Friday, October 31, 2014

Spiritual Encounters, So to Speak

With today being Halloween, it's as good a time as any to explore some of the superstitions in Thailand. Like many Asian cultures, superstitions play a prominent role in Thai culture. Superstitions affect every aspect of a person's behavior and life in Thailand. For example, no one except the royal family can get a haircut on Wednesdays -- Wednesdays are believed to be auspicious, and only the royal family is allowed to get haircuts on that day. And when you see a rainbow, don't point to it or your finger will be amputated. Colleagues of mine who are married to Thai women also tell me that the Thai people are constantly changing their names to improve their fortunes and for good luck. Many people also regularly make offerings and make merit to improve their health and luck, and will even take a sabbatical from their jobs to live as a monk in order to do so -- after making sure that the dates of entry into monkhood are favorable, of course.

When it comes to beliefs about ghosts and spirits, it is no different. The topic of ghosts and spirits is taken very seriously in Thailand. Unlike the campfire stories with flashlights that American children tell and hear, conversations about ghosts and other-worldly beings tend to cause discomfort with the locals. Almost all buildings and homes have spirit houses that are respected and worshipped regularly -- likely multiple times a day. These houses, which look like mini temples, are created to encourage spirits to live in their own home rather than enter the house.

There are many famous ghosts in Thailand. Some of them are good, and some of them bad. One of the most famous ghost stories in Thailand is from a neighborhood in downtown Bangkok. She is known as Mae Nak (แม่นาก), a female ghost who died at childbirth. Legend has it that her husband, Mak, returned home from war to find her and their child living in their home, not realizing that they had both died and had become spirits. When he saw her extend her arms in an unnatural way, he realized she was a spirit and fled. After that, Nak terrorized the people of Phra Khanong, furious at them for causing Mak to leave her. Nak's ghost was eventually captured in an earthen jar and thrown into a canal in Bangkok. Several movies have been made about Mae Nak. Two of the main actors in the most recent movie made about Mae Nak are the parents of students at our school. (Here's a trailer to the movie.) There's also a shrine dedicated to Mae Nak.

Other legends of ghosts in Thailand include Pret (เปรต), an extremely tall hungry ghost whose mouth is the size of a needle hole, and Phi Pop (ผีปอบ), a female spirit that is similar to a Wendigo that devours human entrails.

There are tales of many other ghosts in Thailand. I find these stories and their impact on the Thai culture and the people's behaviors fascinating, though unsurprising as it is similar in Chinese culture. The Thai perspective on ghosts is certainly very different from the American perspective, which is much more casual. Given how seriously ghosts are taken here, I find it even more intriguing to find some of the Thai people celebrating Halloween alongside the American expats. 

No comments:

Post a Comment