Thailand: Living with ghosts, soaked in superstition

  • AFP, Bangkok
  • Updated: Feb 03, 2015 17:16 IST

From exorcism ceremonies to spirit houses and amulets claiming to make wearers bullet-proof, Thailand is a culture soaked in superstition -- an obsession critics say is holding the nation back.

On a popular episode of Humans defy ghosts -- a weekly Thai TV programme that delves into the supernatural -- a two-year-old girl who survived three days next to the dead body of her mother was asked a series of questions by one of the show's panellists.

"Who prepared your milk?" Kapol Thongplab enquired. "Who played with you? Who opened the door?"

"Mummy," the little girl replied, as genuinely convinced as her adult interlocutors that her mother's ghost continued to sustain her in those harrowing days.

In Thailand, a show like this is more than just entertainment.

A statue of the famous ghost 'Nak' "In all countries, people believe in the afterlife," says Kapol, one of Thailand's most famous ghost experts.

"Westerners may believe in Satan. In the nations of Southeast Asia, we believe in ghosts. This kind of belief helps people refrain from doing bad things. Mr A may think 'If I kill Mr B, he may become a ghost and come back to haunt me'."

The spirit world is everywhere in Thailand where animism and folk beliefs are deeply infused with Buddhism.

Most buildings boast a 'spirit house' -- a shrine placed in an auspicious corner of a property where offerings can be made to appease ghosts lest they turn malevolent. From time to time Thailand's notoriously fractious politics also draw on the occult.

Competing camps have openly used black magic curses against each other while protesters often deck themselves out in amulets that they believe make them impervious to bullets or harm.

A woman releasing fish into a canal to earn 'merit' at a temple dedicated to the famous ghost 'Nak' Misplaced faith

But some Thais say they are fed up with what they describe as naive superstitions that lead their countrymen to make poor decisions or leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

We met one man, who wished to remain anonymous, leading an Internet campaign against Thai beliefs in ghosts.

The man, who goes by the pseudonym "FuckGhosts" and runs a popular Facebook page with the same name, recently caused uproar when he posted a photograph of himself stepping on a row of zebra figurines at a busy road junction in Bangkok known for fatal crashes.

A fortune teller (C) using tarot cards to predict the future of a woman.

Zebra statues are a common sight at accident spots due to the belief that their stripes -- which remind people of pedestrian crossings -- will fend off the unhappy ghosts of previous traffic victims that many believe cause new crashes.

"I thought about destroying them, but there is CCTV. I am afraid society would not accept it," he said.

The man's main gripe -- which has received significant support on his Facebook page -- is that Thais would rather put their faith in statues and amulets than take concrete steps to reduce personal risk, such as driving more safely.

"These kind of beliefs keep Thailand an underdeveloped country," he fumes.

Thailand has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world, with 44 deaths per 100,000 population, according to a 2014 study based on World Health Organisation figures.

Women holding incense sticks as they pray before releasing fish into a canal.

But while drivers cover their cars with protective trinkets to keep safe, many still speed and drink-drive. Mototaxis are laden with amulets but those at the wheel rarely use helmets, and often overload passengers.

The "FuckGhosts" campaign appears to be having a partial effect, with authorities in January removing hundreds of statues that had built up around the accident black spot -- known locally as "Kong Roi Sop", the curve that claims 100 lives.

But the removal could only go ahead once a Buddhist monk had initiated a ceremony making sure any evil spirits would leave the area.

"At the beginning, the workers were quite concerned," admitted Supit Kraimak, head of the local sanitation department.

"But after the monk chanted, they felt more comfortable about the job."

Lucrative business
For much of Thailand's soothsayers, astrologers and its huge monastic network, belief in the superstitious is also undoubtedly lucrative.

Exorcisms, protective spells and trinkets are all readily available at a price, while books and films about haunting spirits are hugely popular. Businesses often pay monks to make annual visits to chase away evil spirits.

Thais believe a violent or unexpected death is more likely to result in the creation of an angry ghost when a soul departs.

And few ghosts are more famous than "Nak", a woman who Thais believe lived in Bangkok in the nineteenth century and died during childbirth while her husband was away fighting a war.

There are many versions of the story, but in general they all describe how the husband returned to find his wife seemingly still alive.

Nak was so devoted to him that she had remained as a ghost, but became a malevolent spirit when her husband discovered the truth and ran away.

"On the eve of a lottery, this temple is open all night," reads the sign on a shrine dedicated to Nak in Bangkok where locals make offerings to the ghost asking for cures, good luck and exemption from military service.

Fortune-tellers ply their trade outside the shrine and devotees also release fish, turtles and frogs into a nearby canal to earn "merit".

According to the merchants selling the animals, the release of an eel will bring professional success and a frog can reduce sins.

The head of the temple declined to be questioned. But those visiting were convinced their offerings to Nak would be rewarded.

"I believe in her and I believe in ghosts," said Netnaran Janvanu, a young mother at the temple, before adding matter-of-factly: "My friends believe in ghosts too."

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