Good morning first-time visitors to Bangkok. Please excuse the traffic jams of the past week in the City of Angels and, anyway, what are you doing holidaying here at the hottest time of the year?
The first week of April is traditionally the busiest week of the Thai calendar, since three giant events clash.
There is the 34th Bangkok International Motor Show out at Bitec, ostensibly a showcase for new automobiles but in reality a race to see which car company can create the skimpiest outfit without incurring the wrath of the Culture Ministry.
Gorgeous Thai women titillate the throngs in thongs and boots as brand spanking new as their enhanced breasts. In effect the Bangkok Motor Show is no different from a second-floor Patpong show minus the trumpets and razor blades.
Meanwhile, over at Suan Amporn Park things are a little less racy at the Red Cross Fair Festival _ Fair Festival?! Make up your mind! Here you can enjoy row upon row of stalls selling Tupperware, underwear and under-sized T-shirts in a temple fair atmosphere.
Finally there is the National Book Fair at Queen Sirikit, where parents show their kids these funny things called books that were so popular back in the olden days. These three events are enough to gridlock any city but last week there was a fourth event that blitzed even these three stalwarts. Thailand witnessed the return of its most feared _ and beloved _ ghost. And everybody came out to see her.
Every country has its iconic heroes who do a lot to explain the psyche of that nation. In Australia, for example, we revere an illiterate bushranger who robbed stage coaches. He bucked the system; he snubbed the law. To an Australian that's as exciting as any semi-naked girl at a motor show.
Here in Thailand, what is the iconic figure that best sums up its people? She is a ghost. And her name is Mae Nak Phra Khanong.
This is the story in a nutshell; about 200 years ago, a young Thai man, Mark, goes off to war against Myanmar, leaving his pregnant wife Nak in the village of Phra Khanong.
While he is away, Nak dies during childbirth. She returns as a ghost, much to the chagrin of her neighbours.
Mark comes back from battle. Now he may have been a keen warrior and, if the movies are anything to go by, a good looking young man, but when the Lord Buddha dished out the brains poor Mark was in the bathroom with an extended bout of tong sia.
Clueless Mark has no idea Nak is a ghost. He spends days and passionate nights with her oblivious to the fact she is dead. Is it just me, or do you too find that just a leeeetle bit kinky?
Finally, the penny drops. Or rather, the pestle.
One night as Nak is making chilli paste with a mortar and pestle, she accidentally drops the pestle through the floorboards and it crashes to the ground way below the raised wooden house.
Being a ghost, she extends her arm down, down, down, elongating as it goes, to retrieve the pestle.
Mark witnesses this. It suddenly dawns on this Siamese dimwit that something is amiss!
The guy rushes to the local temple where the ghost of Nak follows him, creating havoc in the village not unlike King Kong and the fleeing natives.
Finally, the local abbot of Wat Mahabut in Phra Khanong uses magic to entrap Nak's spirit in a clay pot. The pot is sealed and tossed into the Phra Khanong canal.
What a great story! Perfect for a movie, wouldn't you think?
In my 24 years in Thailand there have been at least five Mae Nak movies that have come out. That's not to mention the musical, the opera, the cartoon version and the three TV series as well.
Even before that there was a remarkable run of Mae Nak movies in the 1960s and 1970s. In one movie, she went to Tokyo. In another she battled another Thai mega-ghost known as Phi Bob, not unlike Godzilla versus King Kong.
My favourite is Mae Nak America: The Pot, made in 1975, in which the character of Nak is played by American actress Lisa Farringer.
Lisa was a D-list actress from Hollywood who, in the same year she came to Thailand to make Mae Nak, also appeared in the Los Angeles made-for-television movie Cop On The Beat in the role of ''Bosomy redhead''. If you don't believe me, go to IMDb.com and see for yourself.
I do hope poor Lisa wasn't hoping her Thai experience would catapult her to stardom; it didn't. After an appearance in a single episode of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1978 she disappeared without a trace. Trapped in an earthen pot, perhaps?
The Mae Nak movies are generally a mixture of ghostly Nak wreaking havoc on her village with slapstick thanks to a gang of male villagers even more idiotic than Mark.
One is fat, one is a layabout and one dresses in women's clothing. All like to scream and run about the place when Nak appears. It's like the Three Stooges meets any Carry On movie of your choice.
There was a shift some 15 years ago when a movie came out that treated the story seriously. Called Nang Nak, it was well produced and became the first Thai movie to make 100 million baht at the box office.
It was filmed by the movie arm of Grammy Entertainment, which has now morphed into GTH. And, surprise surprise, that is the company that has released this latest version.
The newest version again returns to the Thai movie industry's comedic roots. There is a gang of idiot villagers with all the mandatory double takes, bulging eyes and boots in the backsides.
But it is doing huge business at the box office, as Thais from all walks of life find time away from the Book Fair, Motor Show and Red Cross Fair Festival to buy tickets.
The big question is why? Why is Mae Nak so close to the hearts of Thais?
The answer has to do with Nak's undying love for her husband. Like Jack and Rose, death cannot stand between the love Nak has for her man.
Mark's love, even more than his idiocy, makes him oblivious to the fact his wife is dead. Meanwhile Nak will do everything she can to keep her husband, whom she loves for eternity, even if that means destroying an entire village.
I have to admit even I got teary-eyed at the end of the Nang Nak movie when Mark says to the spirit of Nak: ''Go away. Let's meet again in our next lives. We'll be together then.''
What a lovely message. Amongst the gore, screaming transvestites and fat people falling over as they try to flee, there is love between two soul mates.
The new Mae Nak movie, which is called Pee Mark after the husband, has already made 100 million baht in its first week in cinemas. Of course it has. It's like making a movie called Ned Kelly and launching it on Australia Day.
So that's why the traffic is jammed, visitors. Thais are scampering to any of four major events around town.
But relax. Things aren't always as frenetic as this in the City of Angels.
In the next 24 hours the Book Fair comes to a close. The Red Cross Fair Festival finished last night, and the pretty girls will put their clothes back on after 10pm tonight when the Motor Show closes its doors. Mae Nak fever will probably peter out soon. Which is just as well.
The mother of all events, Songkran, is just around the corner. You did pack your raincoat, didn't you?
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs