. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. As I walked across the playground I could see the students huddled in groups talking in hushed tones. One of the teachers then came up to me and said that one of the students had fallen from the 6th floor. I was puzzled as there was no body nor any blood on the playground. I later found out that he had basically fallen feet first. Luckily he hadn’t hit any of the students as he fell right in front of one of the entrances to the school building. There would have been several hundred students in the playground at that time and most would be on their way up to their classroom. Some would have been as young as four.

As he was still alive, the teachers quickly summoned a samlor, which is the Thai version of a rickshaw, that had just dropped off some students. He was carried onto this and rushed off to the hospital around the corner. Someone who was on the road outside later told me that they saw him go by on the samlor with a teacher. As there was no blood she just thought that he was feeling ill or something. It didn’t look serious. At the hospital he went straight into surgery and then ICU. He had badly broken both legs and his ribs had punctured his lungs. He died later that afternoon. Understandably, everyone at school was in complete shock.

On Friday, the Ministry of Health arranged for some local hospital workers to come to the school to counsel the students. Some had difficulty in sleeping the night before. For the following three days a number of the teachers went to the local temple to take part in chanting. Early this morning, thirteen of Pongsathorn’s friends ordained as novice monks for the cremation ceremony. They did this to make merit for him. It is a big commitment for them as they have to shave off all their hair and eyebrows. It is common for boys to become novices for a few days when a grandparent dies. It is not normal for so many to ordain like this.

The cremation ceremony took place late this afternoon. Many of the older students and teachers from the school attended this ceremony. There was traditional Thai dancing and Thai music performed by our students. Then after the final chanting and the presentation of robes to the monks, we all went up to the crematorium to place a “sandalwood” flower under the coffin. This is symbolic. As everyone left we were given a kind of souvenir which was a Buddhist amulet. Most people then left and only close family remained for the actual cremation. The students that ordained as novice monks today will be back at school tomorrow.

Four days have now passed but we are still in shock. When I arrived at school I didn’t enter my building at the usual entrance. I didn’t want to look up too. I went in a side entrance. I then took the lift up to the six floor and walked past the spot where he had jumped. I sometimes wander what would have happened if I had arrived that day just twenty minutes earlier than normal. For some reason I had woken up one hour earlier than I normally did that day. Could I have been there to stop him? But then, if he had already made up his mind to kill himself, he probably would have tried again. It is so tragic to see them take their life at such an early age. All life is precious but more so for someone who hasn’t had a chance to live his life. May he rest in peace.