News: For Thai Survivors, the dead live on in ghost sightings.
- 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
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,"
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
The pile was set ablaze. As burning embers flew into
the night sky, Keng chanted in Hokkien: "Go, go to the
"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
Phra Ratha Mahaviriyo (Vayagool)
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