Thailand, it seems, has got a bit of a ghost obsession.
Thais’ relatively common belief in the supernatural has started gaining attention because of articles like this and this, and movies like Uncle Boommee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The Wikipedia page Ghosts in Thai Culture lists 34 SEPARATE TYPES of Thai ghost (34!! Separate. Types!). And arguably the most famous among these is Mae Nak Phra Khanong.
Mae Nak (or Mother Nak) is so famous that there have been over 15 movie adaptations telling her story. There is also a shrine dedicated to her at Wat Mahabut in Bangkok’s far-flung Phra Khanong neighborhood. The shrine is pretty far below the tourist radar but popular among Thais, who visit to pay tribute to the famous shade and ask for her blessings.
Thailand and I have something in common, because I’m also kind of obsessed with ghosts. So when my position in an obscure department of a high-profile news organization was recently eliminated, I decided to take advantage of both the situation and my severance by attending a 10-day meditation retreat in Thailand. And immediately afterward, I’d do a little ghost hunting.
The legend of Mae Nak goes something like this:
In mid-19th century, a man named Mak and his young bride Mae Nak are living in a state of domestic bliss, when Mak is called away to fight in a border war. Nak, who is pregnant, goes into labor while Mak is stuck recuperating from a battle injury. Unfortunately, neither mother nor child survives the delivery, and Nak dies crying out for her beloved Mak.
Here’s where it starts getting weird.
Newly healed, Mak returns home and is overjoyed to find his beautiful wife and young son waiting at the door of their home to greet him. He quickly settles back in to his old life.
At first Mak’s friends, seeing him spending his days alone in his decrepit and unkempt home, think he must be suffering the effects of war. But they soon realize that he has been hypnotized by Nak’s ghost to believe that everything is swell on the homefront. Mak brushes off their warnings, and all that his buddies manage to do is to piss off Nak, who visits them at night and murders them horribly. Despite dwindling numbers among his pals, Mak still doesn’t catch on.
One day, he comes home to find Nak grinding curry paste. She drops a lime off the porch of their house, and, apparently unaware of Mak, stretches her arm out several meters to retrieve it (what a ghost is doing preparing dinner and why she can overhear rumors but not hear her husband come home is beyond me). At last, comprehension dawns on Mak. And, naturally, he freaks the fuck out.
Mak books it into the forest, pursued by Nak, and reaches the local monastery (Mahabut, in fact), where he is safe from Nak’s spirit. Here narratives and details differ (one compelling version has monks chanting and weaving sacred string around Mak, while vengeful Nak hangs upside down from the vestibule ceiling uttering curses and pleas). But the most popular conclusion is that powerful Buddhist monk Somdet To (another extremely popular figure in Thailand) performs a series of magical workings and releases Nak, whose main issue is the Buddhist sin of attachment. Legend has it that her body is still buried under a tree at Mahabut.
At the time of Mae Nak’s story, Mahabut would have been located a rural district near Bangkok, but the area has since been absorbed by the expanding city. Getting there is not difficult. You catch the subway from Hua Lamphong train station, transfer to the sky train and take it to On Nut Road. From there, it’s about a 10 minute or so walk to Wat Mahabut. What I didn’t realize when I made this plan was that my visit coincided with Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and water festival (read: all-out street water battle). It was the second day of Songkran when I headed for Mahabut. Since things had quieted down since the chaos of day one, I thought I could make it to the shrine un-soaked and unscathed. I was wrong. A couple of blocks from the wat, some sidewalk revelers grabbed me, explained that it was Songkran (thanks for clearing that up, guys) and dumped a bucket of icy water down my front. Then they thanked me enthusiastically for celebrating their holiday with them. I was about to meet Thailand’s most famous ghost, and my pants were wet.
This would not do. I decided I’d wander the temple grounds and let the Bangkok heat do its work on my pants before going to see Mae Nak.
I have seen Mahabut referred to as a “working shrine,” which is just of saying that it is very much in service and that there is a plethora of religious activity taking place there. A lot of this activity is of the “popular” Buddhist sort (as opposed to the “pure” Buddhism espoused by forest monks like Buddhadasa Bikkhu), which mixes in liberal doses of Hinduism, ancient animist practices, and folk magic. The shrines I wandered among were colorful, varied, bizarre. Etherial music floated over Buddha statues interspersed with images of Ganesh, demons, and famous monks. There were stalls selling blessings and garishly lit coin slots designed to generate auspicious numbers. A collection of spirit houses (an old animist practice that is pretty ubiquitous in Thailand) lay along one side of the main plaza, flanked by logs wrapped in colorful scarves. Not for the first time, I wished that either I spoke Thai or that I had a translator to explain what the hell was going on.
Rounding a corner, I stumbled on the entrance to a small wooden hut. Standing guard outside was one of those weird baby doll figurines next to a bottle of the red, fizzy pop that is a common offering at shrines and that spirits, ghost babies, and the like are supposed to favor (hints of ancient blood offerings?). I stepped past them and into the hut.
