Some years ago there was a book by Michel Houellebecq titled Platform that was a huge success in France and also attracted a lot of attention in the English-speaking world. Toward the end of the book, is an odd observation: The Thais are the only people in Asia who don’t believe in ghosts. If this had been written with a sense of tongue in cheek irony, then everyone who knew about Thailand would be shaking their head in agreement. But it appears to have been written as one of the factual descriptions that authors sometimes make about the culture where they’ve set their story.
Houellebecq’s observation was dead wrong. My friend and fellow writer Dean Barrett once said Platform had hooked him right until he read that passage about Thais not believing in ghosts and he threw the book against the wall. No doubt causing his next door neighbor to make an offering to the wall ghost.
What is the reality with Thais and ghosts?
Thais have a long history entwined with a deep-seated, long-asting, enduring belief in ghost. In fact, it is difficult to think of Thai culture independent of their widespread belief that spirits inhabit trees, land, plants, animals, houses, offices, and of course people. Don’t even get started about graveyards. Car owners have monks bless their cars and pickups, placing thumbprint-sized dots in geometric shapes on the interior; the same with houses and offices. Trees are wrapped with ribbons and offering placed for the spirit inside. Spirit houses adorn most residences and are daily attended to with offerings.
Books, songs, music, TV and film featuring ghost, spirits and demons are
hugely popular. What is perhaps lesser known is that each region of
Thailand has its own independent traditions, legends and customs about
ghosts, spirits and demons much like pre-Christian Europe was filled
with regional gods.
My wife comes from Chiang Rai province, which is located in the North of Thailand. Her maternal grandfather was a shaman. He was called out to investigate, counsel and cast out ghosts. From a recent family dinnertime conversation, the grandfather occupied the supernaturalterritory between being out of Ghostbusters and the priest in Omen III. That leads to my favorite story about one of the grandfather’s clients. Remember this is a casual conversation so irrationalities and inconsistencies abound. A logical, rational discussion of ghost is nearly impossible to imagine.
To the story. In the North, there is a ghost called /pee ka/ (in northern Thai dialect). In this case, don’t think of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Think more along the lines of the Adams family. The entire family is /pee ka/. Does that mean they are dead? Don’t ask. Does it mean they are zombies? Don’t ask. Did a ghost jump in and possess them or were they just born or evolved that way? Again, forget about asking. Now we don’t know what to ask. The question is how does this Thai version of the Adams’ family operate in villages of the North? That is okay, apparently, to ask. The best evidence is an exceptionally beautiful daughter. Any family with such a daughter is suspected of being the /pee ka/. That beauty who has attracted your eye is bait so the ghost-like family can exploit you. Certainly not all beautiful women are the tip of the iceberg of a nest of ghost. There is a test. When the beautiful daughter waits for suitors to come for rounds of courtship following the evening meal, if the suitor approaching hears the hoot of the night owl nearby.
Adams family alarm bells start to ring.
It may be that local moonshine may play a role in the suitor’s decision to see the family as a band of pee ka. Note for further research: is the family one /pee ka/ or is each member collectively the /pee ka/.
Back to the evidence that booze is involved.
It seems that the longer the night drags on, the more ravishing the ghost, in the form of the beautiful woman, becomes. If the suitor hears the owl outside the house of the woman he is pursuing, it is one of those good news-bad news sounds that echo in his ears. The woman’s beautiful, but she is a ghost. Her entire family is a ghost or ghosts (research pending) Tough choice, it seems.
Also there is the thing about wailing. It seems it is the beautiful daughter who wails. Or is the victim of the /pee ka/ who wails? May be they wail together like a barber shop choir. The point is, someone is wailing. My vote is the wailer is likely the ‘victim’ of the /pee ka/, someone exploited by the Adam’s family. Unlike vampires this isn’t drinking human blood but more along the lines of cheating a neighbor out of his water buffalo.
Add up the evidence for /pee ka/: beautiful daughter, hooting owl, wailing (of the victim). Time to call in Ghostbusters.
My wife’s maternal grandfather received the urgent call (who called is left vague) about the /pee ka/-afflicted family. He climbed on his bicycle and pedaled off into the night. He took with him a rattan cane. Having parked his bicycle, he carried the cane into the house. The barking wail (that’s a literary flourish as we already have established she’s only one candidate for the wailer) had been reduced to just a whisper. No doubt seeing grandfather’s cane calmed her down. The shaman arrives at the victim’s house. It seems the Adam’s family is ignored. I’d have thought he should have caned them. But it doesn’t work that way. The victims are gathered around and the shaman sets to work. It is the victims who get caned. How the /pee ka /gets from the Adam’s family into the victim isn’t clear. Some kind of viral infection is as close as I can come to understanding it. Or maybe the ghost clones itself. The shaman caned the girl (not on the face mind you) and the other members of the victim’s family.
He pronounced that the /pee ka/ had fled. Everyone listened for the hoot of the owl. No more wailing. The beautiful daughter apparently retains her beauty. There was only silence. He received a couple of eggs and a small bag of rice, walked back outside, climbed on his bicycle and rode home.
There’s a part of the story that deserves special mention. It’s about one of the most concepts in Thai language and culture. It’s called ‘face.’ The beautiful daughter who grows more and more beautiful as /pee ka /reels in victims blinded by her beauty. This ghost works only through the face. The ghost doesn’t seem to give a hoot about reconstructing the breasts, increasing the height, lengthening the legs, narrowing the waist or reshaping the hips. No, the only part of the anatomy that matters is the face. The rest of the body is left alone. There are lessons about spirits, courting, beauty and commerce to be learnt over the dinner table in Thailand.
Everyone in Thailand has a ghost story. But not everyone is married to a woman whose maternal grandfather was a shaman. For a writer to marry the wikipedia-like source of the Thai supernatural, is, well, kind of supernatural in itself. I’ll cut this blog short as I think I just heard an owl hooting outside our window. Or was it distant wailing? Sure enough my wife is growing more beautiful as I finish this sentence.