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News: For Thai Survivors, the dead live on in ghost sightings.

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  • Ratha Vayagool
    For Thai survivors, the dead live on in ghost sightings By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH, The Wall Street Journal via the AP January 20, 2005 PHUKET, Thailand — When the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 23, 2005
      For Thai survivors, the dead live on in ghost
      By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH, The Wall Street Journal via the
      January 20, 2005

      PHUKET, Thailand � When the tsunami waves hit here
      last month, the hotel where Jinda Sinta worked erupted
      in chaos. Jinda frantically called an ambulance to
      help one unconscious child, but rescuers were unable
      to revive him.

      The next week, Jinda says, the dead boy returned to
      the damaged hotel lobby. Wearing the same dark-blue
      shorts he had on when he died, the ghost of the
      black-haired 10-year-old "was running around,
      playing," says the 40-year-old front-desk clerk. Then
      he disappeared.

      As Thai people grapple with the physical aftereffects
      of December's natural disaster, they are also dealing
      with another serious problem: Ghosts.

      For many Thais, steeped in Buddhist teachings of
      rebirth and even older animistic beliefs in spirits,
      ghosts are very real. When people die suddenly and
      violently, as they did in the December waves, spirits
      cling to their bodies and to familiar places, unsure
      of how to cross from the world of the living to the
      world of the dead, many here believe.

      Psychologists say the ghosts are likely a
      manifestation of the mental trauma suffered by the
      survivors, a way for people to face their fears and
      come to terms with what happened. But for many, the
      ghosts are a problem that requires a practical
      solution, not therapy.

      "If we don't send them off, the spirits will stay
      around where they died," says Saengthong Suwanjan, the
      60-year-old keeper of a Chinese temple overlooking the
      sea. "If they can't go anywhere, they will stay here
      and haunt us. And if they don't know how to get to the
      next life, they might try to take some of us with

      Ghost stories abound. Prasert Tamnakla, a 37-year-old
      dive-shop owner on the devastated island of Phi Phi,
      says that for days after the waves hit, he could hear
      the spirits of the dead wailing in the night. "Mostly,
      it was women's voices. They were calling for help,"
      says Prasert.

      Pitak Noonoon and other night watchmen at a building
      facing Patong beach, where dozens of people drowned in
      an underground shopping center, heard a lot of banging
      and scraping early one morning. When they went in to
      investigate, they discovered that large sheets of
      plywood had been tossed around. "One big piece moved
      10 meters," Pitak, 24, says. "Now that's not natural."

      Others say spirits have visited them in their dreams.
      Somjai Rungchaiwitoon says her father came to her when
      she was asleep one night. "He seemed so real, I ran
      and hugged him," she says. "He told me he was trapped
      in a drain pipe and asked why nobody had come looking
      for him. He said other people were also trapped."

      So Somjai, 27, traveled from Bangkok to Khao Lak,
      where her parents owned a grocery store that was
      washed away by the waves. She brought a group of
      Buddhist monks to pray at the site, where bodies were
      stored in tents in the early days of the recovery
      effort. They asked for her family's spirits to be
      freed to travel to their next lives.

      Soldiers tell tales of seeing the ghosts of foreign
      tourists playing on the beaches and swimming in the
      ocean. A monk says he saw hundreds of spirits standing
      by the highway along the west coast.

      It was with great trepidation that 65-year-old Bayee
      Ouisakun moved back to her home in Nam Khem, a fishing
      town devastated by last month's tsunami. "I'm not
      afraid of the waves," says Bayee. "But every night
      when I hear the dogs howling, I worry about the

      So Bayee did what she considered the sensible thing.
      She too called in Buddhist monks. More than 40 crowded
      the small ground floor of her damaged home, chanting
      blessings. One sprinkled holy water, reciting prayers
      in Pali, the ancient Indian tongue that is the
      liturgical language of the religion here.

      "I want to make sure that those who are dead now don't
      come back and cause trouble for the living," says
      Bayee, who has also affixed a swatch of red cloth at
      the foot of the staircase that leads to the family's
      sleeping quarters. The cloth is imprinted with symbols
      designed to ward off evil.

      In places like Nam Khem, some of the townspeople are
      trying to sort out a new modus vivendi for the living
      and the dead. "Even if we're scared, we have to steel
      ourselves," says 12-year-old Sunisa Kaewjan. "My
      brothers and sisters are all ghosts now," she says.
      "We have to respect them, give them offerings like in
      the old days."

      Now, Thailand is embarking on the next phase of its
      cleanup: sending off the spirits of those who died, so
      they will stop haunting the beaches, villages and
      hotels along the Andaman Sea coast. On Saturday, the
      people of Phuket threw a supper for the ghosts,
      designed to fete them and send them on their way so
      they will no longer disturb the peace.

      At sunset, Keng Saeyiow, 63, stood on a beach at the
      south end of the island in a black robe. He chanted in
      reedy Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, summoning the
      spirits of those killed by the tsunami in Thailand.
      With his left hand, he swung a long bamboo pole, with
      a two-tiered paper "spirit trap" on the end, its red
      streamers trailing in the wind.

      Once he had collected the spirits in the trap, he
      walked it over and placed it at the head of a long
      table set for a feast. On the table were 24 place
      settings of fruit, chicken, fish, squid, Chinese
      liquor, water and 140 bowls of rice for the spirits to
      eat. A row of empty plastic chairs lined one side of
      the table. On the other, scores of townspeople crowded
      around to pour drinks and offer the food to the

      After more singing by Keng the spirits were again
      gathered up and taken over to two miniature
      wood-framed houses covered with colorful paper. The
      houses were surrounded with paper facsimiles of money
      and other things the spirits might need in their next
      life � including television sets and red and blue
      Nokia cellphones.

      The pile was set ablaze. As burning embers flew into
      the night sky, Keng chanted in Hokkien: "Go, go to the
      spirit world."

      "If we hadn't done this, the spirits would be stuck
      here. At night they'd keep coming back. But now
      they've been sent off to heaven," says Senee Mornphan,
      a 34-year-old tour-company operator, who participated
      in the ceremony. "I feel much better now. I think we
      all do."

      Phra Ratha Mahaviriyo (Vayagool)
      email: vayagool@...
      mobile: 07-0621-834

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