I should mention here that leading up to this trip, I also did some research into Thai occult practices and had formulated a sort of personal occult “Big 3”: ghosts (or legends and sites devoted to them), kuman thong (religious effigies with roots in the ancient use of fetal remains for black magic purposes), and Luk Thep (the creepy baby doll craze loosely related to kuman thong). What I stumbled upon in the hut both shocked me and filled me with a weird sort of joy.
A glass case held the dried and desiccated corpse of an infant, covered in gold leaf and dressed in a pink baby outfit that swallowed its shriveled form. Its body was draped in gold chains and no attempt had been made to disguise the sunken hollows of its eye sockets. Lining the top of the case and surrounding the thing inside were various stuffed animals, plastic toys, baby clothes, more red pop, and two spirit houses. A picture of the body had been placed, inexplicably, behind the body itself. Baht notes cascaded over it from a hole in the top of the case. It was some straight up Flannery O’Connor shit.
What I found out afterward is that this is the shrine to Baby Ae. Some time ago, the child died just after birth and was buried by its parents (in Buddhist culture cremation is typical, except in cases of unnatural death, when burial is practiced), but the body resurfaced in a flood. Distressed and taking the exhumation as an omen, the parents brought it to the abbot of Wat Mahabut, who agreed to care for its spirit. Baby Ae now receives both gifts and requests for good luck. While the preservation of Baby Ae is not the same as the ancient kuman thong practice, it bears some resemblance in that the body of a child is thought to contain a spirit that offers help to the living in exchange for continued care and attention. Lame as it may sound, I was too superstitious to take a picture of Ae. But I thought I should pay respects, so I dropped a 20 Baht note into the coffin as an assurance against any haunting and moved on.
Fortunately, my pants had dried by that point.
Mae Nak’s shrine is at the back end of the complex, as indicated by a sign in Thai depicting a woman with long, black hair (a troupe of traditional drummers in green in pink satin performing for Nak near the entrance also provided a helpful hint). There are stalls outside where one can buy offerings for Mae Nak (clothing, jewelry, perfume) or her baby (toys, sweets). I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so I bought a plastic airplane.
The shrine’s central figure is a gold-painted bust representing Mae Nak, complete with bold purple eyeshadow and a long black wig. The figure is surrounded by three gold babies: one at her side, one in her lap, and one in a glass case surrounded by kuman thong (the plastic figurine kind, not the dried fetus kind). The Nak of legend only had one baby, not triplets, but the principle of abundance adopted by many temples encourages accumulation. So instead of getting rid of a gold baby if one starts to get a bit worn, you just get a new one and keep the others as well. The shrine is meant to evoke Mae Nak’s rooms when she was alive and is piled with offerings: shiny satin dresses line the walls, cosmetics and jewelry fill glass-fronted cabinets, there are piles of baby clothes, diapers, and toys, and clusters of red pop bottles. Behind the shrine there are several artist renditions of Nak as a beautiful young woman. A television is left on at all times to entertain mama and baby.
For a ghost shrine, it’s not too spooky. In fact, the gold bust is—I hate to say it—kind of tacky. The power of the scene lies in the constant stream of supplicants and the apparently sincerity of their entreaties. Nak appeals to women, particularly those requesting safety for their husbands and lovers (especially that they not be drafted into military service), and to pregnant women and those wanting to get pregnant (though based on her legend, the advisability of the latter groups visiting the ghost is questionable). On the day that I was there, most of the visitors were women diverse ages, with a sampling of men thrown into the mix. I knelt at the ghost’s feet (or lack thereof) and tried to blend into the background as I watched them come and go.
An old woman approached, placed her palms together, and stood very close to the figure, mouthing a silent plea. A family consisting of a father, mother, and little girl crowded around together, the girl peering shyly at the gold woman. A short-haired, butchy woman knelt in intense meditation before the bust for a very long time. Visitors tucked baht notes into Nak’s arms and adorned her with bits of gold leaf.
The existence of the shrine raises a few questions: in a country whose central religion emphasizes both reincarnation and impermanence, why do people seek to keep a ghost tethered to one spot? What does a ghost need with material offerings like clothes and perfume? (This also brings to mind Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes celebration and dumb suppers carried out by Wiccans on Samhain). To what extent is the legend literally believed? And what do visitors stand to gain?
As I left the shrine, Big #3, the Luk Thep, lurked back of mind mind. These baby dolls, with their cherubic faces, ritually charged Buddhist tattoos, and supposed ability to affect the fortunes of their human caretakers, put me in mind of every creepy doll in every horror movie ever. Chucky. Annabelle. The Devil Doll. Magic. I kept an eye out, even as I silently swore I would do nothing to anger the dolls.
Then, on a vendor table near the shrine entrance I spotted one. A normal baby doll, except for the carefully inked gold designs that curved from its back over its shoulder. Then another—and then a stall with several in a cluster. I stopped and fumbled for my iPhone, but before I could get the shot, the stall’s proprietress demanded to know what my business was. Her tone was hostile. Perhaps she was warning me away from the dolls.
I took this as my cue to go, and left Wat Mahabut to melt back into everyday life outside.