(This was an old article I wrote for a magazine but I thought it was interesting, so here you go.) Although over 95% of the Thai population are Buddhists, there is also a strong belief in Animism or spirit worship. Ghosts and spirits (known as Pii) abound and are found everywhere from offices and homes to haunted trees and fruit groves. While some spirits are more general presences, there are a lot of specific ones, and some are so well known they have been filmed on numerous occasions.
The Legend of Nang Nak
Probably the most famous ghost is that of Mae Naak (also known as Nang Naak). It is a story of a young woman who falls in love with a man called Maak who lives in her village. Shortly after their marriage, he is conscripted and has to leave his now-pregnant wife. Sadly, she dies during childbirth before he can return. Her spirit, however, is too strong to rest and when her husband returns both Nang Naak and the ghost of her child pretend to be human. The deception was an understandably difficult one to maintain and Maak soon discovers the truth and flees in terror. She then proceeds to terrify the village in her pursuit of Maak, often killing those who get in her way. Maak eventually seeks refuge in the Mahabute temple. Even there, the monks cannot quell her spirit until a gifted young monk from a distant province manages to defeat her. Her spirit is imprisoned in a ceramic pot which is then cast into the river. This gory tale has been the subject of several books and films.
Like the ghost of Pii Phum Phuang, Mae Naak is now one of the numerous spirits that give out lottery numbers. Pii Phum Phuang was a popular country and western singer who died in 1992. A shrine has been dedicated to her in Supanburi where hopefuls can visit in order to get winning lottery numbers.
An exceptionally gory looking ghost that, like Nang Naak, has been the subject of movies, is called Pii Krasue. This is another female ghost that consists of a floating head with entrails dangling below. It is a particularly nasty entity that is fond of fresh meat and has even been credited with sucking out the unborn foetuses from pregnant women.
The town of Puthamonton is famous for a haunted bamboo grove that is actually located in the Buddha park. There are, therefore, a lot of monks praying and meditating in its grounds and there have been stories of novice monks getting possessed and requiring exorcism.
Even the new airport Suvarnabhumi was reputedly haunted by an old blue-faced man known as Poo Ming. Before its opening, the airport was plagued with tales of not just the old ghost but also the sounds of footsteps and traditional music – all without a readily explainable source. Poo Ming reputedly possessed a young luggage operator and had to be exorcised by a monk. The airport was finally cleared of ghosts and blessed by 99 monks after a nine week period of rites.
If you are bad you may end up as a ghost known as a Pii Praet. This usually happens to you if you are disrespectful to your parents or are involved in corruption of some kind (especially in relation to a temple). A Pii Praet ghost is taller than a palm tree with hands as large as the paddles of a rowing boat. It has such a tiny mouth that it is permanently hungry and it wanders, wailing, hoping for food. It can only receive sustenance when someone gives food to a monk and asks for it to be sent to the permanently ravenous ghost. The Pii Praet is in a kind of perjury, waiting to be reincarnated.
In addition to the numerous ghosts wandering the land there are spirits and demons to be found everywhere. To describe them all would require a novel and in fact, some such works exist. Some are debated and some are just taken as a part of everyday life. For example, the Naga fireballs of Nong Khai – a phenomenon where a series of fireballs rise from the Mekhong river on the evening of the full moon in October, soundless and silent, and then disappear after seven or eight seconds. The fireballs have split the beliefs of those who believe that they were created by mythical serpents and those who trust a more mundane scientific explanation.
In more rural areas it is believed that a spirit known as the Pii Gong Goy can suck a man’s feet dry, and that Hopea trees and certain types of banana plants are haunted by beautiful female ghosts that often appear on a full moon.
There are, of course, ways to combat some of the ghosts and spirits that seem to pervade Thailand. ‘Yan’ is the drawing of religious and mystical symbols on houses, cars, and public transport. Some amulets are understood to have tremendous protective powers, as are certain tattoos. Most places are blessed by monks and offers of food and drink are to be seen everywhere outside places of business and also residences.
While some of the local beliefs and superstitions might be hard for a Westerner to swallow, it should always be remembered that the belief in ghosts and spirits is a pervasive one in Thailand. To a greater or lesser extent, nearly all Thais believe that there are ghosts out there, so beware and pay respect.