Although Buddhism is printed as main religion on most Thai ID cards, our belief system combines Buddhist philosophies with Animist foundations, Brahmin-Hindu ceremonials, and Confucian codes. Among these beliefs, the core of Buddhist cosmology holds Triphum, the Three Realms—the parallel worlds of Heaven, Earth, and Hell—all containing spirits. Contradictory to the Buddhist teachings as it may seem, believing in spirits and ghosts is not just a mere fascination with paranormal phenomena, but also creates activities, festivals, and big businesses.
Most people don’t get to experience spirit hauntings, let alone sightings. But don’t knock it if you can’t prove it. For people with the sixth sense, spirits appear when the three realms collide, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some can be deities, such as gods, goddesses, demi-divinities, and good sprites that are benevolent to earthlings. Originating from Animist beliefs, they can be the spirit of the land, the water, the forest, the mountain, etc. Hence, the spirit houses or sal phra phoom for tutelary deity can be found on the grounds of every abode in Thailand—from single homes to condominiums, office buildings, and even shopping malls. Most are as humble as the traditional Thai houses, while others can be opulent, with grand Hindu deities, or as majestic as Bangkok’s ‘Shrine of the City Pillars’. As the legend goes, four men of auspicious names were called, captured, sacrificed, and buried alive at the four corners of this shrine to protect the city forever.
Reflecting Thai society, even gruesome ghosts have hierarchy—the good, the bad, and the ugly. While the heavenly ones guard us and are harbingers of both good and evil, the bad and the ugly can be either demonic or comical. Baddies such as Phii ghrasue (a female ghost with only head and innards) and phii ghrahang (a male ghost flying around using wide, flat, circular baskets and a pestle as tail) ward us off from filth and warn us about our hygiene. Nymph-like nang maii ghosts, such as nang dta-kian (ironwood tree nymph) and nang dta-nee (banana tree nymph) avert the destruction of environment. Kumar tong or “Golden Child”, customarily created from a still-born foetus and covered with gold leaves, are now statues of traditionally-dressed children. Believed to watch over and defend their owners from evils, they work as coping mechanism for conquering our fear and being careful at all times.
Among the ugly ghosts, prate (or preta in Sanskrit), also known as “hungry ghosts”, are supernatural beings who can be reborn but they must undergo sufferings by being in constant and extreme level of hunger and thirst. Prates are said to be the souls of false, corrupted, compulsive, deceitful, jealous or greedy people in a previous life—or simply ungrateful children, as in dek prate. As a result of their karma, they are afflicted with an insatiable hunger for a particular repugnant or humiliating object or substance, such as cadavers or faeces. On the new moon day in September, the Ching Prate Festival is celebrated in the temples in Southern Thailand and some around Bangkok. Blending Brahmanism and Buddhism, Hungry Ghost Festivals can also be found in India, China, and other Southeast Asian countries. Alms are offered to prates as well as ancestors and other dearly departed who can leave the purgatory for one day. Unique khanom laa, fine egg thread dessert, symbolizing clothing, is among many offerings.
If there were something strange in the neighbourhood, Thais used to call mhor phii, a kind of ghostbuster. Akin to shamans and witch doctors, mediums and other charlatans still prey on gullible patrons. Using colourful magic tricks, they con and cast their spells by pretending to communicate, invoke, or exorcise spirits of the dead. Using scare tactics, they also profit from amulets and talismans. They tread a thin line between local faiths and blind idiocy.
Among all Thai ghost stories that were made into spine-chilling books and films, Mae Nark Phra Kanong seems to be the most legendary and the most popular. Mae Nark or Nang Nark’s lore is based on a woman who died during her pregnancy. She and her husband actually lived during the end of King Rama III’s reign, but her myth surpasses the reality. She wasn’t a ghost but her relatives made it up that she was. Her mystery didn’t bring her fame and fortune, but to the producers, actors, and writers who keep recreating and altering her story for entertainment purposes—more than 50 adaptations so far—she’s a spirit that keeps on giving.
When the three realms really collide, we should find out which is the most frightening. I’m afraid to say that the Human World is the scariest one, because we constantly fool ourselves and each other. What would ghosts gain from scaring us? Their burial grounds are even invaded by the living. Look at the Chinese cemeteries on Silom Road which are now surrounded by skyscrapers. In the end, the living are often scarier than the dead.