Friday, 24 October 2008

Ghosts Of South East Asia

I love South East Asia! For two major reasons:

1) I've spent 2 months in Thailand over the last two years and I'm absolutely head over heels in love with the place and,
2) After the United States and the United Kingdom, Malaysia is the third highest country of origin for readers to this blog.

So I thought I'd do an occasional series on ghost stories from that part of the world. Today's story will be from Thailand...

Thais are, on the whole, an extremely religious people. They practice a form of Buddhism that borrows heavily from Hinduism and spirit worship and this has lead to belief in ghosts and spirits being rather high across the Thai population. Belief in spirits is so well established that it is a common feature of Thai life and little highlights this better than the Thai door threshold.

Every door I've ever encountered in Thailand has a raised threshold which makes it necessary to always watch your step when entering buildings (newbie note: always watch your step in Thailand, their pavements tend to be... uneven)! One reason for this was structural (due to the weird traditional Thai building methods every little bit of support was welcome), and another practical (Thais are, originally, a water people so having a raised threshold helped keep babies from escaping and falling into a body of water). But the third reason is the one I'm interested in; the threshold keeps spirits (especially evil ones!) from getting into or moving around the home (another newbie note: don't step on the threshold, always step over it)

A lot of the idiosyncrasies of Thai life also reflect this, such as every Thai having a nickname (in order to confuse and dissuade the evil spirits, i.e. the Thai baby will be given a nice name but will only be referred to a nickname such as Ling [monkey] so that the spirits will think them unworthy of further attention. Genius!).

But the Thais fear of spirits has had one beneficial effect; the creation of beautiful spirit houses that almost every building in Thailand has. The reason is to give the spirits, who lived on the land before the building was built, a nice place to live! Generally it'll be in the most prime position on the land plot so as to keep those location sensitive spirits happy. I love spirit houses!

Mae Nak of Phra Khanong

A Shrine To Mae Nak on Suhkumvit Road

The tale of Mae (Nang) Naak is a cross between a historical ghost story, an urban legend and a boogieman story used by parents to scare their children into doing things they want them to do (don't you just love boogieman stories, proving once and for all... parents suck).

Thanks to these origins there are probably more versions of this story out there than there are Disney ripoffs of old fashioned fairy tales. And the story is very popular, leading to over 20 hit movies based around the various tales. I'm going to focus on the one I think is most widely known. But be aware it's not the only version out there!!

During the reign of Rama IV in the mid 18th Century, Mae Nak fell in love with, and married, a man named Nai Maak. Their love was deep but whilst Mae was pregnant with their child Maak was called off to war.

He was seriously injured and was forced to stay in Bangkok whilst he recovered. While he is there Mae went into labour, but both she and her unborn baby died during childbirth. Their neighbours in their home village quickly bury the bodies, Mae's spirit is too strong to be held by their hastily arranged grave.

Maak returns home, not knowing the fate of his wife and child, and finds much to his relief nothing amiss. His wife and his newborn child are there waiting for him as though nothing untoward had happened.

He is under a spell and his neighbours attempts to warn him that his wife is dead end in failure. Mae, enraged at their intrusion, slaughters brutally any that try to get Maak to understand the truth.

But even she is unable to hide the truth forever and one day makes a mistake. Whilst cooking in the kitchen she drops a lemon which falls through a hole into the cellar below. In her haste to finish the meal she decides not to go and get it by using the stairs and instead elongates her arm to reach down to the floor below and fetch the lemon. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your viewpoint, Maak sees this and his eyes are opened to the true nature of his wife.

That night Maak hatches a plan. As they lie together in bed, he pretends he needs to relieve himself. He goes outside, grabbing a pot of water on the way and precedes to cut a hole in the pot. As it drains away, creating the illusion of him going about his business, he sneaks away from the house.

It is not long before Mae discovers his deceit and heads off after him through the wilds around their home. Maak attempts to hide from her, including successfully concealing himself inside a Blumea bush (something legends now say Mae is scared of).

She eventually tracks him to Phra Khanong, but he seeks sanctuary in the local temple, Wat Mahabut and she is unable to pursue him onto the holy ground. Instead she unleashes her rage upon the local populace for daring to keep her from her beloved until finally she is exorcised by means of being captured in a pot and unceremoniously dumped into the nearby river.

But the story doesn't end there, for Mae supposedly terrorises people to this day and is still searching for her true love, Maak.

Some stories suggest that after being cast into the pot she escaped to terrorise an elderly couple. Finally Somdet Phra Phutthachan (a rather famous Buddhist monk) defeated her and used part of her skull to make a belt buckle. Rumour has it the belt buckle is currently in the possession of the Thai Royal Family.

Despite her murderous rampages, the Thai people generally like Mae Nak because of her devotion to her husband, hence why there are shrines to her. Just proves the old adage one persons terrifying mass murdering spooks is another persons hero...

You can watch the 1999 movie "Nang Nak" on youtube (Part one is here in Thai) or check out the more recent trailer for the 2005 movie "The Ghost of Mae Nak" below.

Further... Watching

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